Tactile Curiosity: A Conversation with Sophia Borowska

By Gabriel McCarthy

Before my interview with Sophia Borowska, an artist who works in the intersection between weaving and architecture, I told her I wasn’t familiar with weaving. In response, she sent me a short chapter from Anni Albers’ book On Weaving, called “Tactile Sensibility.” A well-known textile artist, Albers was also highly regarded for her writings in which she argued for weaving as a legitimate form of artistic expression. While reading, I paused on this sentence: “We have grown increasingly insensitive to our perception by touch, the tactile sense.”

Soon after we began speaking — in her beautifully messy and spacious studio — I mentioned this sentence to Borowska. She considers it crucial to the philosophical underpinnings of textile art.

“Today, we often receive finished products that were made in a factory—bread, tea pots, cell phones. As a result, we’re becoming more sedentary, disembodied. Touch is fundamental to the human experience, and in a modern, industrialized society, we rarely encounter raw materials.”

I couldn’t agree more, I replied. Alienation from nature, the essential source of all products, is a tragedy of our materialistic era. With this principle in mind, Anni Albers pioneered weaving theory. Her book On Weaving, an artistic statement and philosophical treatise, was published in 1965, and was influential as far as creating a weaving canon, which is still being shaped and discovered today. We’ve only recently begun to think seriously about weaving as a form of art. Textiles were not integrated into the traditional conception of art history, Borowska tells me, even though there are numerous textile traditions that go back centuries. People have been wearing clothes for a long time.

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Split Bind, Hand-Made Rope; Bricks; Rocks and Asphalt found in Montréal. (2017).

We laugh together when she says this. It’s such a simple observation, but one that makes you reconsider the role of textiles in art, and our lives. For Borowska, this moment of reflection happened at university, where she studied Fibres and Material Practices. But the discovery of weaving was not just conceptually exciting. It felt natural, Borowska says. She realized it was easy to sit down for hours and work with her hands. When I ask about her creative process, she tells me it’s a mix of theory and intuition.

“Weaving does necessitate a good amount of planning beforehand, but when I do have a plan in place, then I can play and improvise. I usually can’t start with a ‘blank-page’ so to speak. I prefer not to wait around for a deep idea to come to me. The parameters of weaving are the threads that you put on the loom, you know. And that’s a two or three day process, and you have to do calculations.”

She points to my right — to the huge loom in the far left corner of her studio. Its immensity reminds me of her biggest project, Oversight: a “visceral tangle of fleshy materials,” two-stories tall (quoted from Borowska’s website, linked below). 

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Oversight, Plastic; Foam; Masking Tape (2015).

Oversight is the perfect example of her fascination with raw material and architectural logic. She was initially interested in the staircase as a purely transitional space, where you should be guided by the architect from point A to point B, safely and efficiently. Taped to the glass balustrade, Borowska noticed there was a piece of foam to protect people from a crack in the glass. The rough, gritty quality of the foam stuck out against the sleekness of everything. Encircled by the winding staircase, Borowska’s chaotic network of wires suggests vulnerability, danger. Paths of falling bodies. “I wanted to highlight the disastrous consequences of mistakes in architecture. The subliminal danger of walking up and down a staircase protected by a glass edge.”

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Oversight (2015), View 2

One of her thematic obsessions is the sensual relation of the body to her work. Since being physical with materials is such an integral part of her work, Borowska wants to elicit a similar response from her viewers — primarily the urge to touch. If you consider the experience of walking through an art museum or a gallery, it’s a very formal atmosphere. As a kid, you learn that the first rule of museums is “don’t touch!” Therefore, when she can, Borowska invites people to touch her exhibits. “I wouldn’t say that my work concerns the sexual side of sensuality, but rather, evoking other senses that aren’t always stimulated when we see works of art. I like to make things that people want to touch. Which means that, when you walk into the gallery, your body is relating to the work.”

There is something special about making something for a viewer with one’s hands. In some sense, it’s primal. If someone does touch, that moment of communication contains no language. Just the sensuousness of touch. As we discuss the physical nature of her work, I’m reminded of a unique aspect of weaving: there normally isn’t a frame. Borowska lights up, excited that I’ve caught on to an idea she has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about. I continue my train of thought: the weaver builds something, and the work must adapt to the physical constraints of where it will go. Or, maybe the space is the frame…

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“Yes! I am always attentive to the reciprocal relationship between my work and the space it’s in. Installation is very important to me. I love to play with the space where the works are shown. Sometimes the artwork is created in the moment of installing, even more so than beforehand.”

Since she grew up in cities (and because both of her parents are artists), Borowska was encouraged to appreciate architecture at a young age. This is a detail from earlier in our conversation, and I mention it when she talks about installation. In weaving, she seems to have found the perfect confluence for her aesthetic sensibilities. Borowska’s work crystallizes the fleeting impression of how buildings make us feel, and our subconscious perception of them as material objects rather than shiny miracles of capitalism. She wants to make us aware of the earth underneath. And in her less architecturally-focused works, there is always an attentiveness to the transience of raw material—digital waste in Data Excess, stones in Split Bind. Having spoken to her at length, what I find most compelling is the sense of wonder with which she sees the world, her tactile curiosity. 

You can find more of Sophia Borowska's work on her website and Instagram.

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