In the forest of Abakans… Magdalena Abakanowicz at Tate Modern.

Tall woven creations fill up the space. Like a strange fibrous forest. From the colours of the earth – black, brown and ochre to intense yellow, orange and red. Abakans resemble real-life objects, body parts, or even headless humans. The name Abakan comes from the name of the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2013). They are her most iconic creations. Measuring about three metres in height, these artworks suspended  from the ceiling have an imposing presence. Every tangle of thread and rope at Tate Modern is a celebration of Abakanowicz’s fibre works.

Monumental, strong, soft, and erotic, these objects became the image of my reality; they stood against any established definitions. Later someone called them Abakans after my name. Nothing similar existed in art.1

View of art installation in art gallery. Three large fibre amorphous sculptures resembling organic rounded shapes with folds suspended from the ceiling. The sculptures are red, orange and yellow.
Magdalena Abakanowicz Every tangle of thread and rope – View of display

Abakanowicz called her installations ‘situations’. She was not interested in the effect of each individual work but in the works displayed as an ensemble. Carefully planned layouts of the exhibitions would allow the visitors to fully immerse themselves in art. The installations at Tate Modern echo some of the original ‘situations’ designed by the artist. This is not just about the spatial layout but also the use of light. Dark spaces filled with semi-abstract shapes have a distinct feel about them. The sculptures can appear slightly intimidating due to their size, like the black pair of lungs, or oddly comforting, like the giant overcoat. It’s up to the viewers to decide what the sculptures represent to them. 

‘Light for me is also an object. I try to also find light that is intriguing.’ (M. Abakanowicz 1971)2

View of art installation in art gallery. Large fibre sculptures suspended from the ceiling, in the centre two large sculptures resembling woven coats, one black, one brown.
Magdalena Abakanowicz Every tangle of thread and rope – View of display

Abakanowicz was born in 1930, she grew up in her family’s estate in Falenty, near Warsaw. As a child she was not allowed to play with other children. She spent a lot of time playing on her own and letting her imagination run wild in the surrounding forest. Displaced during WWII, Abakanowicz always found refuge in nature. Forests were her favourite spaces. 

My cycles are not about abstract and figurative. They are about the mysteries of the whole organic world. […] Creating forms, I never try to reproduce nature, but they belong in a certain way to nature. They belong in the same way as I belong to it. (M. Abakanowicz 1982)3

Every tangle of thread and rope exhibition outlines the development of Abakanowicz’s approach to fibre and textile art. From her earliest two-dimensional tapestries, the works gradually left the confines of the walls. The artist freed her forms. No longer limited by the classic tapestry shape, the soft-sculptures from the late 1960s onwards sometimes look like they are bursting at the seams, revealing their insides. 

View of art installation in art gallery. Three fibre sculptures. A large black one resembling a pair of lungs hangs by the wall at the back. In front of this suspended from the ceiling is a long red sculpture in a shape of icicle or long rope. On the loot is a red flat and round fibre sculpture with an opening at in the centre.

I’m not interested in the technique – the result is the important thing. (M. Abakanowicz 1974)4

View of art installation in art gallery. In a corner of a white room on light brown wooden floor there is a large stack of textile sculptures resembling stones, potatoes and stuffed grey and brown sacks.
Embryology by Magdalena Abakanowicz (detail)

Embryology (1978), like the Abakans is a soft-sculpture group open to interpretation. These organic-looking objects of different sizes stacked in a corner of the room resemble potatoes, stones or sacks filled with hay. 

The fiber, which I use in my work, derives from plants and is similar to that from which we ourselves are composed. (M. Abakanowicz 1975)5

Installation at art gallery. Two large black fabric sculptures resembling coat covers suspended from the ceiling. At the floor level the two sculptures are connected by a tangle of black ropes.
Set of Black Organic Forms by Magdalena Abakanowicz, installation view

Another of Abakanowicz’s ‘situations’ recreated for this exhibition is Set of black organic forms (1974) made of rope, canvas and sisal. Rope became an important material for the artist, it appears in multiple works and installations. 

The rope is to me like a petrified organism, like a muscle devoid of activity. (M.Abakanowicz 1978)6

Abakanowicz resisted being labelled solely as fibre artist. Aside from fibre she also worked in metal, stone and other materials. Her permanent site-specific installations can be seen today in many places around the world, including Poland, Lithuania, South Korea, Japan and the USA. Images of some of these sculpture groups are displayed in a small space at the end of the exhibition route. 

The exhibition is a great opportunity to experience some of Abakanowicz’s iconic fibre artworks rarely displayed together. Fantastic treat for all Abakanowicz fans out there. 

Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle Of Thread And Rope exhibition at Tate Modern runs from 17 Nov 2022 until 21 May 2023

Quote sources: 

A – Fate and Art. Magdalena Abakanowicz, ed. Paola Gribaldo, 2020, published by SKIRA, 

B –  Magdalena Abakanowicz. Writings and Conversations, eds. Mary Jane Jacob and Jenny Dally, published by SKIRA, 2022

1. A p.42

2. B p.42

3. B p.166

4. B p.60

5. B p.32

6. B p.51

Read more:

Link to Tate Modern exhibition website of Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle Of Thread And Rope here

Link to my exhibition review of Magdalena Abakanowicz: Corporeal Materiality at Marlborough Gallery, London (2019)

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