The logic of the Tate Modern’s recent exhibition divides Louise Bourgeois’ significant works into two convenient categories – objects and cells. Both categories of artwork are laden with allusions and enigmas; chock-a-block with references to distant half-remembered sensations and memories. They spark off a parade of associations, providing enough frisson to keep an battalion of psychoanalysts occupied. Bourgeois is one of those artists that gets scholars salivating – clambering to theorise her art will require a surfeit of monographs, articles and conferences.
Louise Bourgeois, Cumul1
After a detour through her earlier work, the sixth and seventh rooms at the Tate exhibition revealed her objects – glistening blocks of latex, rough-hewn slabs of wood and sensual, polished lumps of marble, all looking like inexplicable alien objects with the seductive power of succubae. The marble Cumul1 is perhaps the most evocative. What starts off as a polished moonscape then proceeds to conjure up some of the suggestive parts of the body. Sleepy eyelids awakening? An army of breasts? Erect phalli being unveiled? And are these body parts hostile in mood or something more playful? The extreme polishing, the perfected roundness suggest a fetishist’s love for playing with the object; but there is something aggressive about such works, like anatomical parts breaking off from the human body and forming their own independent union.
Louise Bourgeois, SleepII
Each of these hard objects are threaded with confusing ambiguities, tracing a line between the feminine and the masculine, the figurative and the representational, the pleasurable and the painful – issues any old school therapist will come back to time and time again. It is these psychoanalytic issues that trouble Bourgeois’ human subject and her sculptures represent this magnificently. Bourgeois’ work touch upon areas of the psychological spectrum that few sculptors had thought to explore before; earlier sculptural forms with organic tendencies, say work by a Hepworth or a Moore, are reduced to decorational ornaments when placed next to the canny intelligence of Bourgeois’ work. The pleasing but unchallenging forms of early modernist sculptors (and you could include Arp, Brancusi or many others) create a distance between art object and appreciative spectator; there is none of this cold-eyed connoisseural distance in Bourgeois. Here is what the human enjoys but also what the human fears.
For the spectator, Bourgeois’ objects are the perfect playthings for nudging strange long-vanished sensations back into focus. These are objects you want to touch and caress, bringing you back to some old object of desire or some blissful state of mind that exists as nothing more than a tiny bubble of memory. But, of course, it’s a little difficult to test out such fantasies. Adults visiting galleries are well aware that giving into such desire might seem rather odd and will invoke a telling off from the security guards spying for the merest hint of tactile transgression. Never has art so well delineated the line between childish desires and adult repressions.
Whereas the objects are little psychological renderings portraits in stone, the cells are recreations of the chiaroscuro stage sets of her (and maybe our) dreams.
Bourgeois draws heavily on her own history here, her overbearing father and his work in textiles, the English nanny taken as mistress, the assortment of family traumas, but her special skill is neither to demand the viewer responds to the particular narrative of her childhood nor expose the viewer to a set of objects so ambiguous that they could mean anything. The rich set of interpretative possibilities give a living vibrancy to Bourgeois’ work which others dealing with dreams, notably the surrealists, fail to attain.
Louise Bourgeois, Red Room (Parents)
Taken together, the suite of cells in rooms eight and nine of the exhibition demonstrate a tangled pattern of motifs and techniques that evoke a range of emotions relating to the dream state. Often the initial emotion is a negative one, of terror just passed, or terror awaiting. The sense of uneasy expectation as one witnesses the dormant giant spider hovering above its prey in Spider; the claustrophobia of the metal cage trapping the people and objects of Dangerous Passage; the obvious symbolism of blood red, seeping into objects and clothes in more than one of the cells. Elsewhere, there is sense of comfort lost and destroyed – the shards of shattered mirrors, the luxurious chairs fallen into disuse, spilling teardrops of gray stuffing or the patterned rugs worn threadbare. And while the profusion of glass bottles in the cells may suggest the presence of the softer, less roughened feminine form their thin fragility and, even more tellingly, their similarity in form to the ventouse cups (once used to invoke blisters in infected hospital patients, but also used in childbirth) invoke something much less comforting.
Louise Bourgeois, Ventouse
Above all, Bourgeois seems to be conjuring up the child like sense of frightened wonder caused by the stolen observation of a bedroom episode that makes no immediate sense. Red Room (Parents), in which the viewer has to enter a bedroom through a wooden spiral and only gets a restricted view of the bed via a mirror, in particular seems to be trying to conjure up memories of that Oedipal (or Electra-ian?) moment when the young child pulls open the bedroom door to be confronted by the confusing parental entanglement.
However, one should not let the Freudian weight of Bourgeois’ work obscure the artfulness of her oeuvre. She may be a thoroughly modern artist but she shares a love of materials that even the most churlish traditionalist could not deny her. Some good curatorial imagination meant that room seven demonstrated this beautifully; no two of the visible artworks exploited the same materials. There was the contrast of polished bronze sheen of Arch of Hysteria, located next to the solid granite of Ventouse; or alternatively the refined marble of Sleep II sitting on two rough wooden railway sleepers of outsized proportions. Equally, the creation of her cells has a baroque flourish of theatricality. Striking lighting, staged openings, an abundance of richly textured props. Just as the objects have a tactile beauty, so the visual beauty is cells revealed to the visitor with an array of dramatic gestures.
For all the Oedipal fear lurking in her cells, there is defiant pleasure-seeking in her manipulation of objects and materials. Her artworks may focus on mental terrors or psychological ambiguities but such passions are accompanied by an artistic delight in their form of expression. It is almost as if the aesthetic power of the Bourgeois oeuvre is the method for resolving, or at least attempting to resolve, the troublesome ideas which bubble furiously underneath – the pleasure of style overcoming the trauma of content.