Don’t you cut your lunch up when you’re ready to eat it?

Linda Nochlin

  • Louise Bourgeois’s ‘Spider’: The Architecture of Art-Writing by Mieke Bal
    Chicago, 134 pp, £19.00, November 2001, ISBN 0 226 03575 1

Louise Bourgeois is one of the two pre-eminent sculptors working today; the other is Richard Serra, whose sculpture – single-minded, monolithic, public – offers the most striking contrast to hers in both form and content. Serra is Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog exemplified in heavy metal: Louise Bourgeois is the fox, an artist of many devices, to borrow a Homeric epithet which suits her perfectly. Bourgeois’s career is marked by an almost infinite variety, ranging from direct carving, primitivism and elegant surfaces in the work of the late 1940s and early 1950s – ‘Brancusi meets Giacometti meets Arp meets a ghostly family in a Dogon village,’ as Anne Wagner has put it – to the deliberately regressive work of the 1960s: muddy twists of plaster or latex, reminiscent of entrails, faeces or other bodily excrescences. These in turn led to the production of such icons of the informe as Fillette of about 1968, a ‘two-foot-long latex phallus hung from a hook’, in the words of Mignon Nixon writing in October, and the exemplary rough-surfaced, double-headed (or double-buttocked or breasted) Janus fleuri, Surrealist in its metamorphic perversity but classical in its reference and its bronze symmetry.

In the 1990s, Bourgeois turned to work as large-scale as Serra’s: for example, the enormous, double-cylindered, overtly phallic Twosome of 1991, which kept pumping away suggestively in the company of Courbet’s L’Origine du monde at the entrance to the Beaubourg Féminin/Masculin show ten years ago, promising a sexual excess which failed to materialise in the exhibition as a whole. In addition, Bourgeois has participated in performance pieces and created installations, like the complex, massive yet fragile architectonic series Cells, which proliferated in the 1990s. In her most recent show in New York, stuffed dolls hang mid-air in sexually explicit positions, and her own early work is parodied with marvellous wit in the form of beautifully executed mattress-ticking and other stuffed cloth totems, abject re-creations of primitivist pieces from the beginning of her career.

There don’t seem to be enough categories or words to account for the entirety of the artist’s oeuvre, and, in my case, scarcely enough breath to account for the variety of readings this provocative and suggestive work has engendered (Bourgeois herself is unusually generous in providing biographical if enigmatic clues to their meaning), especially the rich variety of feminist, or at least psychosexual, interpretations, ranging from the pioneering texts of Lucy Lippard in the 1970s, Rosalind Krauss’s brilliant Kleinian reading in Bachelors, and continuing with Griselda Pollock, Briony Fer, Mignon Nixon, Anne Wagner and Alex Potts in a special issue of the Oxford Art Journal (22 February 1999) devoted to the artist.

At the same time, Bourgeois has provided herself with a textual persona as tantalising and contradictory as her sculptural work: indeed, the artist’s writing constitutes an important part of her creative production. ‘I am my work. I am not what I am as a person,’ she declares near the beginning of Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father, a collection of her writings and interviews from 1923 to 1997. She repeats this assertion in various forms, revealing herself as both hostile to any form of intrusion on her privacy yet anxious to disclose elements of her personal history. Indeed, some details of her family story appear and reappear with obsessive repetition in the numerous interviews she has given: the oppressive macho father; the supportive, hardworking mother; the nanny who became her father’s mistress; the ‘superfluous’ role of the girl child within the French family structure; the importance of the tapestry-restoration studio run by her parents in the suburbs of Paris where she grew up; the liberating effects of emigration to the United States.

One theme in particular rings out with a special resonance: the role of rage in female artistic creation. It is a subject that has been little examined and not often admitted, but Louise Bourgeois never forgets the productive power of anger. ‘I use anger and it is a raw emotion,’ she declares. ‘It is my way of defending myself.’ Indeed, she credits her childhood hatred of her nanny (her father’s mistress) with being a source of her later creative powers: ‘The motivation for the work is a negative reaction against her . . . It shows that it is really the anger that makes me work.’ Even more important to Bourgeois – or, more accurately, the persona Bourgeois has created through her text – is the transformation of this primal rage in the work of art. ‘The motivation may be murderous,’ she asserts, ‘but the form must be absolutely strict and pure.’

