For several years, Mai Tabakian has been developing a particularly innovative form of textile artwork thanks to a technique she created (and carefully kept secret). Geometric shapes – sometimes reminiscent of a certain mathematical rigor – bright and vividly astringent color compositions, carefully molded volumes and surfaces seem to emerge from a historical intermixing that spans from geometric abstraction to op art, from Orphism to Concrete Art (because "nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a color, a surface", to quote Theo Van Doesburg), from Stilj to American abstraction – Sol Lewitt, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly. We might also mention her more recent new pop, superflat play on colors and forms, Kusama’s colorful polka-dots… But everything in Mai Tabakian’s work is a personal step forward, a free getaway from these already beaten tracks.
For in her creations, at first glance deliberately decorative as well as visually highly desirable, beyond their padded aspect as recognizable as a signature, beyond those smooth, bright and plump shapes, and beyond those treasures of patterns, a sculptural – nearly architectural – dimension offers an unprecedented alternative not only to modern and contemporary art but also to the artwork currently being done with textiles. The artist has given life to ultimately intricate and complex objects, difficult to classify, neither paintings nor sculpture in the traditional sense, nor sewing, embroidery, or tapestry. Her work, constantly flirting with hybridity and mutation, is akin to a sort of "textile marquetry", since the fabric is embossed on extruded pieces of polystyrene. Brand new shapes and expressions emerge.
After a period of experimenting with painting-sculptures, focusing on flats and surfaces, Mai Tabakian’s work has taken flight, free in space, far from the notion of "painting", alternating between high-relief – with prominent, sculptured shapes standing out from the wall ("Trophées", 2013) – and installations ("Garden sweet garden", 2012-2013).
Generally speaking, Mai Tabakian draws the formal resources of her work from her interest in mathematical shapes and geometry, but also in all things biological and organic, in architecture, even in digital aesthetics ("Haïkus codes", 2011, takes up QR code aesthetics). The intersecting of these territories, their interactions, all governed by an organizational principle – a way of organizing the world – contributes to the hybridity of her work, calling upon other realms of thought and creation. The ties that are woven into, that are inherent in her productions, recall Goethe’s conception (1) of art evolving as an organic body, in the process of transformation and metamorphosis, possibly suggesting an origin common to art and nature.
It gives us the presentiment that through abstraction, a "life of shapes", narratives and myths is germinating. And when geometry joins with a figurative, sculptured form – an object, a flower, a mushroom – a tale, more profound than at first appears, may emerge.
Most of Mai Tabakian’s works give way to a delightful multitude of interpretations when we discover the titles, as, with a certain pleasure the artist cultivates ambiguity in what we can see or understand. Indeed, what can we say about the essence of her mysterious "Garden Sweet Garden": are these voracious flowers or poisonous mushrooms? Hallucinations or the psychotropic plants that produce them? Giant candies straight out of Roald Dahl’s hero Willy Wonka’s imagination? Or… sexual metaphors for a young girl’s dreams, like a Freudian delight? The multiplicity of potential interpretations, or their duplicity, referring to the intentions or frame of mind of the viewer, suggests the Freudian idea of an “unconscious meeting” between viewer and artist mediated by the artwork, a meeting that, like in love, precedes consciousness. In other words, by playing in the gaps between the explicit and the implicit, the intersections, reversals, doubts and ellipses, Mai Tabakian shuttles back and forth between the said and the unsaid, the symbol and the metaphor. This is particularly true of her “Cinderella” (2013), whose interlocking parts correspond to Bruno Bettelheim’s (2) psychoanalytical theories and the metaphorical meaning of the French “trouver chaussure à son pied” (to meet one’s match) better than to a target sport!
This is also true of the bulbous, spiked helmet of the soldier returned to civilian life "Retour à la vie civile" (2014), of the dumbbell assessing the weight of adultery ("Poids de l’adultère" 2013), both dual and light, and of her "Wubbies" (2012-2013), tender and gaily colored soft toys, which, despite their ingenuous or even childish appearance, express an obvious sensuality.
A scent of eroticism radiates from all of Mai Tabakian’s recent works, a sensuality embedded in the shapes that celebrate the union of masculine and feminine. But above and beyond the image of love in its most prosaic, her constant inspiration lies in the organic sciences, in physics – literally speaking (from the Greek φύσις, phusis : nature) – which lead her to ponder what governs human relationships, love, the quest for love, the fusion, interactions between people, the way affinities come to be. A questioning she already expressed in the series “Atomes crochus ou les affinités électives”– Chemistry or elective affinities (2011), referring both to the atomist theories of the ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Lucretius, and later to the Latin Lucretius, as well as to Goethe’s "elective affinities" (3). As the artist explains: "This installation shows the analogy between the attractions that make and break couples and the chemical reactions that regulate the linking and the releasing of chemical substances. Affinities govern nature, generating effects on chemistry and living beings". Besides, doesn’t popular wisdom talk about the chemistry, or even the alchemy, of love?
