Louise Bourgeois. Maman: From the Outside In
This article situates Maman (1999, Steel and Marble 9.2 x 8.91 x 10.23 m) (Fig 1) by Louise Bourgeois, in the context of an object-based installation-space. My argument is that Maman, both in its making and thinking, shifts terrain between being a theoretical installation, a work that promotes theory about installation-space; and Bourgeois’s personal transitional space, a space that helps Bourgeois come to terms with the complex relationship she has with her mother. Generally speaking, attempts to position Bourgeois’s work in art-historical order or in the context of art movements, such as Formalism, Expressionism or Surrealism, has proved notoriously difficult, or even ‘irrelevant’, according to Lucy Lippard (Lippard 1975 p.27). I agree with Adrian Rifkin and suggest her work embodies and points towards what could be called ‘modernism’s excess’ (Rifkin 1996 p.31). This means the narratives that lie outside canonical thinking and those spaces shaped outside
conventional teleologies that ‘slip between’ the Modernist/Postmodernist discourse (Deepwell 1996 p.42). However, where most writers do converge is in the belief that her work relates in some way to the body, (Robinson 1996 p.21) either spatially, metaphorically or symbolically. Therefore, situated within a psychoanalytical framework, this paper argues that in Maman’s case, the body is both the viewer’s, in relation to the installation-space, and the architectural body of a gigantic spider acting as Bourgeois’s transitional space. Maman as an installation-space is doing two things; firstly, it asks the viewer to question their own visuality, how they look, see, or are blind to what is around them; and secondly, it acts as Bourgeois’s personal exploration of her relationship with her mother, with which the viewer may empathise. The theme that links these two ideas is the viewer’s physical and conceptual movement through the installation-space. Firstly, as a viewing
subject, caught in a temporal, emotional and spatial encounter and secondly, the viewer’s movement conceptually inside, to Maman’s psychic space where speculative theories can occur as to why Bourgeois created such an arena. The arguments are made in direct response to my experience of the space at the inaugural exhibition of Tate Modern in 2000. As I entered the Turbine Hall, I became charged by a palpable energy that emanated from the gigantic spider and was immediately intrigued as to how and why Bourgeois had created such an electrical space that could effect on such a visceral level. From that point, I was willingly caught in her conceptual web.
Entering the installation-space.
Generally speaking spiders are intensely figurative and alarmingly strong in their effect on people. They can evoke potent but differing emotions, from childhood curiosity and playfulness, to terror and immobilised fear. My art historian friend and I felt these differing and powerful extremes when we first encountered Maman. The following descriptions try to capture the pre-analytical ‘free associations’ and lure of the experience, similar to Freud’s ‘secondary elaboration’ that claims to inform any recounting of a dream that is given after awaking from the dream (Bal 1999 p.106).
Walking down the ramp I remember feeling charged by the whole arena of the monumental spider. I stopped, looked around and watched the whole space. During that time I experienced a heightened sensory awareness and immediacy to everything; the hum of the generator next door; the change in lighting from daylight to electrical; the palpable anticipation amongst people. As I moved towards the escalator and ascended, the gigantic spider went out of view. Such was my engagement with the spider and her space that I remember feeling a slight anxiety, as a child would, if they could not see their mother. But on arriving at the legs of the monumental spider, that momentary feeling of being out of reach was replaced with security and admiration. I was aware of being beside something hugely important. All I could do was move around this magnificent structure with the greatest of respect. On circumventing its huge circular scale I recall waiting on the periphery for a moment as if on the
outside of a sacred space and prohibited entry. Eventually I did enter its architecturally protective legs and looked up to see that she was carrying beautifully shaped white marble eggs (Fig. 2) and thoughts of the mythical ‘Great Mother’ creator of life entered my mind (Morris, Warner, Hillyard 2000 p.58). Standing inside her architectural space I felt a strong, safe, maternal presence, a positive energy directed on me like a moment’s revelation.
In complete contrast to my spiritual epiphany, my friend, an arachnophobic, entered Tate Modern from the side entrance and had the petrifying experience of seeing a gigantic spider suddenly pounce out at her as she came around the gallery wall. All previous fearful thoughts and memories of spiders flooded her brain. Now confronted by the huge predator she felt an almighty dread and immediately panicked. Switching to survival mode her only thought was to escape. With adrenalin rushing through her body and a ‘stinging tingling’ in her lips she quickly looked for a door to go through so that she could get away from its intimidating predatorial stance. She was very frightened by the possibility of being chased by its ‘threatening legs’ that could run faster than her in ‘any direction’ it chooses; she pointed out that ‘we only have two legs, they have eight’.
What is interesting about our experiences is that both of us became activated in Bourgeois’s installation space by our own thoughts and memories. My friend’s were deathly, foreboding and fearful and mine were not specifically about spiders at all, but were inquisitive, safe, maternal and enriching thoughts. The critic Robert Morgan writes that although the spider is considered the ultimate ‘threatening symbol’, viewers are amazed at their own responses to Maman and find it ‘alluring’, ‘mysteriously comforting’ and ‘humorous’ (Morgan 2002 p.70). He says that Bourgeois dares to present deeply held fears, in a new context, which allows them ventilation. These deeply held fears of spiders go back to the ancient myths where they are both protectors and predators associated with fertility, magic and witchcraft (Walker 1996 p. 56). Primo Levi writes in The Fear Of Spiders that ‘The spider is the enemy mother who envelops and encompasses, who wants to make us re-enter the
womb from which we have issued, bind us tightly to take us back to the impotence of infancy’ (Morris, Warner, Hillyard 2000 p.58). J. R. Tolkin’s Lord of the Rings describes the female spider Shelob, as one who grows fat on the blood of all living things and vomits up darkness (Morris, Warner, Hillyard 2000 p.64). These seemingly irrational fears are well founded, as spiders pounce, poison, prey on their own kind and scavenge the remains of their male partner once copulation is over (Jones 1986 pp.12-15).
