Getting knotted at the Tate Modern

LONG AGO PEOPLE in the Andes did not write. Instead, as Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña (born 1948) explained in a note on the Tate Gallery website:

“… they wove meaning into textiles and knotted cords. Five thousand years ago they created the quipu (knot), a poem in space, a way to remember…”

After the Europeans conquered South America, they abolished and burnt the quipus. However, as the artist explained:

“… the quipu did not die, its symbolic dimension and vision of interconnectivity endures in Andean culture today.”

Cecilia has created two large sculptures which are hanging from the tall ceiling of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall until the 16th of April 2023. Each of these artworks consist of knotted strands of different materials, each of which is 27 metres long. They hang from circular metal structures looking to me rather like shredded laundry. Though they are undoubtedly deeply meaningful and attract the attention of many viewers, I felt the history underlying them was more interesting than their aesthetic qualities.


Elsewhere in the Tate Modern, we viewed an exhibition of the works of an artist, who knew how to write, but was creating during a time when the use of words had to chosen carefully to avoid being punished by the government. That artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017), was born in Poland, where she created most of her art. After WW2, she studied painting and weaving the Academy of Plastic Arts in Warsaw. Her early works were created during a period when the Soviet-supported Stalinist regime in Poland imposed great restrictions on creative endeavours. During that harsh period, artists had to express any criticisms of the regime in a coded way in order to evade censorship. To some extent, this was necessary until Communist rule ended in Poland. In the mid-1950s, restrictions on art eased up a bit and experimentation became possible.

Magdalena moved from creating flattish conventional woven pieces to innovative three-dimensional artworks – woven sculptures of great originality. Photographs cannot do justice to these amazing creations. Videos can help the viewer appreciate the amazing way that these tapestries both fill and engulf space. However, the best way to see these works is to see them with your own eyes, which you can do at the Tate Modern until the 21st of May 2023. Included in the exhibitions are photographs of the lovely sculptures the artist created in later life and some videos of the artist talking about her work. There is also a film made in 1970 in which her tapestries are displayed on the sandy dunes of Poland’s Baltic coast. The artworks are suspended from poles and move gently in the sea breeze. It is clear from this film, which included scenes showing the fabric sculptures in galleries, that the artist seemed keen to have viewers explore them by touch as well as by vision. Sadly, and probably sensibly, the Tate forbids visitors from touching the lovely artworks.

Both the Vicuña and the Abakanowicz artworks use knotting and weaving to communicate ideas with the viewer. A window in one of the Abakanowicz exhibition rooms overlooks one of the quipu artworks. It intrigued me to see the juxtaposition of the works of the two fabric artists. Seeing these two exhibitions, one immediately after the other, made for a fascinating visit to the Tate Modern.