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The power behind the needle

Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child
Hawyard Gallery, London

In conversation with

March 7, 2022

A major exhibition housed at the Hayward Gallery in London contributes to crown definitively the legend of Louise Bourgeois, the eternal child, twelve years after her death, through a retrospective that aims to focus on a specific aspect of her large production: her fabric works. The use of clothes and shreds of heterogeneous fabrics for domestic use becomes a recurring element of the French artist's works from the 1990s: abandoned the materials of traditional sculptural practice, they become part of the formal vocabulary of her creations as real pieces of life.

The use of the textile becomes a pretext to mend the plots of memory and the past: as often happens in Bourgeois's work, it leads back to the artist's biography and personal experience. It is an echo of the childhood lived in France and, in particular, of the work of her parents, who owned a gallery and a workshop for the restoration of antique tapestries at the beginning of the twentieth century, where the young Louise lent help. Her sculptures tell her own personal story, through garnements actually worn and fabrics physically exposed to the skin.

Old clothes invade the Cells, structures conceived as rooms in which the artist expresses a sense of confinement and reclusion: they concretize Bourgeois's mental content, thoughts, anxieties, emotions and fears; they are seductive and evocative reconstructions that invite the viewer into a voyeuristic show. In Cell VII (1998), the visitor's gaze is granted only through a faint opening in the cell door that reveals the miniature reconstruction of her childhood home and her clothes and her mother’s one. Shapes, colors and smells of the clothes kept in the wardrobes change constantly but, as the artist herself stated, they are like signals that indicate the way of the past: their reuse is a way to penetrate the moods of the various stages in her life, as a woman and as an artist.

Among the installations on display, Spider (Cell) (1997) includes pieces of ancient tapestry and the sculpture of the huge spider that dominates, incorporating it, the composition bounded by the wire mesh: it returns the figure of the famous Maman in bronze, the monumental work that reproduces the features outside scale of a spider, a recurring symbolic element in his production. It is a protective animal but also a predator and at the same time an allegory of the artistic experience: the spider that weaves the web from its own body, as the artist reconstructs her own story with her own hands.

The Woven Child, 2003
 — Fabric and color lithograph book, 6 pages
 28.6 x 22.9 x 5.1 cm

At the London exhibition there are over ninety works carried out over the last decades of her production through the use of pieces of cloth, fabrics, rags, bobbins and clothes that she has accumulated over the course of her life, but also collages, books, albums sketches and drawings. The show creates a path made up of continuous formal references and thematic revivals with the historical works of Bourgeois, in a close dialogue with her past.

Stitched, stuffed and stretched, she creates figurative sculptures of fantasy bodies, with almost terrifying features, which bring to mind the suspended world of fairy tales and mythology. Presented in showcases like ancient idols or hung from the ceiling, we find assemblages of anatomical parts coming from the universe of the feminine, a series of disturbing heads, disfigured, and headless bodies. Their terrifying character create a sharp contrast with the softness of the materials and the tenderness of gestures, like in the deep hug shown in Couple IV (1997).

They are like patchworks on which the artist left deep scars through the seams. The needle is associated with power: it allows to mend, or to repair what is torn and damaged, but at the same time, it is like a request for forgiveness. The very act of working with needle and thread constitutes for the artist an attempt to keep the pieces of her existence together.

The work with fabric and the application of sewing also lead to a reflection on the exploration of the topic of gender identity, which makes the concept of the exhibition more relevant than ever. As activities that have always been considered a purely feminine prerogative and that have always been ascribed to the typically domestic dimension, they manifest the concerns of a woman artist in the face of the misogynistic society she worked in and the urgent need to affirm the artistry and dignity of these long-established techniques.

The Woven Child show is a visceral exhibition that takes the viewer into the creative womb of Louise Bourgeois: it stages the inner visions and obsessions of the sculptress who made her life into her greatest work of art.

Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child

curated by Ralph Rugoff, with Katie Guggenheim and Curatorial Marie-Charlotte Carrier

Hawyard Gallery, Southbank Centre, London

Unitl May 15th 2022

The exhibition will tour to Gropius Bau, Berlin from 22 July to 23 October 2022.

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2002, tapestry and aluminum

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2007. fabric

Mark-Blower, Louise Bourgeois-Hayward-0033

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