With such vile characteristics, why did Bourgeois choose the spider as a symbol of the mother’ Her answer is in an ode to her mother, in which she wrote, ‘my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.321). As early as 1948 in a series of prints Arraignee (Spider) (Fig. 3) she talks favourably about the ‘crafty spider’, who is her ‘friend’ (Wye, Smith 1994 p. l64). This theme is taken up and greatly explored between 1986 and 2000 when she drew, wrote and created thirty large installation pieces of spiders (Fig. 4). Most are between one metre and two metres tall, but Maman is the largest, measuring ten metres tall. Bourgeois’s transformation of her mother into a spider is reminiscent of Arachne’s metamorphosis (Fig. 5). Arachne, a young woman from Lydia, famed for her skill of weaving, rashly challenged Minerva, the goddess of
wisdom, to a contest. Arachne wove a cloth depicting the loves of the gods of Olympus, which enraged Minerva, so much so that she tore it to pieces. Arachne overcome by Minerva’s wrath hanged herself, but was spared from death by the goddess, who changed her into a spider to forever toil and weave (Hall 1974 p. 30).
The spider metonymically calls on the richly layered theme of weaving, a subject which leads back to Bourgeois’s childhood where, aged 11, she helped her parents restore tapestries in a workshop in Choisy-le-Roi, near Paris. Such are the memories of this time that the subjects of weaving, spinning, and movement continually articulate Bourgeois’s work. For example, she says her drawings are ‘a secretion like a thread in a spider’s web’ (Morris et al 2000 p.17) and her many spiral forms are a ‘study of the self’ (Morris et al 2000 p.17). There is a strong sense in Bourgeois’s work that weaving is linked to creation itself, as in the three Fates of Greek cosmology who wind, spin and cut the thread of life. In Homer’s Iliad, Helen too, weaves her own destiny into her web in the corner of her room and in the Odyssey, Penelope weaves the cloth by day and un-picks the cloth by night (Morris et al 2000 p.17). The philosopher Adriana Cavarero made an interesting observation
about Penelope’s act of weaving. The myth sees Penelope as famous for her un-weaving, however, Cavarero sees it differently, she sees Penelope as a weaver of body and soul, one who inter-weaves the act of thinking with bodilyness, and one who connects the intellectual plane with the sensory plane (Morris et al 2000 p.30). I too suggest Bourgeois is like Penelope and throughout the installation space she weaves together the viewer’s intellectual thoughts with their bodily feelings.
Maman as a Theoretical Installation.
In this chapter I will explain my theory about Maman as a theoretical installation and why I suggest that Bourgeois created the installation-space to question our notions of vision and visuality. The powerfully charged viewing that the spectator experiences in the installation-space, is derived from Bourgeois’s ability to interplay her personal exploration of her relationship with her mother, with an extreme attentiveness to the psychodynamics of viewing. For some artists, these two levels are incompatible, however, Bourgeois sees ‘no conflict whatsoever’ (Bernadac &Obrist 1998 p.86). In positioning her gigantic spider on the gallery of the Turbine Hall, Bourgeois created an installation that extended and occupied the whole space. Her claimed space is then activated by the viewer when they enter. Julie Reiss, in her book on installation art, stipulates specific criteria necessary for the classification of an installation-space. Firstly, the work should be made in
consideration to its site; it should be exhibited in a gallery space; the artist should treat the space as a single situation; and lastly, the spectator is regarded as integral to the completion of the work (Reiss 2000 p. xiii). In contrast, and following Kaprow’s lead, many critics see the only essential requirement of an installation is for the space to be large enough to move around. Miwon Kwon takes the idea of movement and sees an installation as ‘dissipated into a cultural space’ incorporating the body’s movement through time (Osborne 2001 p.153). A process, she argues, that radically re-structures the viewer’s experience from ‘the old Cartesian model, to a phenomenological one of lived bodily experience’ (Bird 2001 p.1). Influenced by these models, I would like to create the term theoretical installation, to describe more completely, what I suggest Bourgeois’s space articulates. The term means that Maman; in its conception as a visual medium; the materials used in
its making; its architectural shape; its site-specificity and impact on the viewer; is self-reflexive, in that it promotes critical artistic thought about itself as an installation-space. My idea of defining Maman as a theoretical installation is informed by Victor Stoichita’s meta-painting term theoretical object. Stoichita sees the painting as a self-aware image, whose text incorporates an outside and an inside narrative, and within these realms, theory about art is evoked (Stoichita 1997 p.3). Bourgeois’s installation operates similarly as it too is self-reflexive in that it offers its own artistic and visual medium which articulates thought about installation-space. This theoretical stance does not in any way reduce the impact of the installation on a visceral level. Bourgeois sees no conflict between intellect and emotion, she, like Penelope, weaves the two together effortlessly.
A self-reflexive installation-space.
