Monday, 7 January 2008

Somnambular Existence: Louise Bourgeois at the Tate

‘My art is a form of restoration’, she says, but this weekend, walking around the later works at the Tate, I was inclined to disagree with the Venerable Louise. While these sculptures and installations might be about memory, memory isn’t about restoration, at least not in the sense of an invisible repair of the worn and the tatty.

A moth-eaten brocade (to adapt Larkin), memory flaunts the traces of its own failure, avoids CGI seamlessness. Frayed edges and greasy blind-spots, a spot of cack-handed darning - such elements aren’t incidental to its form, but essential, constitutive. Bourgeois’ parents may have made a living by restoring antique furniture and tapestry, but the heavy armoires, paneled doors and wall-hangings that compose installations like Passage Dangereux don’t seem to have benefited. Shabbiness and decrepitude abound, and the overall effect of the penultimate room is that of a gallery of spalled mirrors.

In this sense Bourgeois’ later negotiations with memory are an exact reversal of her earlier tactics. Where the recent work emphasizes the trace, the indices of the traumatic Thing, the earlier work attempts the impossible task of a representation of the Thing itself.

A piece like Amoeba (1963-5, above) unnerves through its lunar formlessness, the sense of an only temporarily congealed emergence. Bourgeois’ latex polyp, budding directly as it does from the wall, suggests also a mischievous engagement with the gallery system itself, a breach in the fabric of the art-world-picture. The apotheosis of this stage of the career is probably Avenza Revisited II (1968-69, below), which takes the signature Lammela-like form out there into the realms of tentacled Lovecraftian hysteria.

Amoeba and the excrescent pieces that followed it marked a fundamental shift in Bourgeois’ work, away from the pedestrian animism and organo-surrealism of earlier work like the Personages series (1947-53). Very soon however, the amorphous quality of the new works is reified into a repertoire of standard gestures, and the radical uncanniness of the earlier pieces is lost. It’s in Room 7 that some of the most egregious examples are concentrated, and I was about to mooch disappointedly on when I decided to have one last circuit and saw this, glowing luridly in its own specially constructed space within the room, which meant I had overlooked it previously.

The Destruction of the Father (1974, above) was Bourgeois’s first foray into a more self-consciously theatrical mode of presentation, anticipating the large installations of the 90s. My reaction to it was marked by a kind of generic dissonance. Bourgeois describes the piece as a modernist, confessional version of the Freudian myth of the primal horde: a mother and her daughters have rounded off Sunday lunch by killing and cannibalizing the father. At the same time the letter-box presentation of the piece alludes to nineteenth-century stereoscopes and panoramas, and their successor the cinema, charging the piece, for me, with a pop-cultural energy at odds with the high seriousness. As I looked at it I felt a vertiginous switchback between these two aspects, one second seeing it as a visceral response to psychic pain, and the next as a pulp vision of a fantasy landscape, a Neanderthal burial chamber on the dark side of the moon.

The penultimate room contains the large installations that have made Bourgeois’ name internationally over the last two decades. Rather than Lacan, it was Walter Benjamin who came to mind as I wandered around the large, darkened space, filled with six installations. ‘Arcades are houses or passages having no outside – like the dream’, Benjamin writes, and the effect wandering among these architectural pieces contained inside one larger room is similarly disconcerting. One installation is, as I have already mentioned, actually named Passages Dangereux, and Benjamin’s description of the Parisian Passagen captures exactly Bourgeois’ choice and configuration of materials: ‘against the armature of glass and iron, upholstery offers resistance with its textiles’. Indeed the dream-life of objects that is Benjamin’s Arcades Project contains lists which could easily be a description of the elements contained in one of Passages’ Dangereux’s many alcoves: ‘the birdseed in the fixative pan, the flower seeds beside the binoculars, the broken screw atop the musical score, and the revolver above the goldfish bowl’’.

For Benjamin the nineteenth-century interior was the hastily erected redoubt of the humanist individual, a shell where the Parisian middle-class attempted to sustain the illusion of identity through the accumulations of objects and the obsessive registration of the traces of human existence. It is in pursuit of latter that soft furnishings and above all the uterine glow of red plush become the key material in interior decoration. During the Second Empire the raised nap of a cushion, or the raked imprint of fingers on a velvet curtain rendered each room an endlessly changing archive of the palpable, a machine for the production of human presence.

In Bourgeois’ late installations this machine is rigorously disabled, dismantled and retooled so as to begin functioning in a new and perverse manner. The undeniable sense of a presence that the best of these installations generate is thus a inhuman rather than human one. Such traces as there are, in the subtly foregrounded scars and scrapes on a door, or the threadbare patches on a wall-hanging, are indices of a brooding, massive but excarnate Real. As Baudelaire puts it of his ideal room in Le Spleen de Paris, ‘Every piece of furniture is of an elongated form, languid and prostrate, and seems to be dreaming – endowed, one would say, with a somnambular existence, like minerals and plants’ .

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