The Canadian Art Database

Terrence Heath

Magdalena Abakanowicz: The Long Wait
The MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie, Ontario, June 6 - September 7, 2003.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 22 #4, November 2003.
[ 792 words ]

There is art writing and there is the business of giving words to direct, emotional experiences. Walking amongst the sculptures of Abakanowicz, the art writing words fall away and the naming of our inner life takes over. Huge, scarred tree trunks are propped up on barrels and iron supports, their length brutally shortened by the steel bands wrapped around them and shaped and split into — what? terrible weapons, pieces of turbo engines, clamps, rings, shackles? In the end there is only silence — the war is over — the aftermath is hushed and horrible.

Over the years, I have seen photos of her work in various art magazines. Her Abakans, multiple figures made of hollowed out sacking, often cast in bronze, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting hunched over, sometimes headless, sometimes with mutated animal heads, were the ones I was most familiar with. I had to see one, however, at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, before I realized just how powerful these figures are. Even when they are not huge (as for example her ten foot tall bronzes, Big Figures, 2001/2002) they are powerful in their presence and detail. One example: The figures are hollow, that is they are from the back simply an absence, except at the bottom of the legs in the hollowed out cavity, there are what can only be called the remnants of the foot and lower leg.

To walk into the new gallery of the MacLaren Art Centre and be confronted with the massive sculptures of Abakanowicz has to be one of the most moving experiences I have had in an art museum. In addition to the huge pieces in the main sculpture gallery space (the end wall had to be removed to bring them in), there is one of her strange 'mutant' creatures standing at the top of the stairs. She has a strong belief in the enduring, animal, spiritual forces, most often hidden from us as humans, but on which we depend for survival. Speaking of a recent set of animal/human figures, Coexistence (2002), she has said, 'Animal carries the never formulated wisdom about existence. Human intellect is not able to penetrate this animal wisdom.' (Magdalena Abakanowicz: Coexistence, 7 October - 3 November, 2003, Marlborough Galleries catalogue, p. 11) Close to the entrance of the gallery, Colin Wiginton, who curated this exhibition, has placed a 'flock' of her Ucelli birds (1998/99). These simplified birdlike sculptures hover between animal and machine, bird and warplane. They are threatening in a way that makes Hitchcock's birds look friendly.

So far, I suspect this exhibition sounds rather depressing but, strangely, it is not. Like the artist herself, the story is one of triumph. Magdalena Abakanowicz's life was by any measure horrific. She was nineteen when the Nazi forces entered Poland; she was twenty-six when the Russian forces came. She stood beside her mother when a soldier shot her mother's arm off; she nursed a young man, whose legs had been shot off, until he died; she fled, hid, suffered and scrounged. But she survived and went to art school and made things and became one of the best known sculptors of the contemporary world. Her work may return always to those few, terrible years and to the lonely, isolated childhood that was torn away from her by them, but she draws from them an affirmation of life that is her gift to the viewer of her works.

If I felt facetious this morning, I would say that, indeed, Canada has waited a long time to see the phenomenal sculpture of Magadalena Abakanowicz. As far as I know, her work has been shown only once before this present exhibition at the MacLaren Art Centre; in the early 1980s a travelling exhibition of her works, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (1982), was shown at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montréal. We have missed a lot. The MacLaren Art Centre has to be congratulated on bringing in these sculptures. Originally, they had partnered with Georgian College to bring Abakanowicz to Barrie to lead a workshop and work on an outdoor piece for their biennial exhibition, Shore/lines. She cancelled when SARS became international news. I hope they pursue the idea for their 2005 Shore/lines project.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 22 #4, November 2003.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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