Monday, 21 May 2012

Fashioning The Body Fantastic - "Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed" at The Freud Museum, London

The exhibition at The Freud Museum in Hampstead makes explicit, if it hadn't already been made clear, quite the extent to which Bourgeois's work is, for her, a form of psychoanalysis. Bourgeois returns to the themes of loss, abandonment, anger, and desire. Her work often attempts to disavow her position as a woman who uneasily combined being a mother and wife with being an artist and an individual agent. She returns to that which shames her, frightens, provokes and arouses her. Bourgeois's work displays a compulsive need to return to and explore ways in which bodies' exteriors can be refashioned by the interior struggles of the artist's unconscious, while also possessing an aesthetic of defamiliarisation that can be said to conform to André Breton's famous surrealist dictum, "Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all". The convulsion is a shock that arrests, attacks and violently stirs: it is an experience of the beautiful that shakes one up. As Hal Foster notes, "convulsive beauty is largely the aestheticisation of hysteria": Bourgeois is an artist of the hysterical par excellence, with works that lock together in uneasy communion feelings of pleasure in the beautiful, fraught with disgust and pleasure in the creation of fantasy projections.
Bourgeois's art offers us the experience of being moved sensually and provoked intellectually. One of the works on display, a pink knitted sculpture, gives the impression of a domestic toy doll made of well-worn, tactile-looking, stitched-together knitted wool. The feeling of familiarity evoked by the doll is quickly replaced by an unease: the figure is truncated, missing a leg and an arm. There is a knife instead of a head, adding to this uncanny (unheimlich) effect. The comforting homeliness of a doll is distorted into uncanniness, so that the viewer is confused by the instability of their perception: what was thought safe and secure is revealed as Other. The realisation that this knitted creature is hybrid, part doll part weapon sparks a curiosity that convulses within the mixed emotions of the viewer: along with shock and horror there is desire for one's curiosity to be sated. The head becomes the embodiment of a "sharp tongue": a mind that lacerates, a mind that hurts the body.
Bourgeois fashions hybrid creatures from the realm of the unconscious, embodiments of anxiety made flesh. These fantasy figures take up the binaries of sexuality and power, of male / female, active / passive and the homely / unheimlich of the feminine-inscribed domestic sphere, to turn the polarities of categorisation upside down. These series of fabric sculptures, made from salvaged clothes and fabrics collected from her family history and refashioned into objects of ambivalence (often aggression) against the prescribed roles of mother, comforter and home-maker, disrupt the homely and make it unheimlich. Mignon Nixon explains that Bourgeois's "use of reclaimed materials and simple construction techniques to fashion these life-sized figures implies...a domestic wartime economy of sorting and saving, but also a psychic economy of salvage, separation and loss". So her relationship to her work is cathartic: the construction of sculptures out of objects of the past is a way of overcoming or coming to terms with traumatic memories, in art that functions as a therapeutic "healing wound".
The Dangerous Obsession (2003), one of the few titled works on display, speaks of Bourgeois's ambivalence towards motherhood, a role that restricts her, not quite fitting. In the sculpture, the figure of the mother is held in a bell jar, sacred and untouchable, made of sombre navy blue sewn cloth, with head down in the classical pose of the Virgin Mother. She holds a large red glass ball (the baby), red for Bourgeois also has ambiguous connotations both representing blood and life, but also pain and desire. The glass ball stands in for the fragility of the baby, something that if mistreated could shatter. The flimsy stitched cloth body of the mother is not big enough or strong enough to hold this vulnerable body. The "dangerous obsession" is the mother's unpronounceable fear of failure. Failure at being a mother and at being a woman is a recurring motif of Bourgeois's. Another theme of the "return of the repressed" is a feeling of horror towards the female body, in particular a mingling of disgust and desire for the reproductive body. In many works, the torsos and bellies of her figures are covered in multiple protrusions like the pregnant woman in David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979), whose whole lower body is covered in the egg sacks of her cloned brood. The fear of having one's body taken over, being invaded by pregnancy, is something Bourgeois seems to both fear and desire, as all her sculptures of bodily protuberances are made so deliciously tactile, so pleasingly smooth and round.
In Bourgeois's The Couple from 2003, (not in the exhibition) the fantastic body is used to explore the desire for wilful loss of self in sexual union. The formless torsos of the pair form spirals that seem to undulate and pulse, twisting up to points rather than heads. The impression of rippling movement gives the joined torsos a sensual and erotic aspect. This couple is lost in an erotic union, an embrace that dissolves the boundaries between themselves. This is formlessness as metaphor for the self's abandonment of ego when in a happy communion with another person: a positive shattering of the limits that separate lovers. Writing on Bourgeois in her book Fantastic Realities, Mignon Nixon uses Freudian psychoanalysis as a framework for understanding the ways the internal psyche of an individual can shape the way they experience the world outside: the ways that subjective reality can be used to create art of the unconscious. Nixon states, "The internal world of the psyche derives its complex form from the incorporation and reshaping of objects under the impetus of the drives. An internal reality is being founded even as an external being explored." Thus, in The Couple, the body is being refashioned as fantastical by its desire for a connection with another human being.
Within Bourgeois's arsenal of drives, it is more often than not a masochistic desire that asserts a hold over the way desire functions in her work. It is a masochistic behaviour that leds to fantasies of destruction, to break up and shatter the rational boundaries of the body that is so heavily present in the work of Bourgeois; it seems to crave an alternative bodily reality for herself, or for the bodies of her desire. Such violence to the normalised figure of the body is also quite repressive, and the formless body can provide visibility for a feeling of internal dissociation of one's identity, acting as cathartic release. Leo Bersani remarks: "We desire what nearly shatters us, and the shattering experience is, it would seem,without any specific content - which may be our only way of saying that the experience cannot be said, that it belongs to the non-linguistic biology of human life". Our desires are things almost unrepresentable, therefore the fragmented, surreal and formless fantastical body gives expression (or form) to the abstract emotions. Louise Bourgeois's art as psychoanalysis, is that of a need not to actually hurt herself, by returning to sites of trauma, but as an attempt to understand one's compulsion, to feel, see and touch that which frightens, to neuter the threat, to make it visible, pleasurable and also amusing. Bourgeois also had an arch sense of humour, and hanging the phallic bronze Janus Fleuri sculpture above Freud's famous sofa in his study, proves that so too do the curators of this excellent exhibition.
(Works cited: Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art; Andre Breton, Nadja; Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty; Mignon Nixon, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art.)
The exhibition Louise Bourgeois: The Return Of The Repressed closes this coming Sunday, 27th May.

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