Yet there is something radical even through a modern lens about the works that come later. Abakanowicz began to sculpt her tapestries into free-flowing sculptural forms into the 1960s and 1970s, known as Abakans after her surname, pulling the fabric into multi-layered ovular flaps. While the exhibition, nor any quotes from Abakanowicz herself, explicitly discuss the connection, many of her works unmistakably resemble the human vulva. Even today, with the creation of artistic and scientific projects such as the Vagina Museum and the Vulva Gallery, it is remarkable how greatly misunderstood vulva diversity is. It is a point of discussion which Abakanowicz’s work can be used to broach.
Every Tangle of Thread and Rope
In the Tate Modern’s retrospective of Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017), subtitled ‘Every Tangle of Thread and Rope’, we literally see the growth of the artist’s mind as the scale of the work expands. The seeds of creativity introduced in the opening rooms through small, flat tapestries can scarcely begin to prepare the viewer for the enormity of what is to come; works so large that they consume the galleries in which they have been situated. We see smaller tapestries, subversions of traditional warp and weft rendered as planar forms rather than totally three-dimensional ones which played a major role in the development of the New Tapestry movement of late 1960s Europe. They may not seem to be wholly radical to us, although we are told that in 1950s Poland they were controversial with Soviet authorities for not being explicitly socialist.
"a potent scent akin to tar"
The yonic taboo in art could not be more powerfully deconstructed than by forcing the viewer to move within the vulvic space itself. In the Tate’s galleries, Abakanowcz’s works float suspended from the ceiling by hooks to form a sort of labyrinth. One must engage with the forms, move around and through without ever touching the material itself, interrogating with the gaze and the mind. The Abakans do not look fresh or new, but rather worn and tattered, almost as though they have had a life of their own. Abakanowicz has weathered her materials to give them a history, lending the gravitas of ancient precedence to these wholly original works of art.
"weaved together or frayed apart, there is a haptic empathy which creeps into one’s fingers"
What the display of textile works also throws into consideration is the smell of the art. By contrast to painting or conventional sculpture, the textiles including sisal carry a potent scent akin to tar which changes in intensity as the proximity of the viewer shifts. It is a reminder that all bodies smell, each with its own distinct flavour, varying between parts and sexes in a beautiful and exciting diversity. The experience of being in the space of Abakanowicz’s works cannot be expressed successfully in words, for it is a truly sensory form of engagement which goes beyond brute spectatorship.
There are signs scattered throughout the galleries instructing the viewer “Please do not touch”, and yet the accompanying display notes repeatedly claim that Abakanowicz created her works with physical sensation in mind. As one stares at the coarse textiles, and the way they have been weaved together or frayed apart, there is a haptic empathy which creeps into one’s fingers. We can touch the forms with our mind, with sensory memory, and yet we are denied the satisfaction of feeling the object itself.
"resembling the hides of animals"
At times this conflict of real and imagined sensation is totally overwhelming. Abakanowicz’s structures are massive, floating but visibly heavy, often dark in colour and omnipresent. Standing between several of the works, there is a horrifying possibility that the hooks suspending them above could give way and the great shapes could come crashing down and smother us. Sometimes in the galleries there is space, while in others it is terribly claustrophobic. In the corner of one corridor there is a big black figure which, if one desires, has a small opening to move around the back of. Caught between the monster and two dark walls, a raw fear is created in an otherwise calm and static space.
Some of the works have more life than others. There are vulvic structures stretched out like butterflies, pulled taut into an erect state to display their vibrant colours. They stand next to more flaccid shapes resembling the hides of animals slaughtered in an abattoir, mere meat left out to dry on their metal hooks. Abakanowicz draws this line of allusion to other works, crafting sculpture out of buffalo horns and hair, relying on raw, primitive materials to create the most raw, primitive shapes of matrilineal heritage.
"a sense of the uncanny"
Abakanowicz deliberately exerted trauma onto the material body of her work. She began by weaving with a loom, and then physically distressed the textiles into its final form. Specifically in terms of bringing the female body into the artistic space, it is essential to imbue it with a sense of its rich past. The spaces Abakanowicz created with her Abakans were new in terms of her methodology and technique, but they are essentially ones which have always existed in the world. Walking through the retrospective at the Tate Modern, the environment constructed there always feels distinctly familiar, albeit often with a sense of the uncanny.
These ideas go hand-in-hand with Abakonowicz’s sense of national history in Poland, creating art in a country still coming to terms with the impact of the Second World War and its reformed landscape. Abakanowicz related her body and its history to the memories of wartime and conflict, herself a woman of Tatar heritage. Those childhood memories shaped her sense of self, developed further living under communism in Poland as an adult, the specificity of which she felt required a new material language from which to tell the story of her body. As Abakanowicz herself reflected, there is similarity between threads of rope and genetic sequencing: “We are fibrous structures”.
Tapisserie 21 brune 1963
Brown Textile 21 (Tkanina 21 brązowa)
Fundacja Marty Magdaleny Abakanowicz Kosmowskiej i Jana Kosmowskiego
All works by Magdalena Abakanowicz are © Fundacja Marty Magdaleny Abakanowicz Kosmowskiej i Jana Kosmowskiego, Warsaw.