Ever since I learned about the enormous spider sculptures and the surreal installations made by the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, I have been waiting for the day when I would get the chance to experience Bourgeois’s art live. That chance came the day before Christmas when I headed to Louisiana, the museum of modern art in Humlebæk, Denmark, to attend one of their current exhibitions: Louise Bourgeois – Structures of Existence: The Cells.
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) was born in Paris. Her parents earned their living selling and restoring old tapestries. This tapestry business, as well as Bourgeois’s relationship with her parents, has left a deep mark on Bourgeois’s artistry clearly evident in Structures of Existence: The Cells.
Bourgeois began her academic trajectory by studying mathematics and geometry, but eventually switched to studying art. In 1938, Bourgeois and her husband Robert Goldwater, an American art historian, moved to New York City. In New York City, Bourgeois moved in different art circles and activist groups. She also taught at various institutes such as the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. It was not until 1982 that Bourgeois got her big break with a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She was 71 years old at the time. These days Bourgeois is considered to be one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, on par with for example Picasso.
As the name suggests, the main attraction of Structures of Existence: The Cells is a vast selection of the so called cells that Bourgeois constructed. The term plays on all the different meanings of the word – from prison cells to the building blocks of life – and refers to independent spatial units made up by old doors or wire mesh and filled with carefully arranged objects, furniture, clothes, fabrics and/or sculptures.
The first cell the visitor encounters when entering the exhibition is also the first cell Bourgeois made: Cell I (1991). It is in many ways a good representation of what Bourgeois’s cells are all about. The outer boundary of this cell is made up of old wooden doors that have been joined together. Inside the enclosure the doors constitute stands a table cluttered with glass jars and a bed on which embroidered fabrics are spread. One of them reads, “Art is the guarantee of sanity.” Another one reads, “I need my memories. They are my documents”. Peeking into Cell I is like looking into a big room box that represents a room in a dream rather than an actual room. The feeling is familiar yet strange, comforting yet unsettling, personal yet universal.
My personal favorite among the cells is In and Out (1995). It consists of two units: a big organically shaped lump in pink and a big cube that seems to be made up of a greenhouse integrated with mirrors and meat-grinders. At the center of the cube a male mannequin lies arching his back. The work is equally beautiful and disturbing, and as such it fully captivates my eye and my imagination. I find myself going back to it again and again, which to me is a clear sign of being in the presence of good art.
Just as beautiful as In and Out, but more serene than disturbing, is Cell (The Last Climb) (2008), the last cell Bourgeois made before her death. Inside a cylinder shaped wire mesh cage a rusted spiral staircase leads up through the roof to nowhere. Transparent blue glass spheres orbit around the staircase as if they together made up an orrery. On the floor of the cage lie two wooden spheres. At a closer look, a loose web of thin threads connected to needles and spools is also found in the cell. There is an unmistakable celestial air about this piece that the title only confirms. I imagine how it would be to enter the cell and climb those stairs. Probably even more devotional.
There are many times during my visit to the exhibition that I find myself keen on entering a cell in order to immerse myself in its psychologically tense scenario completely. I am however prohibited, just like any other visitor – no one is allowed inside. That is not how it was supposed to be. When Bourgeois made her cells her intention was to let visitors enter them. The people behind the exhibition have however decided to overrule that intention. I can see why this decision has been made. Many of the objects making up the cells are fragile and delicate and surely haven’t become less so with the passing of time. Letting people inside means risking greater wear of the pieces. Still I find it rather remarkable to change an artistic vision that much. Being restricted to the role of a voyeur is quite different from being given the opportunity to become a participant. By this I’m not saying it is not enough. It is. Bourgeois’s works have plenty to offer the way they are exhibited at Louisiana. All I’m saying is that it is different.
Structures of Existence: The Cells is, however, not only about the cells; it also showcases a selection of Bourgeois’s smaller sculptures, paintings and drawings. Some of these I find to end up in the shadows of the cells, in many cases probably undeservingly so. Others I find to be a good complement to the cells. Yet others I find to be just as strong in themselves as many of the best cells. I Give Everything Away (2010), a series of six large-format hand-colored etchings, adhere to the latter category. They were completed by Bourgeois near the end of her life and combine vibrant, fleshy drawings with shakily hand-written sentences. Read together they say, “I give everything away. I distance myself from myself. From what I love most. I leave my home. I leave the nest. I am packing my bags.” Powerful is an understatement.
Louise Bourgeois – Structures of Existence: The Cells is open at Louisiana until February 26th. Make sure to visit it, preferably on a date or a time when the number of visitors is low. The exhibition greatly benefits from being experienced in tranquil solitude.