Nowhere is this paradoxical combination of uncontrolled rage and self-conscious formal absorption better captured than in the 1993 documentary film about Bourgeois directed by Nigel Finch for Arena Films. It is in fact a collaborative performance piece staged by Bourgeois and the director which successfully enacts the antagonism between interviewer and interviewee characteristic of Bourgeois’s encounters with the investigative Other. Finch has staged this as a sort of visual and intellectual bullfight. In one sequence, Bourgeois destroys a ceramic vase on camera and stamps on the fragments to demonstrate her frustration, the rage her father’s devastating arguments produced in her. Certainly, this is a destructive act. Yet it might also be considered a symbolic reference to an important aspect of her work, in which the fragment has a positive significance: it is not just the by-product of frustration. Individual human parts – an arm, a leg, an ear quite realistically carved, emerging, with Rodinesque specificity from the rough matière of the sculptured form – play an important expressive role in many of her works. ‘Cutting – it means being in total control. Accepting the total control of whatever happens and it is quite aggressive.’ When, in the film, she is challenged to justify the violent implications of cutting in Cell (Arch of Hysteria) – a male body is bent back like a bow, with arms and head amputated – she ripostes with an example from the most mundane reality: ‘Don’t you cut your lunch up when you’re ready to eat it? Is that a crime?’

Self-contradiction looms large in Bourgeois’s vision of herself. In the well-known photograph of the artist by Robert Mapplethorpe, best understood as a collaborative effort, she is portrayed wearing a favourite monkey-skin coat and carrying what appears to be a large sculptured phallus under her arm. ‘I counted on what I brought: namely, the coat and the phallus,’ she told an interviewer. Yet when the same interviewer asked why she had chosen to be depicted holding a large phallus, Bourgeois replied: ‘It is not a phallus. This is what people say and what it is is completely different . . . The piece is called Fillette. Fillette means une petite fille. If you want to indulge in interpretation you could say that I brought a little Louise . . . it gave me security.’ Bourgeois has a big grin on her face in this photograph: ‘because I knew what people were going to say.’ Obviously, the meaning of a given piece may change as its context changes: what might (with difficulty) be read in one situation as a little girl may in another be read as a very big penis. And both interpretations are valid: the little girl grows up to be the famous artist who possesses that illusory but confrontational symbol of male power, the phallus. But she can also laugh at herself for possessing it. Bourgeois warns against taking what she says literally. ‘I never talk literally. Never, never, never. You do not get anywhere by being literal, except to be puny. You have to use analogy and interpretation and leaps of all kinds.’

Analogy, interpretation, ‘leaps of all kinds’. These words might be said to set the stage for Mieke Bal’s Louise Bourgeois’s ‘Spider’: The Architecture of Art-Writing, which first saw the light as an article in the special issue of the Oxford Art Journal focused on Bourgeois. It is devoted to a single work, but an extraordinarily complex and many-sided one, an installation which cross-references both the Cell series, consisting of about forty highly evocative, semi-architectural installations, and the series of works in a variety of media, large and small, dedicated to the theme of the spider. Like the spider, Bal draws us into her web right from the start: ‘Are they sculptures?’ she asks. ‘Installations? Buildings? All and none. Triggers of fantasy and strong statements on art, time, and individual and communal life, Louise Bourgeois’s series Cells folds such categorical denominations of media and genre into one another.’ Bal takes Spider, a work of 1997, as a case in point, for as architecture, sculpture and a kind of narrative, it ‘overcomes the boundaries that usually delimit and confine the different arts’. But Bal’s project is even more complicated than this first statement of it would suggest. For she is going to make her essay on Spider not merely a story about a work of art, however complex, but at the same time an examination of the work as both an object and subject of art-writing – of art history and art criticism. Bal is not just looking at Spider, but watching herself look at, think and write about it – and criticising other critics for not seeing in it what she does.

She is particularly hostile to other writers’ reliance on narrative: ‘The culture within which art functions today is suffering from an overdose of narrativity.’ She finds a solution of sorts to the problem in Bourgeois’s work, a realm in which ‘sculpture becomes architecture and architecture sculpture,’ in which ‘narrative becomes a tool, not a meaning; a mediator, not a solution; a participant, not an outsider.’ Do you understand what she means? Well, I don’t, at least not exactly, but I am willing to go on, to pursue the issue further. And it is worth going on, because the next chapter, ‘Description Shipwrecked’, is a marvellous, if relentless, description of the piece, a description that, in its very excessiveness, reveals the limits of description itself. It is, in Bal’s terms, provisional and accompanied by excellent photographic details of the piece, details absolutely necessary to Bal’s argument/description: ‘pieces of bone’ inserted in the wire mesh of the cage-like structure, or ‘three glass jars’, or ‘eggs in a basket’ provide visual data to support Bal’s increasingly difficult and theoretical reading, and her analysis of this reading. I found myself building up resistance as I went along. There is something authoritarian about a writer who purports to leave herself open to new, more accurate readings of a work and then refuses to allow her fellow critics, much less the reader, to participate. The snares of simple-minded narrative are everywhere, in Bal’s view, and certainly, Bourgeois lays them out for the unsuspecting viewer, at the same time as depriving her of the pleasures of narrative closure. Yet surely, in the case of a work as inscrutable and suggestive as Spider, there are many paths to the meaning of the piece, which is deliberately unstable in any event.

