Visitors to Grounds For Sculpture observe how Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Space of Stone”–a work that itself conveys a greater power–is enhanced by the long shadows of the sun sitting low in the sky.
Part of a series that includes major installations in Italy, Korea, Lithuania and Poland, the work seeks to “change sculpture from object to look at to space to experience,” writes the world-renowned sculptor. “I am confronting the imagination of man with the imagination of nature… What is the meaning of man’s creativity in comparison with nature’s wisdom? This coming together of two different powers creates the space to contemplate.
“Sculpture does not decorate but is part of the metaphoric language which conveys more than we can express in words,” she continues. “We must enter it, penetrate, become part. We learn about our scale and the scale of the surroundings.”
One way to get to “Space of Stone” is by walking through a red maple allée. Sunlight seeps through the closely planted trees onto the narrow pathway, creating a sense of anticipation. Coming out of the allée we see the assembly of large rocks that is suggestive of Stonehenge or Callanish.
The congregation of 22 large granite edifices is protected by earth berms on one side, tall grasses on another. Planes flying overhead, and in summer the steady drone of crickets and an occasional katydid, seem almost intrusive in this space of contemplation. Tall shadows are cast by the late-afternoon sun from one piece onto another. Insects flutter, and the wind causes the broadleaf greens in the lawn to sway while the massive stones remain perfectly still. Climbing the berms affords a different vantage point.
The stones come in two colors: a whiter granite (Barre gray granite) with sharper edges and a creamy granite with softer edges (black Pennsylvania granite). The darker stone takes on more rust and glitter, and the sharp edges contrast with the more curvaceous forms. Some of the edges of the stone look as if they were shot with golf-ball-size bullets.
Abakanowicz (born 1930) had been working on another project at the Johnson Atelier, adjacent to Grounds For Sculpture, when the late director Brooke Barrie proposed the idea for an outdoor installation. Abakanowicz delighted in the idea and stayed on for the duration of the project.
“I had the most extraordinary help from Brooke, and the people at the Atelier were like family,” Abakanowicz told me in 2003, by phone from Poland, just after the installation. “Without Brooke, this work would never have happened. Brooke was with me all the time. I never felt alone or not understood with my changing ideas, doubts and uncertainty.
“I worked with people from all over the world,” she continued. “We found our language. They understood my ideas. With hammer and torch, we eliminated technical marks (in the stone) from the drilling in the quarry. Walter (Dusenbery) and Christoph (Spath) in the stone studio were very attentive discussing my project.”
Abakanowicz selected her pieces of granite that had been brought to the Atelier from the Canadian border. “It became obvious to me that stone has such a strong individuality in our environment. I would like to express it as such. I would like to discover how it wants to break in the most natural way. I would like to show its insight and the expression of what we understand under (the) hard and resistant (surface). I would like to show the never fully understood concept of nature which brings together and presses matter that finally becomes a body.
“The confession of stone is most important,” she continued. “Stone is a powerful element growing out of the soil, displaying its skinless body, not hiding its veins.”
Throughout her 50-plus year career, Abakanowicz’s work has been distinguished by its texture, often marked by, in her own words, “countless traces of my fingers, of knife cuts or rug pieces… as obvious as broken stone, animal fur or human wrinkles.” Having focused on painting while a student in Gdansk and Warsaw, she gained international attention in the 1960s and ’70s for her large relief weavings, titled Abakans.
“I see fiber as the basic element constructing the organic world on our planet,” she wrote. “It is from fiber that all living organisms are built: the tissue of plants, and ourselves. Our nerves, our genetic code, the canals of our veins, our muscles. We are fibrous structures.”
In the ’70s she turned to the human figure, molding burlap sacks over plaster casts of nude figures and stiffening the fabric with glue and resin. The wrinkled burlap surfaces suggest mummified skin. In the ’80s she turned to bronze, and whether her figures were headless or hooded, they often came in large armies, suggesting the loss of individuality in the masses. One of her pieces was titled “Ninety-Five Figures from a Crowd of One Thousand Ninety-Five.” The bodies have been described as “monuments to the mute human endurance of regimentation and repression tragically characteristic of modern history.”
“I feel overwhelmed by quantity where counting no longer makes sense,” she has said. “A crowd of people or birds, insects or leaves, is a mysterious assemblage of variants of a certain prototype, a riddle of nature abhorrent to exact repetition or inability to produce it, just as a human hand cannot repeat its own gesture.”
Born into an aristocratic family in Poland, the artist was 9 years old when the Nazis seized control. Later, under Soviet domination, confronted by dire economic conditions following her parents’ loss of wealth and property, she learned to transform natural and found objects clay, stone, twigs and broken china into works of creative expression.
Her sculptures reflect the loss, hardship and repression of those times and their effects on the human condition. Her crowds of anonymous figures make one think of Hitler’s army of supporters depicted in the films of Leni Riefenstahl. Yet each figure is an individual with its own expression, details and skin.
“I am building my own universe,” says the sculptor. “My figures have no body. They are like bark fallen off a tree. My bronzes are open and show fragility of metal. My stone displays its insight. I am not attached to material or technique. I love the unknown possibility of experimentation. Routine is against the spirit of creation which is based on constant discoveries.”
In Warsaw, the sculptor is surrounded by greenery and gardens with wild pheasants and rabbits. “My parents had vast property in different areas of Poland, but all their property was taken by the state during the social revolution imposed by Soviet Russia after the last world war. Old beautiful houses were burned or demolished. Owning property was not allowed.”
Abakanowicz works from a large room in what she describes as a small house. “We spent 50 years under Soviet domination; all people had to have the same conditions under which to live. A small house was a luxury. I needed special permission to add my studio. I have worked all over the world, in forests and deserts, and I got used to space as endless. Sky is the most reliable roof.
“I live inside my necessity to create work,” she continued. “This country is my place, independent of politics or economy. The history of my family is very old. I was raised with the knowledge that my ancestors were always supporting the country and the king by giving them battalions of armed people. My ancestors invested their life’s money to defend this country. It is from here I observe the world. My work derives from this observation and the necessity to build my own reality protecting me.”
Space of Stone by Magdalena Abakanowicz can be seen at Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton: www.groundsforsculpture.org