Exhibition Review | Louise Bourgeois and Australia. Reviewed by Anthony White

Louise Bourgeois and Australia

Anthony White

Femme Maison (2001) Picture: Christopher Burke

Louise Bourgeois: Late Works until March 11 2013 and Louise Bourgeois and Australian Artists until April 14 2013 at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen.

In the current exhibitions at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Louise Bourgeois: Late Works and Louise Bourgeois and Australian Artists, a selection of late works by the French-born artist are presented in a pair of displays, one featuring only Bourgeois’ works and the other presenting them beside paintings, sculptures and drawings by modern and contemporary Australian artists. There are many reasons to celebrate the work of Louise Bourgeois at this particular time and in this specific place. Her powerfully moving works have cemented her place in the canon of significant twentieth and twenty-first century artists, not least of all in Australia because of the strong affinities between the artist’s work and that of several painters and sculptors working in this country. Bourgeois’ extraordinary ability to remain contemporary for more than half a decade of sustained practice can be attributed to her fascinating and disturbing presentation of the human body and the way in which her work forges connections between our physical life as embodied beings and psychological currents which run well below the surface of everyday existence. This exhibition, which presents several later works that demonstrate just how consistently the artist was able to continue working on this theme, also shows how Australian artists responded to and incorporated her work into their own thinking and making.

Louise Bourgeois was born in 1911 in Paris. Her parents worked as tapestry repairers and there is evidence of their industry in many of the pieces shown in the exhibition, where portions of tapestry form parts of the bodies and faces of her figurative sculptures. As is often noted, Bourgeois’ home life was not entirely happy due to her father’s love affair with the family’s governess, an event which caused the young Bourgeois much pain and about which, later in life, she spoke about with considerable grief. Although many interpretations of the artist’s work, including Bourgeois’ own, trace much of the meaning of her work back to these earlier personal experiences, the meaning of her drawings, paintings and sculptures go far beyond the author’s biography. This tendency to explain all of her work in terms of her personal experiences rather than broader social, artistic or historical currents can be seen as a way as avoiding some of the broader issues that Bourgeois work touches upon. For example, I cannot help seeing her suspended, limbless bodies and geometric cage-like cells and their deformed inhabitants—some important and impressive examples of which are exhibited at the Heide show—as a reference to atrocities, such as the systematic tortures carried out at Abu Graib. Perhaps one of the broader points, then, made in her work is that the state-sponsored terror that we abhor and yet become complicit in involuntarily and the domestic psychological abuse that lurks beneath the surface in so many households have more in common than we would like to admit.

What is certainly uncontestable in Bourgeois’ work is the way in which she challenged conventional notions of identity—as a female artist in an avant-garde world controlled largely by men—but also through her non-naturalistic representation of the human body, a representation that breaks down the distinction between the body and the object and deeply troubles our inherited concepts of gender identity. It is for this reason, among many others, that she has been such a source of inspiration for many other artists. Julie Ewington explores why this should be particularly the case for Australian artists in her very interesting essay for the exhibition catalogue.

When Bourgeois first began practicing as an artist, the surrealist movement led by André Breton had overturned several conventions of painting and sculpture in their efforts to give voice to the subconscious mind. In 1936, after leaving the family home, Bourgeois moved to Paris to live in the same building where Breton would later run an art gallery. Even though Breton declined Bourgeois’ request to be involved in the gallery’s exhibition program, she would be significantly affected by surrealism. This was presumably reinforced by her move to New York in 1938 where the Surrealists would soon migrate to escape the war. It seemed that rather than following the surrealists Bourgeois was leading them, at least in her choice of location. From an early stage, it was clear that Bourgeois was not a conventional surrealist. For example, the Femme Maison series, painted in 1945-47, shows a series of women with houses in place of heads. These non-naturalistic works showing disjunctive bodies bear a visual resemblance to surrealist genre of the ‘Exquisite Corpse’, though the latter were multi-author works and Bourgeois’ created hers alone. But they also suggest that the self is somehow connected to architecture, that the buildings we dwell in at some level become who we are. Compare these to works by the male surrealists, for example, Andre Masson’s Mannequin of 1937. Here Masson shows the gagged and imprisoned woman as an effigy, an empty symbol of male desires and fantasies. Instead of covering the genitals to increase eroticism, as in Masson’s sculpture, Bourgeois’ figures expose theirs. And there is more activity going on, Bourgeois’ figures don’t seem lifeless but engaged, interacting with each other or greeting the viewer. Many of these same qualities are strongly evident in the sculptures in the Heide exhibition such as Femme Maison of 2001 (above). Unlike the clichéd illusion encountered in erotic art and advertising wherein a woman’s naked body is presented as a landscape to be explored and within whose curves a dwelling might nestle, here the house, made of the same fluffy stuff as the limbless torso, appears as an outgrowth of the body itself rather than a space of inhabitation. We might see this series as a feminist updating of the surrealist canon, a woman speaking within the surrealist idiom, but moving beyond conventional surrealist sexuality.