The same questioning is reflected in "Trophées" (2013) – Trophies – an installation of high-relief sculptures made of exotic and strange halves of the same fruit: couples. It refers explicitly to the famous "Myth of Aristophanes", speech delivered by Aristophanes in Plato’s Banquet (4) and present in the popular saying "to find one’s missing half". Finding our lost, original other half in the limbo of the myth and the age-old story in order to (re)unite our primeval and ultimate nature is the meaning of the myth that gives Eros a particular dimension as “daimon”, go-between who puts back together what has been torn asunder. Incidentally, it is interesting to point out that Mai Tabakian precisely regards her work as a process of separation and "suture". "To build the work, one must first make a slit, an incision in the support before filling it in, sealing the wounds with the fabric", she explains.
But the forms she creates, particularly the phallic ones ‒ as in the series "Champion’s league" (2012) or "Les petits soldats" (toy soldiers, 2013) ‒ also spring from Mai Tabakian’s innate connection with Asian culture, especially with Vietnam where she is partly rooted. These works remind one of the “lingam” (5), erectile, standing stones, obvious phallic symbols that, sometimes enshrined in their female receptacle (the “yoni” – shapes also frequently associated in Mai Tabakian’s work), symbolize both Shiva’s physical and spiritual duality and the notion of the wholeness of the world. Thus, it is also from these embodied shapes and “signs” of Shiva, between the power of creation and the “place”, the host, that Mai draws many of her representations and the core meaning of her quest.
Mai Tabakian carries us far beyond a play on shapes and erotic allusions as might be our first impression. We come to understand that her approach relies in fine on a kind of quest for the “archè”, that which presides over the creation of things and beings, the principle that (to quote Jean-Pierre Vernant) "makes the duality, the multiplicity that lies in unity, manifest" (6), and that the artist, following the Greek tradition, places in what we would agree with her to call “Eros”, the force responsible for the creation and ordering of Chaos. Plato once again, who, in the Banquet identifies Eros "in the bodies of all animals, in the productions of the earth, in a word in all that is".
The struggle of Eros, fundamentally the vital force of creation, unity and wholeness, continues tirelessly against the forces of decay, destruction and death.
Thus, in her most recent works (the series "Aux âmes etc.", 2014 – To the souls etc.), Mai Tabakian challenges her knowledge of Buddhist temples and of the Vietnamese custom of domestic shrines dedicated to the cult of the family’s ancestors, to whom are owed thoughtfulness and gifts. "Aux âmes etc." fluctuates between a form of Vanity (implying a link with the dead), the funeral wreath and the offering.
It is then that what was underlying becomes more visible: the awareness of death and its relationship with the living, a sort of dread before the mystery of the organic and its inevitable destruction, the disquieting sense of the closeness between beauty and death, a feeling of being attracted and repelled at the same time.
Her artwork can therefore sometimes be regarded as a way to outstrip this fear through a process of reparation and transvaluation. As is often the case with artists working with textiles, notions of wounds and sutures come to the fore, exploiting the dual function of the fabric that both mends and protects. Here is the hand that inflicts – recreates – the wound, then nurses and seals it, smoothing over the gash. Next comes the catharsis that aims to “transcend the negative” thanks to a plastic and aesthetic expression that is soft, opaque and substantial, harmonious and mutable, abstract and suggestive, all at once aspiring and impenetrable. Turning ugliness and death into art. Converting what in organic life could be seen as impure and decaying, trying to make it beautiful and soothing, geometric and relieved of its “intestinal” quality, in a subtle crossfire between attraction and repulsion. By fighting against a cruelty we know little about but that we all experience deep down, Mai Tabakian mysteriously gives life to her intimate narrative.
Each piece of Mai Tabakian’s production is like a stone in the building of a temple, and, like those memorials in honor of the dead where one eats, sleeps and prays, they can all be seen as welcoming the visitor into a place of buoyant and spiritual serenity.
1- J.W. Goethe, Metamorphosis of the Plants, 1790.
2- Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, 1976
3- Goethe is said to have extracted some references from Gelher’s Dictionary of Physics and the molecular exchange phenomenon, referring to the doctrine and works of Etienne-François Geoffroy in 1718, the mainstrean theory in eighteenth-century chemistry.
4- Tò sumpósion - Symposium, (190 b- 193 e), Plato, ca. 380 BC.
5- also meaning “the sign”, in Sanskrit.
6- Jean-Pierre Vernant, L’individu, la mort, l’amour. Soi-même et l’autre en Grèce ancienne, 1989.