Although still far too flu-struck to venture outside my bedroom, I finally gave in to the pull of the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Tate Modern. After hugging a leg of ‘Maman’, I entered the comforting warmth of the former powerstation to be greeted by a Tate employee with a leaflet bearing the print ‘Please watch your step in the Turbine Hall’. A few minutes later I found out that the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo had fabricated a giant crack through the Turbine Hall floor. I wasn’t sure if I was more impressed with the effect this audacious splitting of a building floor had on me or the fact that she had managed to get her proposal through the even more impenetrable walls of recent health and safety regulation. Fact is that it does look like angry Thor had burst open the floor with a thunderous bang! Even the carefully sculpted and secured insides of the crack do not diminish this sensual impact.
After this gripping example of casually/violently shaken foundations, I took the escalator to the fourth floor where some more sensually stimulating exhibits lurked in ten white, yet dark appearing rooms. The first thing that sprang to my mind about Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures was how astonishingly she manages to transform hard and shapeless materials (e.g. a chunk of marble) into something soft and fragile looking, to the point where you imagine them to be warm, wet, fleshy or velvety to the touch. The exhibition blurb put it as ‘showing the change from rigidity to pliability’. I always find it fascinating when artists make materials ‘do something’ they would not normally ‘do’: plaster being shaped into two hands that clutch each other. Apart from the ‘clutching plaster’ there was ‘jumping bronze’, ‘listening’ pricked up marble ears, and an invitingly cozy marble ‘fabric’. There were poured sculptures, too. One of them was described as having liquid dripping down from a pile of ‘eggs’. To me, it looked more like the ‘eggs’ were held up by the forces of the sinewy and muscular looking strands. It’s interesting how people’s perceptions of the same object can differ. Materials also seemed to be used by Bourgeois to question human attribute projections: ‘hard’ masculinity is portrayed with soft shapes, but through a hard material appearing soft…
The second thing I noticed was the descriptions that went along with the sculptures. They often appeared as if the writer was struggling with the shape of the object in a somewhat clumsy way, e.g. ‘[t]his work seems to be both an eye and a vagina. The two seem to be synthesized into a new and disturbing hybrid…’ Amusing & interesting were also responses such as: ‘strapped in plaster in its thick liquid state, the solidified work still seems to bubble or slop on the floor’. (Love the word ‘slop’!) Strangely enough, descriptions of her art in exhibition catalogues rarely talk about her use of materials and what they evoke. Instead, tehy seem to focus on her subject matter and its associated symbolism.
Other revelations were Louise Bourgeois’ experience of personal clothing as time travel and her remark on using materials ‘to pin down ideas’. Looking at something she has not worn for a longer time, she asks: ‘How did I feel when I wore that?’ Although I guess that people do travel through time through objects (or certain sensual impressions), I had never explicitly thought about it this way. Pinning down ideas materially is something I still want and need to think about!