The next major series of sculptures produced by Bourgeois are referred to collectively as personages, either individualised with names like Friendly Evidence or, simply, Untitled . There are obvious references to what in the 1940s was still called Primitive Art. Bourgeois borrowed the language of African art to depart from Western traditions of realism, but at the same time used African art to suggest that the figures had a kind of human or animal presence. One of the other ways in which she achieved this presence was by removing the base from her sculptures. For centuries sculptures had always been exhibited on a substantial base or pedestal. Gradually during the twentieth century this idea had been abandoned, bringing the work closer to the viewer to destroy its ‘aura’, Constantin Brancusi’s works are famous examples of this. Although Bourgeois’ works are rarely entirely without a base, in that they have small panels underneath them, this is the bare minimum required to prevent them from falling over. This in turn challenges the viewer to come to terms with the object not as an ethereal presence in a separate, aesthetic sphere, but rather directly as an interlocutor on a shared stage. Bourgeois’ sculptures were originally installed in a very precarious way, top heavy and balancing on sharp tips, apparently threatening to fall over. Untitled 2001 and Untitled 2005, sculptures from her later period included in the Heide exhibition, recall the same vaguely figural and teetering quality of her earlier works. As a result, the viewer’s sense of their own identity with regard to the sculpture is no longer that of the secure, distanced observer—rather they interact with the works on a level playing field. Moreover, the works themselves were to be installed following principles of contingency and changeability, as she explained to the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1951 when he acquired Sleeping Figure: “The statue should be made to function in different surroundings… sometimes in a dark place, sometimes in direct… light, sometimes on a crowded floor sometimes in solitude, sometimes standing, sometimes resting horizontally.” By abdicating control over the placement, the viewer’s interaction, and therefore the interpretation of the work, Bourgeois showed her disdain for the conventionally static monument and the traditional dignity and sense of mastery attributed to the artist. This is all the more noticeable in several suspended works in this exhibition from the later period of Bourgeois’ career, which slowly turn in space in response to the ambient conditions and to human presence in the room.

In the 1960s Bourgeois shifted to a different kind of sculpture and a different conception of the body. She began to create works that show just body parts, rather than an entire body, for example, in Clutching, which looks like intestines coiled up. Or Trani Episode which shows two oval shaped forms that seem to be a cross between a penis and a breast. Janus Fleuri of 1968 again repeats the idea of penis and breast having something in common. Echoes of this aspect of Bourgeois’ work can be seen in a work in the Heide exhibition such as Untitled 1998, in fabric, steel and rubber, with its steampunk-like fetishism in which breasts are exchangeable for buttocks or testicles.

To understand the meaning of these works it helps to understand the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. For Freud the awareness of sexual difference, represented visually by the absence or presence of the penis, was a key moment in childhood development. For the young male child, Freud argued, an awareness of this difference introduces the concept that he now cannot merge with the mother in a symbiotic way due to a perceived fear of castration by the father. The payoff is that the child can thereby enter society by abandoning incestual drives. Lacan takes this Oedipal scenario further and argues that this principle of sexual difference, a principle he calls ‘the phallus’, structures the very language that we speak and the meanings that we make. It allows us to move from the psychic realm of the imaginary into the social realm of the symbolic. He calls the phallus the ‘master signifier’. This theory, which argues that our identity is a product of language rather than the other way round, has been described by feminists as a ‘phallocentric’ account of gender, psyche and society.

These theories are significant for our interpretation of Bourgeois’ Untitled 1998. With its apparent interchangeability between male and female body parts, it becomes clear that we are dealing with an object which harks back to a period before the fact of sexual difference, as theorised by Freud and Lacan, has become relevant. The fused breasts-buttocks-testicles point to a psychic order completely different to that phallocentric theory spelled out in classic psychoanalysis, which had so motivated the early surrealists. In the photograph of Bourgeois by Robert Mapplethorpe, which features in the Heide catalogue, you see the artist grasping a sculpture that, although it is named Fillette, or little girl, is unmistakably in the shape of a penis. Bourgeois argued that she brought this along to the session to “protect” herself from the photographer, of whom she was wary, although her expression exudes confidence, a wicked kind of humour. It is this extraordinary ambivalence that pervades all of Bourgeois’ work and which makes it so powerful; the sculptures and drawings stir the inner depths of our psyches, evoking both murderous fantasies and erotic scenarios which can never see the light of day.

Louise Bourgeois 1982, printed 1991, Robert Mapplethorpe via tate.org.uk

It is this curious quality of the artist’s work—its ability to both shock the viewer with its frankness while at the same time evoking a shadowy realm of only half-conscious desires—which is present in the best examples of the Australian art on show here. Stand out examples are the works of Pat Brassington, Brent Harris, Joy Hester, and Heather B. Swann, all of whose work exudes this mysterious and enigmatic power. The brilliant idea underpinning this exhibition, that of showing Bourgeois alongside Australian art, is best displayed in the work of these artists, and after seeing the Heide show it is difficult to look at the Australian artists’ work in quite the same way as before. It is also interesting to note the distance between their work and that of Bourgeois; as the exhibition makes clear it is not a question of morphological similarity and of Australian artists’ being passively influenced by Bourgeois, but rather of parallels and of an awareness that artists from different countries, working in different times and places, are often mining similar veins in their work, whether or not they are aware of it. As an example of cross-cultural curatorship the Heide exhibition is a model for others to follow in exploring the rich artistic networks between Australian and international art.

© Anthony White 2013

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