Notes on the final session of Transformations, Tate Modern, 10th Dec. 2007.
On Sex and the Body
Many of Louise Bourgeois' sculptures allude to body parts, specifically to penises and to clitorises, and breasts - allude rather than represent in any direct way: Bourgeois transforms body parts into forms which are familiar yet strange. The strangeness is amplified by the ambiguity between male and female. Even something as apparently legible as 'Fillette', turns out on closer inspection to be ensheathed, and not so unambiguously and exclusively male.
In his book Sexual Desire, the philosopher Roger Scruton suggested that the sexual organs can act as a symbol of the body's eventual triumph over the will. This is because, unlike, say our hands, they frequently defy the will. We are to some extent passive in relation to them. They defy our rational control.
Bourgeois on a number of occasions has declared herself an existentialist (and had certainly read Sartre's Existentialism and Humanism - listen to my inadequately recorded podcast on this book here and an interview with Mary Warnock about existentialism here). In contrast to the existentialists' claim that we choose ourselves, decide on our emotions, and on how we feel about the past and the other elements of our facticity, even to the point of turning our own lives into universalizable exemplars of how people should live in our epoch, the body as described by Scruton reminds us, through our sexual organs, that much of how we are in the world is outside our conscious control. For Scruton, the sexual organs are also a reminder of our own death, the final loss of bodily control. (In passing, we note that, where Sartre had us turning each of our lives into works of art through the choices we make for ourselves; Bourgeois through her art transforms the particularities of her own memories into symbols which resonate universally despite their specificity).
It is interesting in the light of this to think about Bourgeois' memory from her art student days of a male nude model looking at a female student and getting an erection and her reaction which was one of seeing his vulnerability: 'We are all vulnerable in some way, and we are all male-female'.
The reference to universal bisexuality could have originated with Freud's view that developmentally we are all bisexual. It may, though, have an earlier source in Plato's Symposium and the myth that Aristophanes tells of the stage when human beings had four arms and four legs, and were simultaneously of both sexes before being cut in two by Hephaestus and doomed to yearn for their (literal) other halves.
As well as the presence of sexual body parts, there is a notable absence of heads. (a castration fantasy?) And where the heads are present, as in the uncanny tapestry and fabric heads in the penultimate room of the exhibition, the features are relatively indistinct. Where there is no head, we are sometimes observers of a scene, in some cases a primal scene. Where, as in 'Rejection', the head is present and is expressive, this is a clear invitation to adopt the stance of the one represented, rather than that of a viewer of what is represented.
The body in sexual interaction, then, or the headless part-body seem to be objects of observation rather than of identification for Bourgeois. Much of her art can be viewed as a struggle to control through art and through revisited memories those elements of her past and of other people's bodies that were initially outside her control. In that sense she is an existentialist.
Overall the aim of this course has been to see Bourgeois' work through the lens of key philosophical ideas, to provide another aspect under which it could be understood and so stimulate and open up new ways of seeing the art.