Magdalena Abakanowicz began sewing three-dimensional objects with sacking, stockings, rags and rope in the 1970s.
These cocoon-like objects reflect Abakanowicz’s interest in biological systems, organic matter and regeneration, topics she discussed with scientists in her native Poland. In response to a commission to represent Poland at the Venice Biennale in 1979, she made hundreds of soft sculptures of varying shapes and sizes, ‘rounded like bellies, or elongated like mummies,’ as she described them. Abakanowicz collected old mattresses, clothing and sacks to create this ‘invented anatomy’ of forms and installed eight hundred in Venice under the title Embryology.
Made at a time of political tension between the Soviet Union and Poland, Abakanowicz has said the work ‘could be understood as a cry from behind the Iron Curtain’. She had come to prominence in the 1960s with a series of large woven sculptures called Abakans. At the time, the Polish state would not allow her to buy or rent a studio, so she made them on a loom in a friend’s basement, using sisal from discarded ropes. Without a large space in which to work she would often see her pieces in their entirety for the first time only when they were installed in exhibitions.