Prof. Magdalena Abakanowicz
Poznan, Poland

Vortrag in Warszawa, 5. Mai 2006
bei "sculpture network - meeting + lectures"

"About my philosophy, my work and its context"

I wanted to tell you that art is the harmless activity of mankind, but we recall that art was often used for propaganda purposes by totalitarian systems. - Art will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind deriving from constant struggle  between wisdom and madness, between dream and reality in our mind.
Every scientific discovery opens doors behind which
are other doors, closed. Art does not solve problems but makes us aware of their existence. It opens our eyes to see and our brain to imagine. - To have imagination and to be aware of it means to benefit from possessing an inner  richness and a spontaneous and endless flood of images. - It means to see the world in its entirety, since the point of the images is to show all that which escapes conceptualization. - To all the fundamental fears of man, I add my own. They can perhaps be glimpsed in my art, which is a story of doubts and uncertainties accompanying human existence as  well as mine. - There is an impressive continuity in art´s witness to man´s evolving sense of reality. From time to time, a civilisation falls from grace, and art is destroyed by fanaticism and  wars; but some monuments remain along a path that for hundreds of centuries is otherwise unmarked. Without the milestones of his spiritual odyssey, man would be lost in darkness. - Central-Eastern Europe, where I live, represents a variety of cultures, nationalities and languages. The history of this area is like friable sands. States are emerging and disappearing. Capitals and borders are moving. Wars are replacing wars. Local problems  veil the rest of the globe. - Provincialism allows one to look deeper and to reject fashions. The ways of expression are different here, determined by isolation, which allows for discovery.


After the last world war, my country was destroyed like
Hiroshima. We found ourselves under Soviet domination. - Living area was limited to one room per family. No place for art, no money, no materials, but I was determined to build into this reality my own reality that would protect me. Soft objects constructed of threads pulled out of old rejected ropes, soft sculptures that one could roll and transform into small packages to store anywhere. They were my first environments, my reality, my first spaces to experience, to contemplate. In the  countries  deprived  of  freedom,  art  was  a  transmitter  of  the  desires of the nation. The artist was a prophet of a better future. Art replaced politics, religion, social science. It was sometimes the reason for punishment. This changed creativity into a weapon stimulating resistance. - I built cages with human bodies inside. This was my statement about constraint. One of them is in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, others in Budapest and at the Lodz Museum of Modern Art.


Then I created headless crowds. I wanted to confront man with himself, with his solitude in multitude. It happened that I lived in times when the population of the planet increased 3 fold, when millions were killed in wars, nations were and are manipulated by leaders. Theories and philosophies justified the extermination of entire tribes and races.Crowds behave like a brainless organism and act like a brainless organism, worshipping on command and hating on command. I saw crowds trampling themselves.  -
I suspect that under the human skull,   instincts and emotions overpower the intellect without us being aware of it.  Growing aggressiveness has changed our reality. Terror, suicide bombers derive from despair in the face of military might. Innocence does not protect anyone.
I visualise my fears, building the fence of my immobile crowds between my reality and the existing one. I bewitch the phenomenon of the crowd. I change it into the bridge between all creations of nature.
In the seventies, I began to cast human bodies in burlap. No commissions, no collectors, no galleries. Burlap was like an image of the world under Soviet domination. Headless, often handless, and shell-like, this was enough to say what I wanted. The number of figures was growing year after year. With time, also in bronze,, aluminum and iron. The entire population of standing, walking and seated figures - the Crowds, the Flocks, and the others - are enough to fill a public square. There might be over fifteen hundred, but they have never been seen together. -
One can find them in groups of 80, 250, 30, 50, 95, 112, in museums and  collections in different parts of the world. They constitute a sign of lasting anxiety, a warning.
I do not make editions. Every figure is an individuality. There is also another aspect of quantity: the law of nature which concerns us also.A crowd of people or birds, insects or leaves, is a mysterious assemblage of variants of a certain prototype. A riddle of nature´s abhorrence of exact repetition or inability to produce it, just as the human hand cannot repeat its own gesture. I invoke this disturbing law, switching my own immobile herds into that rhythm.

I immerse in the crowd like a grain of sand in the friable sands. I am fading among the anonymity of glances, movements, smells, in the common absorption of air, in the common pulsation of juices under the skin. -I become a cell of this boundless organism of the crowd, like others already integrated and deprived of expression. - Destroying each other, we regenerate. Through hate and love, we stimulate each other.


