Diaphanous slip dresses and beaded gowns hang limply from cattle bones, strung up on a macabre clothesline. Blouses are stuffed and stitched shut, padded out like bodies and headed by bone. Assonance collects at the base of this uncanny ‘pole’ piece, the words ‘Seamstress, Mistress, Distress, Stress’ welded in steel.
The Woven Child, Louise Bourgeois’ major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, is redolent with such ghosts from her youth; wronged mothers, hapless mistresses, adulterous fathers and wounded children all have their part to play. The repressed does not return despite her efforts, but because of them, each memory invited in and put to service in Bourgeois’ artistic lexicon.
And return they do, again and again, over the vast display of textile work that was produced in the last 20 years of the artist’s life. The Woven Child documents Bourgeois’ efforts to retrieve, repeat and reexamine personal trauma, each piece diaristic in its intimacy. This exhibition tells the story of a woman in old age “who’s revisiting her entire life and reexperiencing herself as a child”, explains Katie Guggenheim, the show’s Assistant Curator. “There’s a cyclical motion going on here about reliving vulnerability as an older person. It’s telling a story about someone essentially at the end of their life, looking back and identifying with a much younger self.”
Bourgeois’ family is here – her mother in Spider (1997), a towering steel arachnid that guards her domestic cage, decorated with shreds of the tapestries that she wove in life – and her brother, too. His forlorn patchwork head lies on its side in Pierre (1998), ear listening out for a visit from Bourgeois. She never comes, but the number five – the size of both her childhood and adult families – appears in the form of cotton spools, teardrops and bodily protrusions throughout the exhibition.
Relationship power struggles bleed across time and textile, as Bourgeois depicts jealous wives (Cell XXV, 2001) and withdrawn children (The Reticent Child, 2003), alongside figures deformed by their trauma, with severed limbs or many heads (Hysterical, 2001). Her fabric vitrine sculptures show lovers headless in sex, locked in embraces enabled only by prosthetic limbs. They’re wounded. They prop each other up. “The prosthesis refers to people who are handicapped,” Bourgeois once said, “they would like to love, but cannot succeed.”
But for all the violence and wounding in this body of work, there is mending to be found. Psychic wounds are balanced by Bourgeois’ attempts at repair; for every death mask, a libidinal part-object.
There is sexy, sardonic humour and even moments of playfulness throughout the exhibition. Bourgeois’ High Heels (1998) presents a curvaceous caricature of a woman, daring viewers to come closer with false submissiveness. Upstairs, her ‘progressions’ are charming and impossibly balanced, like the building block towers of a fantasy childhood.
The Woven Child is frightening but captivating, full of art that grips deeply and like Bourgeois herself, does not let go. “She changed and evolved so much,” muses Guggenheim. “But we all hold our child selves within us. We’re still children. We’re still in there.”