I would like to broaden my explanation of Maman as a self-reflexive installation- space. In its conception as an auspicious commission, Francis Morris, curator of Tate Modern, gave Bourgeois as much freedom as possible in deciding what to create. Morris said ‘the guidance that I offered to her was to think about the fact that thousands of people will need to use the space, the work needs to be accessible… and it should engage with the architecture and experience of being in that space’ (Sabbagh 2000 p. 294). Bourgeois was highly aware of its specificity with regards to its capital city location; potential attraction for the inaugural opening of Tate Modern; and the scale needed to appropriately fill the huge Hertz and Du Meuron architecturally designed Turbine Hall. Along with Bourgeois’s installation towers I Do, I Undo, I Redo, Maman’s criteria was fulfilled as it created an installation-space of immense theatrical effect . The success was guaranteed because all
parties understood the important role of the spectator. Thus from its very conception Maman promoted and reflected issues relating to site specificity, scale and impact.
As a self-reflexive installation Maman also incorporates and reflects back ideas of assemblage. Not only in the physical welding of metal together, (Fig. 6) but in psychological terms. To Bourgeois, assemblage is an act of ‘restoring…and rebuilding…it is a coming to terms with things…a work of love’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p142-143), a peaceful existence, not like carving, which she sees as an ‘attack on things'(Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.142-143). The use of steel, as a material, is part of this rebuilding process and gives Maman the strength, permanency and architecture of a building. It calls on Bourgeois’s series of works called Femme Maison (Fig. 7) where she visually unites the two dimensions of woman and house, weaving together mind and body, emotions with reason, analytic spirit and sensuality. Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space says that ‘the house is body and soul…it is the human being’s first world’, (Bernadac 1996
p.23), it is also a symbol of maternal protection, a space where memories and thoughts are born. The scale of Maman’s legs reflects the idea of support, both in maternal terms when a child clings to its mother’s leg for protection and in structural terms of girders supporting the architecture of a body/house. Positioning the gigantic steel spider next to the similar steel girders of the Turbine Hall, give a quality of camouflage and latent anthropomorphism (Fer 1999 p.31) (Fig. 8) as well as reflecting a note of Surrealism.
Bourgeois’s approach to making Maman, has part of its roots situated within the framework of psychoanalytically inspired Surrealism and it reflects back on the viewer in this way. The surrealist writer Roger Caillois describes how the anthropomorphic subject inhabits its surroundings by camouflaging into its space, in much the same way that Maman inhabited the gallery. Caillois was also interested in subjects coming-into-being in the scopic field, how a field of vision was something to be inhabited and which cannot be viewed from the outside (Fer 1999 p.31). We as viewers are lured into this scopic field, initially cast as voyeurs on the outside, but then we are charged by Maman’s psychic arena and are lured towards her, into the realm of the imaginary, where we too can inhabit her space. In this imaginary realm Lacan says that what we see is reciprocal, like a mirror, it reflects back to us. The presences and absences we feel are an echo of ourselves. He sees
vision as a trap or a web into which we are ‘caught, manipulated, and captured’ (Elkins 1996 p.70).
The psychodynamics of viewing with the spectator as a collaborator.
Bourgeois actively wants her viewers to be co-workers caught in a web of visual experience. She says ‘the spectator is no longer merely a viewer if he is able to move from the stage of viewing to the stage of collaborating’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 pp.104-5). In Bourgeois’s hands, the Turbine Hall has become ‘psycho-theatre’ (Cotter 1999 p.32) in which the viewer becomes actively involved. The ‘closed and exactly defined’ gallery walls ‘belong to the artist in the way the stage belongs to the performer for a certain number of minutes.’ Bourgeois asks the viewer to actively move from looking at the performance to becoming performers with her in a collaborative experience.
This concurs with Wolfgang Iser’s reception theory when he said that every work is built out of a sense of its potential audience. It is encoded with an ‘implied reader’, which means that consumption is part of the product itself (Eagleton 1983 p.73). With the spectator involved at this level, viewing can be an act of transforming materials and circulating codes into various interpretations. Therefore, the meaning of Bourgeois’s work is never exhausted by her own personal intention, as she says herself, ‘as time goes by, people will see in it (the work) things that we (the artist) did not put there’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.76). Mieke Bal also argues for polysemous seeing. She writes that Mulvey’s old model of the active viewer looking at a passive object is limited. Instead she concurs with Lacan’s idea that the image/space reflects back on the viewer and sees the viewing co-ordinates as equal. Bal says, ‘When we see with intelligence the question becomes not where the work
comes from but what the work is, means and does in the present time of viewing’ (Bal 2001 p. xii).
A type of seeing where memories become symptoms of memories.
I argue that at every move towards the spider, Bourgeois is continually trying to capture our thoughts and memories and give them a spatial quality. Proust’s short essay ‘Bedrooms’ (Proust 1958 p.27) is an example of how the event of looking, with body and psyche, can give a heightened sensory awareness and give palpability to our thoughts. In the intimacy of the bedroom, Proust recalls the quality of sleep and awakeness. He says the sleeping subject is no longer the centre of experience but simply ‘a particle in that sleeping whole’, insensible, and yet ‘kaleidoscopic’ in the darkness (Ibid). Every thing in the room takes on a wonderful insensibility, he is both lost to himself, and has lost a part of himself. At first he recalls a feeling of entombment in his bedroom where he is petrified in stillness, like a hole in the centre of experience. Things move around him like the inner workings of the unconscious. He is lost in memory. Then he is brought to a kind of consciousness by
the act of writing, where the smell, taste, colour and sound reveal to him the sensual infantile world, ‘ordered by the temporal rituals of childhood and haunted by the figure of the mother’ (Fer 2001 p.78). After a moment, he experiences something different, a spatial awareness. This time the bedroom has turned into a walk outside at night. Outside is a place where he becomes a viewer and is looking as he moves; looking at the display of unaware people performing their every day lives.
