Louise Bourgeois Retrospective at the Tate Modern (or, How to Scare Yourself Silly in Nine Small Rooms)

Louise Bourgeois Retrospective


So I finally went to our oh-so-friendly-looking Tate Modern this afternoon to see the Louise Bourgeois collection, not 3 months after it opened, and not 4 days before the actual thing is to be closed down and shipped off to Ottawa or somewhere. (I'm always so last minute when it comes to these things.) (I also finally got a look at the Doris Salcedo Shibboleth. I’m sorry, but the quicker they remove that aberration and restore the ticket booths to their former capacity the happier I’ll be the next time I hit the escalators.)

There are so many themes and just so much ambition to make sense of with Bourgeois that it’s probably just best in the long-run to quote a passage from the Tate’s exhibition guide:

… both the Femme Maison series and the later Cell reflect Bourgeois’s continuing fascination with identity, the home, and her place within it. The women in the [Femme Maison] paintings seem to be trapped in various buildings, while their lower bodies are exposed. They seem suddenly to have outgrown their confines.
I still don’t know very much about Bourgeois except to say that she is 97, she suffered in her adolescence—by all accounts—an infernal atmosphere at home (courtesy of a rotten dad), and she produced her most wonderful environment pieces (Passage Dangereux and Spider to name the most aesthetically cruel) in the late nineties (making her, at that time … 86!!! Youth is so totally wasted on the young). But anyway, if the retrospective video was anything to go by, then she, too, would appear to be no flinching (and therefore complex, complicated, and sundry other bowing/scraping associations) artist: ‘the materials are materials, and they are there to serve me’ she says.

How refreshing: an artist who is personal with her work, who teeters on the brink of DalĂ­-like surrealism with the suggestion of an ambiguity in form (always good in my book), who isn’t blinded by the surface of the water, who appears to be almost uneconomic in her refusal to pontificate about her work. And yet a quick scan of this article in the Telegraph will predictably cut right through that perception: if Bourgeois is known for her frankness, she is equally known for her canny self-promotion (and perhaps a little for playing up to and embodying the fantasy of female empowerment or even revenge against men). This is why I never read about an artist before I participate in a collection: I’d never want to carry in with me the fashionable (and sometimes unreasonable) judgements or prejudice of any commentator, because that first meeting with a piece of art, that first interaction, is entirely virginal and should be treated with care.

But, oh dear. Not on the most forgiving of days could I find the sculptures in her Personages collection interesting (there’s nothing provocative, pleasing, or worthy of one’s time about five sticks shaped like toothbrushes fixed upright on a mat) ... but to be honest, Personages does not, thankfully, a Louise Bourgeois exhibition make. Once her intentions change by the late 60s, Bourgeois begins to present her range of latex, plaster and marble sculptures in savage, sexually explicit, matter-of-fact terms. She makes things explicit in her straightforwardly biomorphic sculptures (The Destruction of the Father being, perhaps, the definitive example, of the rage and excessive pain which has invariably driven her to lash out against the father who betrayed the family), but then implicit in her cell installations, creating horribly cramped spaces which still manage to give viewers the space for a response.

Now I know this would be putting it mildly, but … there isn’t a lot of optimism here (which might explain why, in all calm seriousness, I enjoyed it). In a sense, the exhibit is a spiral passage in which one learns to take possession, of one’s own body, of one's sexuality and identity, and certainly of one’s own home. Everything is connected to Bourgeois’s very real anxieties about motherhood, a tension which she allies with the obvious (a cultural ambivalence towards women in a patriarchal society—yes, I know that is so pedestrian these days, even I yawn) but surprisingly also with freudian desire, with the frankly sadistic. Not for nothing did I find myself contemplating the consequences of her ennui, this domestic, emotional, and feminine oppression, in the context of H. R. Giger’s dark explorations of impulsive sex and violence. Giger’s work centres on similar concepts of possession but, of course, with a postmodern bent: his subjects are fated (or doomed) to possess their selves psychically, erotically, mechanically, in spiral, in morbid repetition, and by the general looks of things, torment.

I think the two artists trade on the same understanding of enclosed spaces and domestic confinement, as well as, even, the same psychic space and trauma. Just as one should fear setting foot into the utterly repellent space of Giger’s Necronom V for example, one fears approaching a Bourgeois cage installation (of which there were six, including the eerie Passage Dangereux, which was for me her most arresting exhibit).

The Passage Dangereux is an enormous cage containing hanging chairs, exposed springs, and tapestry panels. The Tate guide puts its emphasis on the movement of time within this enclosed and static space ("Like objects stored in a dusty attic, the contents of this cell evoke memories of times past and of a life lived"), and you certainly get an overwhelming sense from an external perspective of a determinate humanistic space, but the outer structure provokes another response. The cage cell integrates several alcoves, or viewing portals I suppose you might call them alternatively, which have the effect of bleeding you into the metal fencing, passing you inbetween the coiled springs suspended overhead and through the tiny perforations of Bourgeois’s tapestry panels, creeping you finally into her private and reflective domain ... It’s unnerving but an important step to take, one that’s organically part of the totalising process of enquiry.

The danger, of course, is inside with the materials; likewise the stench of confinement is all within—but I experienced both stood on the periphery. For a moment I forgot about Bourgeois’s concerns and intentions. Just by moving into the cramped space of the metal alcove to begin my investigation I hoped to mask my slight anxiety, both of approaching the unknown and, once ‘inside’, of that which might threaten to envelop me as I leaned into the cage. You see, the metal walls become just as much an illusion as the forced perspectives reflected in the cell's dusty mirrors. What is this distortion? Does it have something to do with the advancing, sinewy spider down at my feet? Is it responsible for spinning this rusty, industrial illusion around me where I stand? That anxiety becomes a fear of giving oneself over to something or someone else you do not know, do not even fully trust ... the virginal experience of which I have already spoken.

That, in my humble opinion today, is the ‘work’ of the plastics: the specific lure, the catch, that brings you in, that makes you primitive again; the process of weaving you into the artwork itself, with the promise that you’ll be freed later on.
16 January, 2008


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