Louise Bourgeois @ Mima

Published in Artlyst 25.07.14
Louise Bourgeois: Body, Sexuality And The Erotic MIMA Middlesborough - ArtLyst Article image

Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art (mima) stands brilliantly apart from the town’s surroundings, representing a shining beacon of modernity and optimism; it is a great coup to be the first institution to display the touring ARTISTS ROOMs exhibition ‘Louise Bourgeois: A Woman Without Secrets’. For the strength and significance of this American artist’s works cannot be underestimated, not least for her lasting inspiration to female artists throughout the 20th century. ARTISTS ROOMS was founded by The d’Offay Donation in 2008, now owned jointly by Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, with the purpose of reaching and appealing to new and younger audiences throughout the country. This show of her late works is a treat; a concentrated (for the tiny space) whistle stop tour of major themes and concerns informing her pieces, presented with enthusiasm and obviously thorough research. Combined with Bourgeois’s distinct and gripping visual sensibility, it is certainly an accessible show that will appeal to many, especially younger introductory audiences, which was precisely the aim.

Confined to the era of ‘later works’, the show is not chronological but thematic, with an astonishing number of themes crammed into the four rooms: the overview alone lists “cycles of life … the body, sexuality and the erotic … memory, architecture, observation … repairing and forgiveness … emotions, fear, jealousy and pain, to joy, passion”.  This sequence does not so much allow parallels and links to be made, but effectively lists these themes one after the other, assigning works to each. It opts to concentrate on the common overarching theme of how Bourgeois used differing materials and medium to explore the many themes and concerns, and as such little importance is attached to the order of viewing or of any progression throughout the show. This can feel disjointed: in one room entitled ‘Seeing, Sewing, Spirals’ these three themes are discussed independently in turn. How is the pink marble sculpture of ‘Eyes’ (2001–5) with is clear voyeuristic and unnerving sexual connotations exuding from its pink undulating folds, in any way related to the collection of Spiral prints on Japanese paper directly next to it? Each piece has an enthusiastic and well researched caption, often including a quote to help give context (though tenuously used in some cases), yet exists independently of its neighbour. It is an academic approach that misses the crucial magic that a curator can conjure through juxtaposition: that of suggesting common visual themes or comparison exploring an artist’s work in deeper terms than can be done on paper.

However the strength of the pieces on show more than make up for the lack of coherence and indicate clearly the enduring power of Bourgeois’s vision. ‘Eyes’ represents the uncanny, the threatening yet compelling and irresistible quality of her erotically charged works, at once soft, inviting and warm with its blush pink marble hue, yet disturbing form of multiple absorbing eyes. ‘Tits’ of 1967, a bronze double horn-like piece again forms an ambiguously sexual object, suggesting the dual role of mother as sexual and nurturing being. Its surface of black patina which is polished at either end similarly appeals to our primitive instinct. These represent the enduring concerns throughout her life coloured by the propensity for psychological and philosophical exploration: she studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris between 1932–5 and underwent psychoanalysis throughout the 50s to 80s.

Yet it is the simpler representations of age, frailty and friendship that rise above all else as p=most powerfully affecting. Directly greeting visitors to the show is ‘10am is when you come to me’, a sequence of sheets of paper with crude outlines of Bourgeois’s single hand (identified by her wedding band) and both hands of her helper of 30 years, Jerry Gorovoy. The simplicity of composition and how this changes throughout each piece betrays a whole range of emotions experienced within this relationship, not least the reliance of one upon the other. The crude outlines, like the wobbly pencil outline of a child outlining their own hand, speaks enormously of the nature of growing old and frailty. Characteristic of this exhibition, the enthusiastic accompanying caption is as large as that outlining the room’s content itself, and goes into extensive – and speculative – detail as to its meaning, specifically the use of deep red to colour in the hands: in a work as powerful as this the use of red should (and in actuality does) speak for itself.

Indeed, the continuous suggestion of interpretations within the captions does the work for us and in some cases threatens to constrict the possible meanings. A case in point is 2010’s ‘Untitled’, a soft trunk-like body covered in berets at one side (which she wore throughout her life), with a cavity and protruding block at each terminal, next to a structure containing spindles of thread, all within a glass box. Unmistakably the sexual and repairing function of the female is on display, yet the caption suggests interpretations ranging from the evocation of soft landscapes Bourgeois made in the 1960s, or perhaps the berets representing stones marking a grave. This imaginative suggestions of a variety of ideas is encouraging, yet to prescribe these over the clear sexual connotations (berets = breasts) and the overtly cynical, feminine concerns of the piece threatens to limit the interpretation of the viewer. It is one thing to reach an audience, and another to get them to engage and explore meanings for themselves. One of the defining and compelling qualities of Bourgeois’s work is the deliberate ambiguity, designed to unsettle the viewer and highlight our fears and anxieties; it is something the viewer has to embark on and open oneself up to. Perhaps the mima feels the need to justify bringing audiences up north by overly researching – most literally ‘doing the homework’. Yet with such an array of brilliant pieces, arranged with the major themes and ideas prevalent in her work all present and correct, many will find the show hugely rewarding regardless.