The imagined is stronger than reality or rather replaces it. - I remember: it was the severe winter of 1942. The Germans occupied
Poland. The war of Hitler with Russia continued. A transport of children from Poland to Germany, where they would be turned into Germans, was stopped by accident for a day and a night. The train was not heated. Hundreds of blond, blue-eyed children, in the unheated cattle cars, froze to death. When finally soldiers opened the doors, the bodies fell out stiff and hard like sculptures. I wasn't there.
The person telling me about this event built images in my childhood memory, clear, strong and lasting.
Today I had to face the terror attack in
Chechnya, where hundreds of children were killed in their school on the day their school year should have begun.
Sudan, the extermination of hundreds of thousands dying of hunger and violence is another image of childhood in our time. - We are aware that the human family on our planet is no longer divided between East and West, between those living under totalitarian and democratic systems. Two thirds of the world population suffers from hunger and poverty. Poverty has become a tourist attraction, something exotic, amusing, eagerly shown on certain television channels.


For a long time I couldn't use wood. I saw it as a complete entity in itself.
Some years ago, I suddenly discovered the inside of an old trunk with its core like a spine entwined by channels of juices and nerves. I discovered the carnality of another trunk with its limbs cut off, as if amputated.
The fascination for the body, the  phenomenon of life, the mystery of the construction of flesh, is behind the necessity to build my own forms on the basis of existing ones. - And I wanted to say: only the body is alive, in full, powerful and non-thinking. The head, the arms, the hands are only intellectual articulation around the bulk of flesh that is the body. It is there that we find the real universe hidden by the universe of our perception.

I feel the reality today to be related to those very early times when we wanted to communicate with unknown powers, dividing spaces, raising stones, creating environments of sacred meaning. A sculpture that carries energy, is not just a mean of decorating a fireplace or a garden. It is a message, a language beyond words. 
I changed the meaning of sculpture from object to look at into space to experience.
I built these spaces in many countries, including
Italy, Korea, Israel, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, the U.S.A.
These spaces allow us to feel the meaning of the imagination of man confronted with the imagination of nature. It is a coming together of two different powers: nature does not pretend to create art. We do. What is the meaning of man's creativity in comparison with nature's wisdom? - This coming together of two realities is like a ceremony which we enter.


Is of a material more lasting than life. Perhaps, because I hoped that the signs left behind would be for others a lasting anxiety. Perhaps, it was a defiance of my own views, an urge to question the accomplished. Perhaps an awareness that constant immobility is stronger than changing situations.


Our feeling for space is established in early  childhood. I am used to the European space. In the Far East, I was confronted by a totally different concept of space, it´s meaning, it's use, and the role of art in it. - I understood my ignorance in face of ZEN gardens and the difference between theoretical knowledge of history and tradition, and everyday practice.


Seoul Olympic Park, John Kluge Collection, Metropolitan) - Head looks, Head eats, Head conveys.
above or in front of the trunk, the head is first exposed to the unknown. It is responsible for the rest of the body, as a leader for his herd. - It informs about its experiences. Separated from the trunk, the head becomes an entity. - Liberated from responsibilities, it preserves its wisdom.


I saw once hands stretched vertically, voting, protesting, manifesting. - They were similar to branches moving in the wind. I saw trees with branches stretched in a pompous movement, still and frozen but so similar to hands.


Sarx - phagein" - a coffin of limestone from the region of Troy, which had the property of dissolving its contents quickly. The Greek word Sarx-phagein means flesh eater. The word Sarcophagi came into general use in the Roman - Empire as a name for a large coffin and is now in use as an archaeological term. - Today sarcophagi are built for dangerous technologies. A concrete sarcophagus covered the nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl atomic power plant. I saw once hands stretched vertically, voting, protesting, manifesting. - They were similar to branches moving in the wind. I saw trees with branches stretched in a pompous movement, still and frozen but so similar to hands.


At the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Today seen as symbol of peace and freedom. We worked on it together: the Bedouins, the Arabs, Curds and Israelis. We worked in the Negev desert and then placing the big discs on the edge of the Jerusalem Sculpture Garden.