In this essay Proust sets out a series of opposites; trapped and free; stillness and mobility; inside and outside; all of which allows his memory to have a spatial quality. ‘ Bedrooms’ is mapped out by giving two models of one subject; the first, where he is encased in his own world of fantasy and experiencing a heightened sensory awareness of everything; the second, a scene of watching and being riveted by, yet wilfully eliminated from the scene around him. Bourgeois’s installation acts in a similar way, as the viewer walks through the space they conceptually move in and out of the experience, from mind to body and back again, a visual ‘on/off switch’ (Foster 1988 p.66) . At one moment, the viewer is caught in an imaginary infantile world, lost to herself, on a conceptual ‘inside’ and the next, the viewer is on the ‘outside’, watching and being riveted by the scene. For example my encounter with the space gave me a heightened sensory awareness, a palpability of my surroundings,
and my friend physically felt a ‘tingling’ in her lips through her fear. Our viewing continually moved from looking in on the experience, to physically feeling the experience, as our memories became symptoms of memories. Bourgeois promotes a particular viewing pattern that incorporates a path for our memories and knowledge of seeing. Our viewing becomes a mix of corporeal vision (Foster 1988 p.66) and a culturally constructed visuality (Foster 1988 p.91). My seeing is effected by my thoughts and feelings about the space. Between my retina and Maman, a screen of signs is inserted, consisting of all the multiple discourses on vision built into the social arena. A screen that Lacan describes as a ‘scotoma’ (Foster 1988 p.92) which has already been orchestrated with a cultural production of seeing. When I looked through the space, it was not just light reflected off the surroundings that I saw, but an intelligible space full of meanings that are both personal to me, yet exist
This is not the simple aesthetic response of a formalist reading, but an ‘art of the psyche’ (Kotik, Sultan, Leigh 1994 p. 53) where meaning is like a web of presences and absences none of which are absolutely defined. This seems to be at the heart of post-modernism, where art writes itself with the more or less conscious intention of expanding its role away from its maker into the hands of the spectator. By promoting a type of vision in her installation space, that accommodates an on/off switch from our intellectual thoughts to visceral feelings, Bourgeois’s space questions the purity of vision that is modernism, the ‘lived experience as pure empathy’ (Fer 2001 p.80). Therefore, as a theoretical installation, it questions individual scopic regimes, that is, the viewer who upholds one essential vision at the cost of closing down all others. Bourgeois designs a space that deconstructs the viewer’s experience of vision and visuality. Her installation-space questions the telescopic
viewing of ‘Cartesian perspectivalism’ (Foster 1988 p.10), the assumed equivalence between scientific observation and the natural world. Instead Bourgeois creates a space where vision is no longer just a physical operation of sight, but is informed by social, historical and psychical factors (Foster 1988 p. ix), both belonging to her and to the spectator. The space addresses how the spectator sees, what they are allowed to see, what they are made to see and how they choose to be blind to what is before them. By incorporating these concepts into her viewing experience Bourgeois is concurring with philosopher and critical historian Michael Foucault in trying to locate the rules that form certain concepts and theoretical relationships in her work (Fernie 1995 p.346). Therefore, I suggest that Maman as a theoretical installation questions and internally resists the modernist position and instead, by promoting a particular viewing experience with an echo that reflects back on the viewer,
Bourgeois opens a discourse on vision and visuality.
Maman as a Transitional space.
I would like to explain my second argument as to why Bourgeois created Maman as an installation-space. This involves the speculative idea that Maman is a transitional space to help Bourgeois come to terms with the complex relationship she had with her mother. In this chapter I will explore Bourgeois’s family background, her relationship with her father and most importantly with her mother, which leads my argument to Winnicott’s theory about transitional space and its connection to Bourgeois, her mother and Maman.
Childhood/Child abuse. Who rocked the cradle’
Bourgeois recognises a strong impulse for making her work is to give ‘reality to a futile desire’ (Wey & Smith 1994 p.13) as many disturbing internalised feelings from her childhood, once tangibly outside her, can become more bearable. Bourgeois admits that her work is autobiographical when she said, ‘Everything I do is inspired by my early life’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.133). ‘The connections that I make in my work are connections that I cannot face’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.367). In 1982 at the age of 70, Bourgeois told the story of her traumatic childhood. It was published in the December edition of Artforum and entitled ‘Child Abuse'(Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.134). In the article she explains that her father had an affair with her English teacher, Sadie, who lived in the family home for ten years (Fig. 9). Doing this, he broke the moral rules of a good husband and father, as Bourgeois wrote ‘in a family a minimum of conformity is expected’ (Corris 1996
pp.17-18) . Bourgeois felt cheated by him. She also felt rejected by Sadie, ‘because, if you don’t mind Sadie was mine. She was engaged to teach me… I thought she was going to like me. Instead of which she betrayed me’ (Bernadac & Obrist p.134). Deborah Wye said ‘The tangled relationships between Bourgeois, her father and the tutor produced emotions in Bourgeois that have fuelled her work throughout her life’ (Corris 1996 p.17). To cope with this mental child abuse she philosophises that ‘every day you have to abandon your past or accept it and then, if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor’ (Weiermair 1989 p.9).