Words: Olivia McEwan © Artlyst 2014 Photo courtesy MIMA all rights reserved

Marina Abramović, 512 Hours @ Serpentine, Review

Published on Artlyst

I am dispersing with the usual third person format in summarising Marina Abramović’s residence at the Serpentine, this being an ‘experience’ not an exhibition, and entirely subjective to each individual’s impression of it, bound to change immeasurably from person to person. Press and public alike cannot but refer to this new piece without needing to contextualise it by her preceding works, because 512 hours primarily uses the ‘material’ (for want of a better word) of nothing; it’s easier to describe previous instances of actual ‘performance’, where Abramović slices the star of David into her stomach for example, than to try and encapsulate this specified stretch of time in which it is difficult to locate the actual presence of the ‘art’. I’ve never seen such a short ‘catalogue’. I call it an experience, then, because the piece depends on our participation; we are the work, rather than passive recipients of the visual stimulation of an object on a gallery wall. The rooms are empty, but populated by visitors manipulated by Abramović and her team into various positions: facing the wall, lying on the floor. Thus the artwork exists within yourself and within the collective experience endured during your length of time in the gallery, and therefore entirely subjective to chance and personal outlook. It just so happens that my impression of it is one of profound staggered disbelief, where others have probably experienced elation and enlightenment.

The issues stem from several areas. When I visit a gallery, I want to roam free to absorb at the pace I want, to look at the sequence of items in an order I find best enables me to understand the curators’ ideals. Upon entry, about two minutes passed before I was approached by a kindly looking assistant who took my hand, stopping short my freedom by walking me slowly to face out the window. She whispered to close my eyes, before grasping my shoulders and commanding me to breathe slowly, then after two minutes leaving me to face the window. Art is nothing without eyes to see it; part of the joy even of immersive performance pieces is the collective response of viewers, witnessing each other’s reactions as integral to the works’ reception. It was doubly annoying then that not only was my enjoyment of watching other peoples’ experiences cut short (the chap receiving the breathing exercise in the middle part of the room looked to be having a great time), but that my field of vision was then restricted facing out of the gallery.

In thus manipulating the audience, Abramović speaks of channelling participants’ energy, and perhaps this elusive energy to be conjured is the source of the ‘art’ within her show. I couldn’t help but think that if I wanted to channel my energy with the breathing exercises and the deliberate slowing down and controlling of movement I could have just gone to group meditation or (whisper it) some kind of yoga class. Yet there was indeed a curious and palpable feeling present; in manipulating each person there was made a very real and heavy collective atmosphere, one that I felt I was not part of, not least because I was so restricted in my freedom to move around and look wherever I wanted, and my mental stubbornness to humour it. Recently after the press viewing a critic related how when Abramović led him by the hand to the wall, she noted that usually in the actual piece, they would be walking much more slowly. It strikes me that such measures were necessary to imbue the piece with the gravity it needed, and were I to walk through the gallery at my normal brisk pace (“Why am I walking slowly, this is thoroughly silly”) I would break the effect. When one thinks of ‘nothing’, one thinks of freedom. This piece was anything but free in so constraining and manipulating each person, although I admit I was probably harder to convince than most in failing to reach the evident euphoria other people were having. “Maybe yoga would be nice”: probably not the sort of response I want from a seriously avant-garde show.

Indeed, it is restrictive even against Abramović’s intentions: she continually says of her show “I don’t know what will happen”, suggesting anything could happen. Yet in that atmosphere one felt put into a very defined mental space, countering possibility of this. A friend said afterwards that maybe I should have just got naked if it was so free and the meditative energy was so powerful. I suspect that, like Gormley’s Fourth Plinth in that anyone could do anything, the chap who removes his clothes will swiftly be escorted from the artwork. For all the lack of definition, this is in actuality a seriously constrained and restrictive show. Where her 1974 work ‘Rhythm 0’ gave the audience a rose and a gun, ending up with a participant sticking thorns into Abramović’s stomach, for all the energy here there is no latent power. The whole thing is curiously inert.

What I expect from art is for it to make me think, and the best examples stick with me, challenging and changing the way I think. This presented to me not an idea to mull over, but a memory of a physical experience: it seems useless to try an intellectualise it. Abramović in interviews does not offer any interpretations and answers, suggesting these are not what we should be looking for. It is an inclusive and accessible show, available for anyone and everyone to experience, yet what can we take away from it? Is the state of art now not something that we wrestle with, but something that simply happens to us? For me, art informs, questions and reveals life to us; this was a purely physical experience which was over as soon as I left. I hugely admire Abramović and her body of work, and regard this work as an experiment which – successful or not – is a vital and necessary chapter in her repertoire that had to be done; this alone justifies its existence, and is reason enough why you should go. For all the points above, positive or negative, 512 Hours nonetheless is an important milestone in performance art; one that requires your participation.