There is no natural light in the Hayward Gallery. The artworks are illuminated in a soft, artificial glow, similar to the flat light of dusk. Gallery visitors creep around in the crepuscular gloom and I watch their shadows flit across the weave of Louise Bourgeois’ fabric children.
These creations are curious and malformed. They invariably slouch or hang - anything but stand up straight - as if loath to keep their form. Even at their most structured, seams ripple and fabrics fray. I skirt around a headless devil of red linen and try to figure out what the exhibition's title, ‘Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child’, could mean. ‘Weave’, and its synonym, ‘fabric’, has a double association with the domestic sphere and the world of women. ‘Child’ also further duplicates meaning - a comparison between Louise Bourgeois’ creative process and the birth and regeneration? Or perhaps the exhibition will explore motherhood and feminity? As I stare at a golden orb of twisted metal, feminism obtrudes its lovely head into my thoughts and I start to wonder how transgressive this exhibition aims to be.
Louise Bourgeois often remarked on the use of clothing within her work, explaining that “clothing is [...] an exercise in memory. It makes me explore the past: how did I feel when I wore that”. For her, clothes are “signposts in the search for the past”.
I wander past a carousel of white nighties and huge, glowing bones, and note the stains, rips and creases. This piece doesn’t just articulate a moment in the past - it also shows the patina of time that weighs upon it, distorting it. Moving through the first room of the gallery, this distortion is a constant presence, creating a sense of making and unmaking, mending and un-mending. The experience is disorientating. Even as meaning is found between the disparate elements, it falls away, leaving discordant symbols. If each piece is an ‘exercise in memory’, it is like memories uncovered in a dream. They shift and shuffle, resisting definition.
Of course, once we start to weave together the concepts of memories and dreams the surrealists make their presence known. They, - as in Breton, Dalí, Ernst, Magritte and the like - were contemporaries of Bourgeois, and while she is also occasionally been grouped with them, she has never truly been categorised as one. Yet her exploration of the unconscious, and continual use of chained symbolism - bone, fabric, metal, lace - demonstrates why there is a close association.
Even as pieces evoke a chain of associations, the breakdown of meaning is the other side of this coin. Bourgeois herself has acknowledged this fractured aspect of her work, talking about how “art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented [...] into something whole”. We can always discern the seams that hold the faded memory together - sometimes literally. The piece which shows a plump, ovular pillow stands in for a figure, a delicate brooch on their breast. Large bobbins of thread spread over and from this form, turning it into an industrial machine. Meaning comes quickly but then proliferates. A comment upon the hidden labour of women, or the automation of postmodern culture? The meaning oscillates and evolves even as the eye glides over the weft and warp of the cloth.
Fabric proves to be the perfect medium for this kind of excavation because it is naturally malleable and amorphous. A dress encased in a closet becomes a chrysalis. Limbs become peculiar symbols and cloth mouths become entrances. More importantly, the medium of cloth holds particular power over Louise Bourgeois and her childhood memories. Born in 1911 in Paris, France, Louise Bourjois’ family were in the antique trade. Specifically, antique tapestries. Her parents owned a repair shop and Bourgeois was spent many of her weekends repairing antique tapestries. The presence of her mother, and the idea of ‘repairing’ are evident throughout the collection.
“My mother was a restorer, she repaired broken things. I don't do that. I destroy things. I cannot go the straight line. I must destroy, rebuild, destroy again. My rhythm is not the same. My mother moved in a straight line: I go from one extreme to the other.”
Both feminine identity, craft and art come together in Bourjois fabric children, not least because weaving and femininity also have an extensive historical president. Within Greek myths, we have the antecedents of Athena, and her counterpart to Arachne (who the former turned into a spider). In the Odyssey, we see Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, telling her unwelcome suitors she would choose a husband when she finished her tapestry, only to unpick it each night. The story of Penelope appeals in particular, simply because of the oscillation between creation and destruction, just as Louise Bourgeois desires to “destroy, rebuild, destroy again”. Together, women and weaving carry a huge cultural weight.
These historical touchstones can form a reach tapestry of their own - one of women, weaving and the making (and unmaking) of feminine identity. Its position as a ‘craft’ rather than a ‘fine art’ also neatly summarises the segregation of female artists from male ones. Historically, textiles have been categorised as both ‘women’s work’ and inferior to other art mediums. Even in the Bauhaus movement, a school of thought that sought to close this artificial divide between craft and art, this gender divide was enforced. While the Bauhaus manifesto welcome “any person of good repute, without regard of to age or sex” - Walter Gropius, the founder, maintained that men think in three dimensions, while women think in two. Consequently, women were funnelled into weaving within the Bauhaus school, rather more ‘masculine mediums’ like sculpture, painting and architecture.
This divide would have been evident to Louise Bourgeois, as in her native French, it is demonstrated in the phrases ‘l’art decoratif’ (decorative art) and ‘le beau art’ (fine art). But in persevering with this medium Bourjois managed to traverse both worlds and create something transgressive. This transgression - bringing traditional feminine materials into the world of the surreal and the alienating, can have a profound effect on the viewer.
Take, for instance, the cage pieces. In the centre of the first room is a large cage. Perhaps double a woman’s height, inside the cage hangs various evening dresses and two white orbs. The phallic element is clear, but what is most striking is the sense of empty space. Caged material hangs listlessly; redolent of some ghostly energy. Abandoned by their true owner, these fabric infants offer troubling spectatorship. To peer upon these deeply biographical works feels like a transgression. But that is entirely the point - women, fabric, and art and how these elements have weaved in out of public consciousness is brought into focus, and we are forced to confront all three.