As someone who often feels like modern art might be too abstract to understand, I did not expect myself to connect and engage with Magdalena Abakanowicz’s art the way I did. Admitting that the signals of modern art can be too vague for me to interpret as an art enthusiast is not the greatest feeling, however that is exactly why Abakanowicz’s work leaves a much more impactful impression on me.
I walked into the 'Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle and Thread of Rope' exhibition at the Tate Modern, with no knowledge of Abakanowicz and her work. When thinking about textiles, the predominant image that springs to mind is clothing or maybe even rugs, with little thought attributed to artworks made out of fabric, let alone large woven artistic entities. Which is exactly what this exhibition is about: the Abakans. The large hanging woven artworks from the image below - which could look like hanging animal skins and furs at first glance - are named after Magdalena's last name in an effort by the art critics to categorise her art.
While I know that the image does little to transpose one or maybe even garner interest, I promise you that being there, staring upward towards these large enveloping figures, really makes a difference. These enormous weaved and stitched Abakans, stirred so many feelings inside of me: some created this warm and welcoming environment (unexpected, I know!), some made me think of death and corpses, and some are so bright and vivid that they inspired a sort of joie de vivre.
As you will browse through these images, you might notice an underlying theme of Abakanowicz's works, which she thinks of as organic or alive. Textiles, fabric and fibre can be associated with lots of things: we can think of clothing, what that might say about us culturally, economically, socially or even geographically, about our habits, cultural significances, what we choose to dress with, what that says about us, our status in society, our preferences or where we live - with either of these having an impact or not. We could also think of fabric in a really interesting manner which is 'the fabric of society', thinking about how we are all 'weaved together' with each of us making a difference and adding to something bigger. Or we could think of fibre the way Abakanowicz is hinting at, digging deeper into threads, what they are made of, their connection to the earth and nature, how they bind us together 'with every fibre of our being'. Keeping that in mind, makes me look at her work in a much more connected manner, not only thinking of what the Abakans are made of, but also what they look like. To me, a few of these either look like a body part or the corpse of an animal.
In one of the interviews displayed, Abakanowicz says that the aim of her artworks were to get the viewer to a point where they would question what the art might mean, and then even if they have no artistic background, come to the a point of investigating their own associations with the art - it looks like lungs, like a corpse, like a vagina. She stated that her desire was to prove that in the world of associations people can connect with art with more depth, than in the world of intellectuality, meaning that even if you have no clue about the intricacies of art, the piece will still make you think of something or feel something that you know and can associate with.
As mentioned at the Tate: 'In 1978, Abakanowicz began a series of ambiguous forms titled 'Embryology' [...] (of which she said) 'The contents, the inside, the interior of soft matter fascinated me... By 'soft', I meant organic, alive. What is organic? What makes it alive? In what region of throbbing begins the individuality of matter, its independent existence?...They were completing my physical need to create bellies, organs, an invented anatomy.' If for a minute we leave aside our scientific knowledge of anatomy, it's a really interesting notion to think of the meaning of something being alive, what that entails, its ability to be independent and exist separated from any physical or theoretical confinements - to just exist without the need of a label, and the idea that our individuality is created by an inner movement, a pain, 'a throbbing'. As strange as it seems, the Abakans create their own space not just in the artistic world, but also right there in the room, instilling a feeling as you stand watching.
To your left is one of my favourites from the exhibition, a warm earthy toned Abakan, which I felt very drawn to. I wanted to show the detail in her work, the many layers of threads, colours, knots, creases and stitches that create this enormous work. Throughout this exhibition I found myself constantly thinking about the details, the placements, and questioned her choices in order
to reveal what they might mean. Why would that vertical cut with multiple horizontal stitches be on the left side of the Abakan, what might that mean, what is it trying to tell me? I kept wandering throughout the exhibition thinking about the significance of the colours and details of her work, and how long these could have taken to weave. For size reference, here is me standing beside the Abakan.
Lastly, I wanted to draw attention to this piece, which was the first one exhibited to feature rope. What I find interesting about it is the way the rope spills out of the Abakan, as if the intestines are spilling out of a bull. As morbid as that may be, the colour of the Abakan, the red thread inside of it looking like blood staining its 'belly', and the thicker threaded lump on the bottom left looking like a hoof, all made think of it as a wounded bull. The most thought provoking bit however, is the artists own words about the rope: 'The rope to me is like a petrified organism, like a muscle devoid of activity. Moving it, changing its position and arangment, touching it, I can learn its secrets and the multitude of its meanings...It carries its own story within itself, it contributes to its surroundings.' The usage of rope in her work is very telling, almost as if leading the attention of the viewer somewhere else, 'pulling' you to either look at the start of the rope, or the end.
Overall, it was a really fascinating exhibition, which definitely stirred conversations around organisms, ability of fabric, feelings created by the Abakans, and general thoughts of humanity, nature and animals. I would highly recommend visiting this exhibition.
When: until 21st May 2023
Where: Tate Modern, London
Written by Tímea Koppándi