“I am interested in every tangle of thread and rope and every possibility of transformation … I am not interested in the practical usefulness of my work”

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s woven installations have been on display at Tate Modern since November, and the exhibition runs until May. I’ve seen the exhibition three times over the past month: once dropping in to a private view with my membership after a slightly boozy work do nearby, then again on a day doing the galleries with my mum, and finally with my son and daughter during half term, a day out that also fulfilled a GCSE art homework requirement. I’m definitely getting my money’s worth from the membership at the moment.

Abakanowicz was born into an aristocratic Tatar family, but her family exited the war in much weakened position. Nevertheless, and despite the strictures of communism, living and working after the War in Poland she became internationally renowned for her work with natural fibres and for the immense scale of that work.

Magdalena Abakanowicz with her husband at their wedding:

The exhibition opens with wall-hung weavings with colourways that reminded me of 1970s hall carpets. Maybe my own 1970s hall carpet – it would have been at eye-level regularly at the age I was then.

However, the monumental woven sculptures that make up the core of the exhibition are mysterious and appealingly intense, and these so-called ‘Abakans’ make up a ‘fibrous forest’. They are shaggy and enveloping, like enormous cloaks or alien forms, and their sheer scale creates a feeling of spectacle. For Abakanowicz, they represented a refuge and a safe space “like the hollow trunk of the old willow I could enter as a child in search of hidden secrets”.

Elsewhere, though, they resemble instead lungs or – though the Tate’s information booklet is strangely reticent in it’s failure to acknowledge this – female genitalia, often entwined with salvaged rope, like roots, or even intestines.

The evening I went to the private view (a perk of my Tate membership), it was almost empty, which added to the impact of the work.

Abakanowicz didn’t only work with textiles. Her last major commission was Agora, an installation of more than 100 headless iron sculptures displayed in Grant Park in Chicago.

The textiles on display at Tate are closer to enormous sculptures than ‘home crafts’, and Abakanowicz was making installation art well before that was a thing. With this show, as well as the work by Slovakian artist Maria Bartuszová also currently on display at Tate Modern, it feels that women artists are finally being given their due.

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