BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 03 MAR 99
Featured in
Issue 45

Louise Bourgeois

BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 03 MAR 99

Dilapidation, intricacy and danger: these predicaments and more are explored in Louise Bourgeois' new work. Other elements are self-preservation and recklessness, as if extremes became her norm long ago. Consider a recent photo-graph, Spider IV (1996) which shows her struggling to escape the shadow of a large spider, wriggling like a mountaineer trying to scale an impossible precipice.

In most of Bourgeois' work, lighting plays an important part. Visitors to this show, at the refurbished Serpentine Gallery, (a space so perfect it might have been designed for this exhibition and none other) could have lost their bearings in the semi-lit rooms. Forced to become part of the action - walking, watching, stopping, turning - their movements were often directed by the fabrics or hanging clothes which punctuated the spaces between the cell-like installations. 'Cloth, bone, rubber and steel', read a notice indicating a murky zone in which old dresses dangled - a little like a walk-in wardrobe. Bone? Look a little harder and the strange label appeared to be right - there are antlers, for example. Like backstage manoeuvres in a theatre, elements not in use were either hidden or jettisoned; theatricality was all that remained.

The visual allusions were rich: as if exhausted night birds had ceased their coupling and left behind pierced, dangling bolsters abandoned in doorways or figures suspended by their ripped stomachs. But was such blood and thunder included for its own sake? Not exactly. Bourgeois revels in a grotesque sense of play that perhaps only children can withstand: making flesh creep just for the sake of it.

Possessed of a deep-rooted and black humour, the artist is an avid teller of tales - which is when the spiders appear. Louise and Spider, 1 (1997), a self-portrait photo-graph, shows her trying to look straight at the viewer and also look at herself, as if she wants to at once tell the truth and evade it. She has explained that the spider is said to guard against mosquitoes, an insect which she hates. Made of steel, Spider (1997) consists of two components and resembles the inside of a car. It is almost as high as the new Serpentine building and squats on a drum which has seen better days. Only arachnophobes could make something like this, and then only as part of some private exorcism.

At this stage, a coalescence of the diverse strands of Bourgeois' work seems unlikely. Her photograph of herself, a curved mirror behind her, suggests that only parts of her body can be perceived at once. But when her back and palms touch the curved mirror, the artist seems to be groping for information or proof of something. Normal ways of looking are made strange. Such moves could never be anticipated.

If no description exists for what Bourgeois is doing now and if her thoughts seem to be moving in all directions at once, then she is to be applauded. For how many artists have done that? And how many go back and revise previous work: not doing the same thing, but trying to understand it differently: more deeply from year to year. Of course, this is what an oeuvre means. Not a wealth of work - although Bourgeois has made plenty - but the idea of it growing with the artist herself, day by day.