UNKNOTTING AND REWINDING THE THREADS
The Courtauld Institute of Art
Dedicated to the works of late Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017), the exhibition currently on view at Tate Modern exudes a sylvan ambience conjured by cumulative fibres, rooted in the ruggedly rocky terrain of the artist's life story, while inextricably intertwined with socio-cultural histories. One can either plunge into this density with tenacity or traverse it gingerly. I visited the exhibition twice this spring, once on my own and once with my BA1 students from The Courtauld for an on-site seminar. The exhibition chimes with my ongoing research in a convoluted yet captivating manner.
In preparation for this seminar, I delved into Joanna Inglot’s monograph ‘The Figurative Sculpture of Magdalena Abakanowicz’ (2004) as my primary reference. Its preface bluntly addresses the dichotomy between academic freedom and the artist’s vehement discouragement of any historicising or contextualising endeavours that attempt to link her oeuvre with other artists or movements, including Eastern European fibre art traditions, the feminist movement in the US, Stalinist cultural policy in Poland, Solidarity, and martial law era of the 1980s, among others. While Abakanowicz maintains that she draws inspiration solely from nature and her formative experiences in the forest, Inglot contends that artists cannot remain detached from their cultural-political realities and must function within and respond to them. These accounts induce a sense of déjà vu as they are reminiscent of another fibre artist living in a Socialist state, who strategically retreats to 'nature' and seldom makes any explicit political commentary.
Abakanowicz secured international recognition as a preeminent fibre artist following her participation in the inaugural Lausanne International Tapestry Biennial in Switzerland in 1963, where she subsequently showcased her works until the 12th International Tapestry biennial in 1985. In 1987, Liang Shaoji, the Chinese silkworm artist who is the protagonist taking centre stage in my doctoral thesis, attended the 13th biennial in Lausanne with his mentor, Marin Varbanov, a Bulgarian tapestry artist who was teaching in the Chinese Academy of Art. It was the first instance of contemporary Chinese tapestries being featured in this biennial, and Liang Shaoji first encountered Abakanowicz's works in a private collection in Lausanne. I showed Liang some photographs that I took in the Tate via WeChat, and he delineated to me his early career as a tapestry artist, recalling the awe he felt upon viewing Varbanov's soft sculptures at an exhibition curated by Hou Hanru in the west gallery of the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in 1985. Inspired, he created ‘The Art of War’ in 1986, which was selected for the Lausanne biennial, where Liang also saw the works of Eastern European textile artists such as Ritzi Jacobi and Jagoda Buić. Nevertheless, Liang reserved his highest admiration for Abakanowicz within this genre. Even at the age of seventy-eight, his words about this memory were still imbued with fervent passion: ‘Her burlap crowds are so stunning!’
Both Abakanowicz and Liang opted not to leave their homeland during the most turbulent social upheavals and instead resorted to nature, or at least to fibres derived from plants and animals such as flax, hemp, jute, sisal, cotton, wool, and silk, as a zone of ritualistic healing, if not a refuge. This artistic decision of retreat, though seemingly apolitical, can be readily interpreted as a veiled political statement. Liang has openly embraced Daoist ‘ziran’ (nature, spontaneity, self-so-ing etc.) as a cosmological imprint in his artistic practice. However, in a conversation with art historian Paul Gladston in 2007, Liang also sharply acknowledged that Daoism and Confucianism, as integral components of the Chinese intellectual tradition, are so closely intertwined and mutually protective that they cannot be wielded to challenge existing social rules. Like Abakanowicz, Liang’s reclusive poise and the wrapping pattern of biotic ropes are ways to tacitly carve out a leeway in the quagmire of their times.