In 1991 Parisian authorities organized a competition - "A Call for Ideas" concerning the extension of the historical axis which crosses the city from the Louvre to the modern business district of La Defense. The new section of the axis, which was the subject of the competition, goes through the suburban town of Nanterre, situated between La Defense and the River Seine. It was to mark the western entrance to the French capital. The organizers invited not only architects but also artists. - I was among them.
Arriving in Paris - La Defense, I found myself confronted by the "Grand Arche," a previously unknown to me enormous rectangular frame, a building with different functions, 100 m tall and 100 m wide, a rigid, cool geometry similar to a window. - It closed off the district of La Defense. - I knew my shape must be organic, vertical, huge, 100 m tall, a tree-like building.
And it must be followed by other tree-like buildings. Many of them. An area of organic shapes which should be the new western entrance to Paris: Arboreal Architecture! - Each of the arboreal buildings is a vertical garden. The facade is enveloped by trellises supporting the vegetation and being its irrigation system. Creepers and other plants chosen by inhabitants would grow, beginning at the bottom and then at different levels of the facade. Modern fertilizers allow for growing vegetation in a minimum of soil. The air is clean. The greenery produces oxygen. There are recreation areas with swimming pools on the top of each building, as well as wind and solar energy collectors. In the underground, in the "roots," are parking garages, commercial spaces, metro stations. My project was selected for further development, but later vanished. I did not find anybody with the courage, fantasy and curiosity of Francois Mitterand, whose idea was to introduce new elements into the famous beauty of Paris.

On the geological clock indicating four billion years of our globe, human activity producing culture occupies only the last few seconds. Within this span of time the human species has managed to threaten not only the biological and environmental balance, but also itself. What is culture? Is it subject to development? Produced by tribes and nations, for centuries it has been a shield. Civilisation - which in time began to accompany culture as an embodiment of the quality of existence - at the beginning of this new century terrifies anthropologists and humanists. Scientists in the great centres of thinking of our world ask the question: how do we slow the simplification that inevitably goes together with the  advance of imagination, an imagination that today possesses access to means enabling the realisation of its most incredible forms? How do we extend understanding to the plurality of cultures  that are not able to subordinate themselves to the modes of thinking of the white man? The metaphoric language of art - can it influence others? Maybe it is the only language not overused to which people are still able to listen? Should the artist be the shaman of society or just its decorator?

Animal heads as if carrying human bodies. And the human bodies are as if armed with the faces of animals. No understanding between these two No common verbal language, no common gesture conveying - but countless identical features: the spirit, sensitivity and intuition exist here and there, but based on different perceptions of reality. Animals carry the never formulated wisdom about existence. Human intellect is not able to penetrate this kind of knowledge.


What is an animal made by human hands?  a  model?  a mystification?  an  imitation ? - Or maybe it has to do with admiration for something unattainable. Maybe it is the image of my jealousy in the face of the inability to reach nature? - But it might be that I do not want to reach nature. - That I am interested only in using its shapes to speak about myself. My creation shows the divergence between human being and nature. Between its greatness and the distinction of man with his genius. - Birds are for me just shapes from which I select a bit of their features. Animals are those not yet born. My imagination doesn´t reproduce, but produces forms which are not needed in the world of nature, as they don´t fulfil the functions of creatures that live, grow and die. - I need these animals made by my hands. They allow me to liberate myself from necessities and visions impossible to verbalise.


My face stands between my thoughts and emotions, and the people who look at me, to whom I speak.
The faces of "Incarnations" unveil the inner chaos hidden behind the living face. Each of these rigid, metallic faces is a potential fragment of my own reality.I discard each one of them, turning always to the next.

For many years, leaving my studio at night, closing the door behind me, I had the impression that now left alone my stiff standing sculptures will start to behave in their own way. Liberated from the pressure of my imagination they will begin to move, to walk, to dance, to dress into heads, to adapt faces. With time I created real dances. They were performed by about 10 Japanese and 10 Polish young people. They derived from basic movements of the body: sitting, standing, lying, running. They were related to groups of my sculptures like "Backs", "Seated Figures", "Embryology", "Cage", "Mutants". In 1997 we performed in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Warsaw, one time in each place.

Every scientific discovery opens doors behind which there are other doors, closed. Art does not solve problems but makes us aware of their existence. It opens our eyes to see and our brain to imagine.
To have imagination and to be aware of it means to benefit from possessing an inner richness and a spontaneous and endless flood of images.
It means to see the world in its entirety, since the point of the images is to show all that which escapes conceptualisation.

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