FFor the visitor, the Hayward Gallery’s extraordinary new exhibition of the late work of French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is a major undertaking. Thanks to both its size – the exhibition brings together some 90 collages, sculptures and installations, many of which have never been shown here before – and the ever-confusing spaces of the gallery itself, inside one must some time to get oriented. The eyes must adapt to the permanent twilight of the Hayward; the body must fight a powerful expectation. You want to both rush into a frenzy and commune with everything for a few minutes at a time. In the end I did two circuits, one fast and one slow, and even then I wasn’t satisfied. Wrapped in the dark folds of Bourgeois’ mind, the longer gaze still seems somehow superficial. Here is a series of caverns, each of which begs to be fully explored.
What is strange about this spirit of investigation is that Bourgeois’ practice seems to run counter to it. However delicate it may be at times, the nuance is more or less unknown to it. It’s easy-to-read art, the messages it conveys are sometimes mundane (perhaps this is one of the reasons why the curator of the exhibition, Ralph Rugoff, director of Hayward, reduced at least its own interpretations). What else could wife house (2001), in which a fabric house was sewn onto a female torso, is it only about women’s burdens? What more can we say Do not abandon me (1999), a play that includes the figure of a naked woman and her newborn baby, once you’ve finished speculating which of them – mother or child – the fear suggested by its title most applicable?
And yet, this lack of ambiguity does not hamper our curiosity and excitement one iota. Why? I think it has to do, sometimes, with his media. Even though we’re not allowed to touch it, looking at Bourgeois’ art is a haptic experience: his textures are almost as thrilling as his sense of narrative drama (melodrama, sometimes). Mostly, though, it’s tied to some sinister intimacy. As Robert Hughes said, his work has a “weird, cave-like quality, like something pale under a log”. Ugh! you think. Then: but let me take another look.
The Woven Child focuses exclusively on the last two decades of the artist’s long career, a stunning outburst of belated creativity in fabric and textiles that was born, in part, from memories of her childhood (she died in 2010 , at the age of 98). We know her childhood was traumatic — she came to view her father’s affair with his teenage governess as a form of child abuse — but this flurry of fire isn’t just about psychological pain. Bourgeois’ parents were tapestry restorers, and in old age she returned to her roots, incorporating needles, bobbins, embroidery and weaving into her art.
If everyday objects are here transformed into miniature horror shows – in Untitled (1996), cow bones are used for hangers; in Untitled (2010), pale woolen berets become swollen, cut breasts – what is displayed is also intensely domestic. His totemic ‘progressions’, which revisit his vertical, segmented ‘characters’ of the 1950s, are now made from materials such as bed linen and tapestry work (the latter evoking church kneelers). Eugenie Grandet (2009), a 16-panel series that uses the handkerchiefs and tea towels from the trousseau she brought with her when she moved to the United States seven decades ago, is (to me, at least) something of an update on samplers that girls sewed in the 19th century, practicing their stitches. (This play is, of course, named after Balzac’s heroine, a character with whom Bourgeois identified on the grounds that his father, too, was oppressive.)
How do you choose the things that deserve special attention in a show where almost everything is fascinating, horrifying, strange, mysterious, beautiful? The first object the eye sees is Cell VII (1998), one of Bourgeois’ enclosures: installations in which personal objects – in this case, a model of her childhood home in Choisy-le-Roi, and clothes that belonged to her and her mother – can be spied on as though through a keyhole. The voyeuristic effect induced by such a narration – a feeling of transgression on your part which, paradoxically, only brings you closer to the artist – is not, I should say, unusual.
Moving on, I almost blushed High Heels (1998), a kneeling figure carefully bent to expose both her buttocks and the soles of her impossible shoes. The curator describes The Reluctant Child (2003), in which a series of soft pink figures – they represent the birth and beginnings of the artist’s youngest son, Alain – appear distorted in the concave mirror behind them, like a “diorama”, and in a literal sense, it is correct. In reality, however, it’s so much more private – and dynamic – than the word suggests: a scintillating home movie as shot by Dr. Freud.
Is there a spider? (Bourgeois’ favorite motif, the arachnids, those super-weavers, represent the mothers in his world.) Yes, there are several, including the largest, Spider (1997), is in the gallery upstairs. This huge steel monster straddles a mesh “cell,” inside which are other belongings of the artist, including a bottle of Bourgeois’ favorite perfume, Shalimar. “The spider is a restorative,” she said, and perhaps that sense of restoration—a tapestry-covered chair also sits inside the cage—is one of the reasons why. this piece induces a creeping sense of satisfaction when you surround it.
More likely, however, it’s simply the result of his triumphant size. Bourgeois was doing what she was doing long before feminism finally made her fashionable; it was not before retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1982 that she began to emerge from the shadows as an artist. Nonetheless, it is inspiring, at this point in the 21st century, to be able to claim her as one of our own; like a warrior who both embraces and disdains the domestic realm, who reads it as both refuge and battlefield. The Shalimar, in particular, made me smile. These intoxicating woody-smoky-vanilla notes that float, in my imagination, in the air around all this metal! In a way, that sums up Bourgeois for me. The female experience is her dominance, and it doesn’t diminish her at all to say so. But this area should not just be seen. It must be felt, deeply, from within.