Uncanny Bourgeois 2007

Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria 14x44,4x27,9cm. Collection Claudia and Karsten Greve. Foto: Christopher Burke

Uncanny Bourgeois 2007

There used to be a small postcard on my office wall from the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It travelled with me from an office in London, to Hove, and then to Farnham. Then like much of what we hold onto, it suddenly disappearaed and I find I miss it…

2. November 2008


It showed a small pink fabric figure dangling in space. I know she’s small because I can see the weave intersections of the fabric she is made of, and I can see the size of the haphazard stitching that forms her. But somehow I would know her scale anyway, because she has the peculiar posture of the vulnerable, the alone, the disempowered… The little figure lies awkwardly in space, an arm dangling, legs akimbo, but head slightly raised in uncomfortable tension. A single thread, from her navel, arrests any movement, and suspends her in a void of blackness.

I know she’s a ‘she’ – there are clothpatched breasts, but no genitalia, garments or adornments (and as we know none of these are absolute signals of sex and gender) – but my knowledge is not necessarily shaped by evidence. Rather, something about the Elastoplast pink of the fabric, the depletion or exhaustion of the figure, and her awkward isolation conjures something that speaks to my soul – rightly or wrongly – in a gendered way… Louise Bourgeois’ Arch of Hysteria was made in 2000 from pink cloth. She measures 14 x 44.4 x 27.9 cm. not far off the size of a newborn baby, but she is an adult woman, and the title has meaning for this adult woman. Bourgeois’ output, spanning the 20th century and still going strong, is massive and diverse, but her dominant theme – her childhood – establishes a territory of intense sexually-charged imagery in which female and male bodies are interplayed, and the realms of the uncanny are tapped. That subject, seemingly concerned with the trivia of the child’s world, is concerned in psychoanalytical terms with memories and desires, often disturbing, frequently uncomfortable. The textile fabrication of this work, with its myopic focus, yet ‘bad craft’ rendering, with its loose threads and crazy stitching, with its patched and pieced body-surface, speaks of discomfort, obsession, itchy irregularity, even distress.

And it is through Sigmund Freud’s Uncanny (1919) that this image is best understood. Freud allows the work, and Bourgeois’ interests, to be located in the ‘family romances’ between mother, father and infant that apparently dominate the child’s psychic experience and shape its early sexuality. In that discourse, we understand that dolls allow us to fantasise about childhood, and Bourgeois’ inanimate little figure transposes then into the small child of her early life. But, with a disturbing twist. This is not a settled depiction of childhood: rather Bourgeois gives us an adult doll, with adult characteristics, and adult meanings and associations. Hence it troubles and dislocates us… hence it remained on my wall for such a long time…hence it bothers me that it has gone…

Significantly, Freud also reminds us of the uncanniness of the ‘double’, as something that mimics us, but is not us. The resultant ‘disembodied body’ feeling – a kind of terror – is activated in Arch of Hysteria. For me, that small cloth body is similar in form to my own, but yet, infantlike, it remains attached via a filament umbilical cord to an unknown and therefore terrifying maternal form who hovers, ‘unbodied’, outside the visual arena of the work. That ‘mother’, uncanny, even abject, is something alien, external, unknown but at the same time as familiar to ourselves as pink cloth and a doll-form. We cannot separate or extricate ourselves from a hysterical connection with her, nor can Bourgeois’ figure release herself from the terror of that association.

Arched in black, doll-womb threaded to some ‘other’, Bourgeois’ figure, she, me – makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

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