Up until recently analysis of Bourgeois’s work has focused on the psychological wounds inflicted on her by her father. Bourgeois perpetuated this idea by insisting that the source of her work is to be found in the deep rage she felt towards her father, ‘my father betrayed me by not being what he was supposed to be’ (Mayer-Thoss 1992 p. 182). ‘My father provoked in me a continual loss of self esteem’ (Mayer-Thoss 1992 p.187), and when her mother died in 1932 her father joked about her distress said ‘ Do not wallow in your tears; do not pretend’ (Wye & Smith 1994 p10). Bourgeois said of him that ‘he used my tears to bring me to my knees…It was so cruel’ (Wye & Smith 1994 p.10) (Fig.10). Bourgeois then tried to commit suicide (Bernadac 1996 p.168). However deep her anger is towards her father, both Hilary Robinson and Mignon Nixon have suggested that this father centred framework is too confining and have looked to Bourgeois’s relationship with her mother instead. Hilary
Robinson explores the work of French psychoanalysist and philosopher Luce Irigaray’s ideas about mother/daughter relationships and Mignon Nixon’s paper looks at a Kleinian reading of the same. I have incorporated these findings with my own research and woven them into my argument about Maman as a transitional space. It was whilst I was researching Bourgeois’s ‘child abuse’ article in Artforum, that I first became aware of the idea that Bourgeois was deeply upset with her mother too (Fig. 11). In her quest to be a ‘woman without secrets’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.18), curiously, Bourgeois holds back a deep anxiety, anger and mystery regarding her mother’s complicity with the whole affair between her father and his mistress. She simply asked a profound question, ‘Why did she” (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.133).
Bourgeois gave hints to these deeply felt emotions towards her mother in revealing comments. She recalls being in a room full of material,
The material was there taking all that room and bothering me, bothering me by its aggressive presence. And somehow the idea of the mother came to me. This is the way my mother impressed me, as very powerful, very silent, very judging, and controlling the whole studio. And naturally this piece became my mother. At that point I had my subject. I was going to express what I felt toward her… First I cut off her head, and I slit her throat… And after weeks and weeks of work, I thought, if this is the way I saw my mother, and then she did not like me. How could she possibly like me if I treat her that way’ At that point something turned around. I could not stand the idea that she wouldn’t like me. I couldn’t live if I thought that she didn’t like me. The fact that I had pushed her around, cut off her head had nothing to do with it. What you do to a person has nothing to do with what you expect the person to feel toward you… Now at the end I became very, very depressed, terribly,
terribly depressed (Nixon 1995 p. 87).
The annihilation and abandonment that Bourgeois feels in this passage is echoed in a theme of blindness, which weaves its way throughout her work. It is a metaphor of Madam Bourgeois’s blindness to both Louise’s needs and to her compliance with her husband’s philandering. When Bourgeois looks to her mother for protection from the whispers about her father’s promiscuity her needs are abandoned (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.132) and a blind eye is given both to her and to the affair. Bourgeois says of her sculptures Blind Vigils and The Blind Leading the Blind, (Fig. 12) ‘these are handicapped persons because they’re supposed to protect and they’re blind. They are good-for-nothings because they’re feminine’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.180). The theme of her mother’s blindness is echoed in Maman, as a main characteristic of the eight-eyed arachnid is that it is blind (Jones 1986 p.15) . The spider’s additional attributes of power, strength, predatoriness and
control are palpable in Maman’s space, my friend and I experienced them. I suggest Bourgeois is ‘saying the unsayable’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.18) in her installation space, in the hope of confronting, revealing and letting go of the strangling and claustrophobic feeling her mother engenders. These examples point to Bourgeois’ depressive anxiety towards her mother. A mother she suspects hates her.
The fused identity of Bourgeois and her mother.
Having established the idea that Bourgeois has a deep anxiety towards her mother, I would like to explore how this may have come about. The relational matrix between the mother and the infant is of central importance to the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. According to him the baby is born in a state of ‘primary unintregration’ (Philips 1988 p.79) where its identity is fused with its first object, the mother (Minsky 1996 p.124). This state is dominated by the baby’s primitive greed for its mother and desire for total control of her. From birth and on into childhood the mother acts as an ultra-sensitive co-ordinator of the child’s needs and provides the creative opportunities for the child’s ‘illusionment’, before its later confrontation with reality or ‘disillusionment’. If the holding environment is adequate the child will come to have an innate authenticity, a ‘true self’ (Minsky 1996 p.114) and establish its own ‘personal way of being’ and ‘bodily aliveness’ (Minsky 1996 p.111).
However, should the mother and the holding environment not be adequate, for example, if the mother is ill or depressed, disillusionment, the gradual and necessary separation from the mother’s identity, never occurs. Therefore the mother, in the phantasy inner world of the child, continues to be an extension of itself. There are several instances in Bourgeois’s work where she identifies her mother, as herself, created symbols of her mother, are in fact, self-portraits. These following examples uphold the argument that Bourgeois has a fused identity with her mother, as the important separation process, crucial to the child’s development of its own identity, never fully occurred.
