An ancient petrified forest has creaked forebodingly into life at Tate Modern. Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz’s huge, towering forms hover around you as you walk around this show of her work, enormous fabric sculptures that have emerged from some bog, and now hang in the dark, threatening to envelop and smother you.
The main space here is an incredible, daunting, suffocating installation that perfectly expresses Abaknowicz’s ideas about nature’s power and the individual’s place in it.
But the show starts with smaller and more sedate works, little seeds of ideas. Her early free hanging works on canvas and paper are all dark, naturalistic abstraction, geometric compositions filled with organic forms. They’re pretty, absorbing things, but not earth shattering. In 1950s Poland though they were totally unacceptable; an early show of her work was shut down by the authorities for not actively engaging with the building of socialism. Yikes. That’s the environment she was working in: one where individual expression had to be in service of the common good
They reek of history, of a past trying to reclaim the present
But there was an upside. The state encouraged cooperation between designers, craftspeople and artisans. So Abakanowicz lost herself in the looms. Her early tapestries are big, sombre abstracts of brown, beige and tan wool. Some parts are frayed, others braided, some deeply matted. They like age-old carpets, worn and tattered by centuries of use.
Soon, she outgrew the idea of rectangular, canvas-shaped work and let the tapestries take freer, more naturalistic forms. Now the works are curved and cut, pierced and undulating. They look more like bison hides than tapestries. There are ropes nearby, hessian sacks, animal horns, human faces wrapped in common like long-dead bog men. It’s all fibrous, twisted, knotted; ancient fossils only recently dug up.
All that mummified, petrified mortality makes sense when you realise that Poland was a country coming uneasily to terms with the war, with how its national forests were bisected by train tracks that lead to concentration camps, how its plains were sites of battle, how its beaches were soaked with blood.
And then you enter that forest of giant wool beings, and it’s overwhelming. You’re dwarfed, dominated by them. They could be hollowed out trees, ancient animal skins, sheets of millennia-old clay. Beautiful, staggering, uncomfortable. They reek of history, of a past trying to reclaim the present.
In the final main space, things get a bit more bodily: a huge pair of black lungs, piles of corpse-like burlap sacks, suspended internal organs, massive labial folds. All that nature has now fused with the individual.
The only complaint is that there’s just not enough. Abakanowicz had a long, varied career and you’re left hungry to lose yourself in even more of her work.
But what’s here is still great. A huge, dark world where nature’s power has swallowed up the state, the past and the individual, and left behind nothing but the organic, the ancient, and the beautiful.