What are we confronted with? A large steel-mesh cylindrical structure with an open door and a large armchair in the centre, hung in its interior with a variety of small objects – empty perfume bottles, a watch – decorated with old tapestry fragments, and overarched by an enormous, long-legged spider, whose eggs are encased in a basket in the centre of the ceiling of the structure. Obviously, as Bal and others have pointed out, this ‘cell’ cannot be assimilated either to the realm of sculpture or to that of architecture – quite apart from the fact that two-dimensional, painting-like work, in the form of tapestry, is essential to it. It’s hard, if not impossible, to avoid making ‘sense’ (in the most fluid and partial sense of the term) out of the work without resorting to biography (Bourgeois has, after all, told us about her childhood), psychoanalysis, reference to past art and to the artist’s own previous work, and to our own imaginative insights. Yet Bal, intent on her inscrutable theoretical project, will have little or none of these more conventional strategies. She goes to considerable lengths, for instance, to prevent us from reading the hole cut into the body of one of the male figures in a tapestry fragment as a reference to castration (detail: putto with genitals cut out); she produces a long-winded, obscurantist disquisition on rhetorical strategies, metonymy and synecdoche, and the way the hole lets us see through rather than look at the representational figure. The language becomes so prolix, the thought processes so tangled that the suggestive power of the revelation is lost in the meshes of her rhetoric. This happens time and again in Louise Bourgeois’s ‘Spider’. The serious reader would be well advised to take a look at the shorter and more easily understood version which appeared in the Oxford Art Journal before taking on the book, although the illustrations here are much better: in colour and more of them.

Bal is perhaps most successful when she confronts the potent references to the past, particularly the Baroque past, in this work and many others in Bourgeois’s oeuvre, although here, too, the language seems unnecessarily convoluted and, well, baroque. Bernini is seen as the key figure in the artist’s engagement with past art. For Bal, this is an ahistorical gesture which she calls ‘beckoning Bernini’ rather than, in more conventional terms, Bernini’s influence. She correctly points to the frequent references to the Baroque throughout Bourgeois’s career, in the ‘humorously antiphallic’ Cumul I of 1969, which ‘invokes both male and female bodily productivity in such a way that all are invited to participate, according to one’s desires and possibilities’, or Blind Man’s Buff, a work in marble of 1984, with its vertical clutch of penis or breast-like protrusions, which Bal characterises as ‘luscious, deeply baroque sculpture’ and which ‘also carries a friendly androgyny that plays with the cultural veneration for the icon of the phallus, winking and smiling almost tenderly at the icon’s rigid need to show itself upright’. Bourgeois herself was aware of this Baroque, Bernini-esque connection. She created a sculpture called Baroque in 1970, and an explicit Homage to Bernini, in bronze, in 1967, which Bal sees as a prototype of the later Cells, and of Spider specifically. Bal considers Spider a critical commentary on three of Bernini’s most overtly narrative sculptures: Apollo and Daphne, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, and in the case of the latter, the impact of the dynamic folds of marble on Bourgeois’s most Bernini-esque work, the Femme-Maison of 1983, in which the ‘house’ itself ‘voluptuously sinks into a royal robe of folds’. Yet it’s indicative of Bal’s inability (or refusal) to see the obvious that she neglects what to me seems the most overt reference to Bernini and the Baroque in Spider, which is its deliberate evocation of the baldaquin, part architecture, part sculpture, over the high altar of St Peter’s – in both there is the same protective arching of dynamic legs over a significant central space.

In a way, Bal is the ideal writer about Bourgeois: in both, excess is the name of the game. Bal’s stylistic exuberance may at times be maddening and self-indulgent, but at others it is invigorating and revelatory. In the same way that much of Bourgeois’s work can be read as a not so subtle attack on the verities of sculptural Modernism, so Bal’s discourse can be understood as a continuous and often salutary thrust against establishment art history, even though she occasionally has to construct straw men (and women) to justify her position.