In ‘Ode To My Mother’, (Text accompanying a suite of nine etchings published in 1995 by Editions du Solstice, Paris), (see Appendix 1). Bourgeois moves repeatedly and freely between describing her mother, talking to her specifically and talking to herself. This grammatical movement between the second and first person singular has the effect of fusing their two identities because at any one time, the reader is confused as to who she is talking about, her mother or herself. For example, she starts by describing her mother. ‘The friend (the spider- why the spider’) because my best friend was my mother.’ She then talks directly to her mother in the first person and asks ‘Maman who’s lying’ Little Maman who’s lying” She then returns back to defining her mother as someone who ‘yawns, works, sleeps, laughs and forgets’. Her stream of consciousness then links her feelings of remorse and cowardness, with those of her mother’s ‘ Forgive me, Maman, who lies, who lies,
I lie, I thought I knew, I was out of it Maman’. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand whether she is referring to herself or her mother, as she has fused their two identities. The final etching in the suite of nine accompanying the ode (Fig. 13) visually tells a similar story of fusion. It sees time standing still at the moment when the baby spider should be shed from its mother, but instead, the two are locked in a perpetual struggle to separate from each other.
Another example, which supports the notion of their fused identities, is the direct comment Bourgeois made in reference to She-Fox (Fig. 14) a six-foot high black marble animal with both predatory and nurturing instincts, Bourgeois said of this piece ‘obviously this person is my mother’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.140). Her nurturing qualities are demonstrated by in the fact that she has ‘lots of breasts’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.140) and her predatory instincts are that of the fox, i.e. to wait and threaten. It was these aspects that ‘exasperated’ Bourgeois and pushed her to ‘violence’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.140). However it is these same threatening instincts that Bourgeois recognises in herself when she talks to Robert Storr in 1986. The conversation centred on the rapport Bourgeois has with the younger generation. She said ‘I can push them once in a while but I don’t do it on purpose’ This aggression towards them, she explains, is because she has ‘been
inhabited by a ferocious mother-love’ and then illuminatingly adds, ‘ In that way She-Fox is also a self portrait’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.145). In other words she created a symbol of her mother, which is, in fact, her.
In the illustrated prose book Dans la Maison de Louise , Bourgeois describes walking through a house, room by room, in a dream like trance. As with Ode to my Mother, the stream of consciousness writing leads the reader into ambiguity as to whom she is talking about, herself or her mother as ‘spirals intertwine’ (Darrieussecq 1998 p.9). She talks of meeting a spider that would ‘sew her a huge web’ (Darrieussecq 1998 p.10) and tuck her in, inferring that the spider is her mother tucking her into bed. She then says when she stands in front of this spider, ‘I sense a reflection, I am sure I’m seeing my own face…'(Darrieussecq 1998 p.11).
These examples suggest an inextirpable identity between Bourgeois and her mother, the threads of which intertwine like the tapestries they both used to sew (Fig.15). Following Winnicott’s theory on the importance the mother plays in the formation of the infant’s identity, I suggest that in her early childhood, Bourgeois developed a ‘false self’ in relation to her mother. My argument is that because Madam Bourgeois was ill and possibly depressed/displaced by her husband’s affair during this crucial separating time between infancy and childhood , Louise became a compliant false self and consequently internalised many unacknowledged distressing experiences out of her control. Winnicott explains that this happens because in the inner economy of the infant/child’s psyche, the unsatisfying object, her mother, frustrates her needs yet simultaneously whets them in the hope of satisfaction. In her external world she becomes hungrier and hungrier and copes by controlling and forgetting the
pain of unmet needs. This is a world of adaptation where compliance carries a sense of futility and lost hope. The infant/child’s creativity becomes a distorted attempt to establish the nurturing environment it needs but which the mother cannot provide (Minsky 1996 p.117). Ultimately the child is denied the reality of a true self, a core identity of its own, as it is smoke-screened behind a false compliant self where ‘a feeling of being real is absent’ (Minsky 1996 p.117). I suggest that, as a child, Bourgeois was unable to achieve the necessary psychological separation from her mother and is now, even as a 92 year old adult, left to cope with life without a viable identity of her own (Eichenbaum & Orbach 1983 p.19). The characteristics of a mother, in the eyes of a child who has been left to internalised unsatisfying experiences, is that of a disappointing person split in two, ‘the known and longed for giving mother and the deeply disappointing mother’ (Eichenbaum & Orbach
1983 p.18). Bourgeois admits her spider theme accommodates a dual personality too, it is, she says ‘an eternal battle between good and evil’ (Cousseau, Veiga, Nordal, Peyton-Jones 1998 p.28). This theme relates clearly to the experience that both my friend and I had when we encountered Maman’s space for the first time; mine was a sense of protection in her great architectural space, my friend’s was a sense that an evil predator was about to devour her (Fig. 16 and 17).
Bourgeois says, ‘drawing is a form of a diary… to exorcise or deconstruct daily fears'(Bernadac 1996 p.13), and that every day she has to abandon her past or accept it and if she cannot accept it she sculpts (Corris 1996 p.17). By saying the words ‘if you cannot accept it you sculpt’ implies that sculpting is a form of release that cannot be put into words, an unconscious mode that Bourgeois taps into. Sculpture to her is something she cannot find the words to express. It is, I suggest, the notion of the ‘unthought known’. Christopher Bollas termed the concept and explains it as ‘something that the subject senses and upon which it acts, but which it cannot articulate in a fully rational discourse’ (Bal 1999 p.122). With this in mind I argue that Bourgeois senses her fused identity with her mother as a deep feeling of inseparability. Images throughout her work support this idea. For example, Fig. 18 symbolises the uncut umbilical cord where the thread is positioned so that either
the mother or child could cut free, but neither have done so. Fig. 19 represents the same theme; the baby floats free from the mother’s arms but is still inseparably connected by the umbilical cord. Fig. 20 sees the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around the mother, metaphorically suffocating both mother and child. How does an adult come to terms with these suffocating, claustrophobic and inseparable feelings’ As an answer to this question I would like to explore the mother-centred analysis of Klein, and later that of Winnicott and Milner, to further understand Bourgeois’s relationship with her mother and how it may have influenced the making of Maman.
The Mother-centred analysis of Klein, Winnicott and Milner.
In her perception of psychic life, Klein suggests that her subject relates to its environment as a field of ‘objects’ people to be fused or split, possessed or destroyed, by means of phantasies of introjection, projection and splitting that are produced by bodily drives (Nixon 1995 p.73). These phantasies, present from early infancy, persist not as states into which the subject may regress, but as ever-present positions in which, as Juliet Mitchell has written, ‘one is sometimes lodged’ (Nixon 1995 p.73). It is a perpetual present where the past and the present are one. Klein is therefore suggesting an absence of historical development of the psyche and instead looks to a non-linear horizontal play position, like an open field where the subject moves defined by its relation to ‘objects’. This, I suggest, relates closely to Bourgeois whose life is structured in the ever-present situation of her past, a perpetual present where she admits, ‘My childhood has never lost its magic, it
has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p. 1).
Klein connects creativity in adult life with deep early anxieties. Propelled from these anxieties is a need to restore and repair the injured ‘object’ after a destructive attack (Klein 1975 p. 427). She locates the onset of guilt in the infant’s oral cannibalistic drives, claiming that hostile impulses aimed at the maternal breast give rise to the earliest feelings of guilt. The infant in later life attempts to undo the destruction of the good object, his/her mother, through creating ‘beautiful forms and idealising trends’ (Lomas 2000 p.115). Is a spider an idealised trend’ Perhaps not in Bourgeois’s case, but Klein does suggest the capacity to learn and work is hampered by these guilt ridden depressive anxieties and it is through creativity that a resolution may be found. Bourgeois recognises the need to come to terms with things and assemblage to her is a form of ‘restoration and reparation’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p.142-3). Acknowledging the Kleinian reading, I suggest that
Bourgeois did feel the need to creatively come to terms with the emotions she felt towards her mother. The repetition of over thirty spiders is an acknowledgement of that need. But my argument is that Maman moves further towards a resolution of the relationship with her mother, rather than being founded on the ‘repairing and restoring’ vocabulary of guilt. I suggest that Maman also acts as a ‘transitional space’, a positive feminine gestural space, which acts as a bridge between Bourgeois’s internal world of anxiety and external reality.
What is a transitional space and why is it so important’ Winnicott explains in his paper Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena first published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1953, the importance of the intermediate area of experiencing in the infant’s eventual capacity, or inability, to separate from the mother. He says,
It is well known, that infants as soon as they are born tend to use fist, fingers, thumbs in stimulation of the oral erotogenic zone in satisfaction of the instincts at that zone and also in quiet union. It is also well known that after a few months infants of either sex become fond of playing with dolls and that most mothers allow their infants some special object and expect them to become as it were addicted to such objects.
What Winnicott is suggesting in this statement is that initially the transitional object, a toy, a piece of rag or any object which acts as a symbol of the mother, its own self and the external reality it wants of see objectively, allows the infant a vitally important intermediate area of experience. This intermediate area allows the infant to negotiate the separation from a fused identity with its mother to a capacity for a relationship between two objectively perceived separate people. The transitional space acts in a similar way. It is a psychical space that Winnicott describes as:
an area between the thumb and the teddy bear, between the oral eroticisms and the true object-relationship, between primary creative activity and projection of what has already been introjected, between primary unawareness of indebtedness and the acknowledgement of indebtedness… an intermediate area of experiencing to which inner reality and external life both contribute. It is a resting place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated (Winnicott 1996 pp.255-257).
Marion Milner uses Winnicott’s concept of transitional phenomena to suggest that painting and by extension all artistic experience takes place in this psychic intermediate space where the ‘body and mind meet in expressive action’ (Minsky 1996 p.129). Milner says that by embodying the experience of illusion in artistic activity, the use of creative expression, the artist is able to appease internal chaos by combining it with external reality. The ‘contemplative action’ of artistic experience provides the bridge to separate from inner anxieties to a ‘feeling, as well as knowing (of) the external world'(Milner 1950 p.140). She explains in detail that:
paint, by its special qualities of spreadability and the way it allows one colour to mix up with another and so make a new one, and because it does not intrude its demands, but just waits, submitting to things done to it, waits for the painter to become more and more sensitive to its real qualities and capacities; by this means it does for the painter some of the things that a good mother does for her baby. (Milner 1987 p.136).
What Milner is saying here is that painting acts like Winnicott’s ‘good enough mother’ who creates a holding environment to allow her child to gradually move from illusionment to disillusionment, from subjectivity to objectivity. Bourgeois’s space acts in the same way; it negotiates the ‘interface between inner and outer reality’ (Glover 1998 Website) . It acts as ‘a symbol of (the mother), its own self and the external reality it wants to see objectively’ (Minsky 1996 p.120). Bourgeois has created in Maman, a transitional space, to act as an intermediate area of experience in the arbitration from her fused identity with her mother to an external objectivity and individual identity of her own.
Gesturing towards her mother in her transitional space.
To add weight to my argument I would like to look at the work of the psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray who explores girl/mother relationships and in particular analyses how girls come to terms with their absent or displaced mothers. Madam Bourgeois was ill when Louise was a child, and later ‘displaced’ (Robinson 1996 p. 26) in her role as mother by the fact that her father’s mistress, was living in the family home for ten years. Her mother was clearly present but her role was abdicated. This understandably left Louise confused as to who was her mother figure, especially as the mistress was her tutor. The confusion was exacerbated by the fact that her mother was compliant to the whole affair. There was no longer a clearly defined mother/daughter relationship, which led to great pain, anger and anxiety (Schor 1997 p.60).
Images can be powerfully revealing, those in the installation towers I Do, I Undo, I Redo (1999-2000) also exhibited at the inaugural opening and in close proximity to Maman, have a maternal theme and reveal the neglect Bourgeois felt. Fig. 21 is an image from the I Undo tower . The image shows a distracted mother, the face of which is superimposed on the profile of two other faces, whose representation is ambiguous. The mother’s breast disgorges a stream of milk to the ground as the child clings on to her leg, unattended. I suggest this image is of Madam Bourgeois the displaced/distracted mother consumed with her own thoughts but neglecting Louise. Bourgeois remembers the ‘torment that things (were) not right and the anxiety of not knowing what to do’ (Morris Warner Hillyard 2000 p.31), a depressive anxiety that Bourgeois could actually hear at the top of her towers, in the form of an ‘eclat’, a distant call, a cry of tragedy (Sabbagh 2000 p.298).
I would like to explain how Maman, through its circular space and architectural stance, gestures towards Bourgeois’s mother. And to do this, I would like to refer to the description of my movements when I first came through the entrance of the Turbine Hall thus demonstrating the viewer’s involvement in Bourgeois’s space. On seeing the gigantic spider I became immediately engaged. My movements towards it were both quick and slow. When I arrived at the gallery I circumvented her balletic legs before going into her protective and symbolic space. In her essay Gesture in Psychoanalysis Luce Irigaray explains that circular movement and the generation of symbolic space is a specifically feminine psychoanalytical gesture in the absence/displacement of her mother (Robinson 1996 p. 24). She argues that Freud’s observations on the topic were limited because they were too specific to his grandson, Ernst, and according to Irigaray irrelevant to girls. Freud observed that in order
to master the absence of his mother, Ernst repeatedly threw away a reel of string and pulled it towards him saying ‘fort, da,’ meaning ‘away, here’. This observation gives great emphasis to the object. Conversely, Irigaray says that in the absence of her mother, ‘a girl plays with a doll, lavishing maternal affection on a quasi-subject, and thus manages to organise a kind of symbolic space’ (Irigaray 1987 p.97). Circular space is also significant as it is a way for the girl to create a territory of her own in relation to the mother to ‘protect her from abandonment, attack, depression and loss of self’ (Irigaray 1987 p.98). The circular movement is also significant as Irigaray points out that dance is another way girls cope with the absence of the mother. Milner too finds the circle shape of great significance; she sees it as a ‘framing’ device for containing a ‘different reality’, a ‘safe place’, a ‘womb-like enclosure’ (Glover 1998 Web site). Bourgeois has created these gestural
shapes and movements in her installation-space. The legs of the gigantic spider form a circular architectural space as they delicately stand on pointed balletic tips, as if ready to dance. My movements around Maman echo these circular gestures. Bourgeois is using the language of dance, movement and symbolic space to help her come to terms with the displacement of her mother. She asks the viewer not only to look but also to collaborate with her and perform these gestural movements in and around her symbolic transitional space.
Bourgeois’s dependency on her past life as a source of inspiration is paradoxically similar to that of a small child reliant on its mother. Exposing this dependency can be a painful experience as it reinforces her overwhelming, unending, insatiable, feelings of emptiness in relation to this unfulfilled need. Bourgeois’s need is evident by her continual appetite to solve the same problem, over and over again. Her deep fascination with abandonment and her thirst for self-realisation is exhausting. But however exhausting this may be for Bourgeois, it shifts her feelings of anxiety into her work and in doing so, powerfully taps into the viewer’s ‘collective unconscious’ (Malinaud 1998 p80). In Maman’s case, I suggest this is a maternal collective unconscious, where the mother is pressed into a dual role of indispensable supporter and deadly enemy of the human-self. The good mother is seen as naturally fit to nurture her children’s needs and to confirm their worth, power and
significance. However, if she fails to render them this service, she is a monster who, beckons her loved ones from selfhood, wants to engulf, dissolve, drown and suffocate them (Eichenbaum & Orbach date p34-35). As a theoretical installation Maman is self-reflexive and acts as the universal mother in whose awareness the viewer’s subjective existence can be mirrored, and as a transitional space offers Bourgeois the objectivity she desires. As Bourgeois says her ‘space does not exist in itself it is just a metaphor for the structure of our existence’ (Bernadac & Obrist 1998 p 220).