Louise Bourgeois ‘The Woven Child’

Spider (1997)

Bodies without heads. Heads without bodies. And spiders: huge spiders.

‘The Woven Child’ – The Hayward Gallery’s major retrospective of French-American artist Louise Bourgeois- is discombobulating, confrontational, and for the arachnophobes among us, terrifying.

Walking into the exhibition is like walking into a house of horrors. Strange, hybrid objects with dismembered mannequin limbs are strung up like carcasses. Delicate and ghostly lingerie pieces hang off huge cattle thighbones. It’s as if Goya’s hanged men, Soutine’s slabs of meat, and Bacon’s twisted forms have all turned up to the party.

And then there are the infamous ‘cells’. Referring to both captivity and fundamental biological structures, these self-enclosed spaces give the viewer a glimpse into Bourgeois’ private pain. In The View of the World of The Jealous Wife (2001) we witness a tense stand-off in a cage between three headless female figures while two giant marble balls dominate the floor. Stepping back, it becomes clear that the composition is phallic. The visual joke discloses Bourgeois’ past: her father’s philandering (and particularly his 10-year affair with her teenage governess) marked her deeply, leading to life-long feelings of betrayal and mistrust.

In another cell titled Lady in Waiting (2003), jokes are replaced by nightmares. A small fabric figure sits inside a display cabinet. She is impaled and pinned to her chair by the knife-like legs of a steel spider. Its legs protrude from her stomach and her mouth, creating another disturbing hybrid. This lady is going to be waiting for a very long time…

Just as Bourgeois’ cells give her anxieties and traumas physical form, her ‘portrait cells’ personify emotions. Stuffed fabric heads stare back at you, some open-mouthed laughing, crying, or screaming; others like The Mute (2001) have no mouth at all. By giving our emotions faces, Bourgeois externalises, isolates, and confronts them.

Throughout this exhibition, heads and bodies are strikingly separated from each other, occupying liminal spaces.  It’s tempting to wonder what a Freudian would make of the dislocation and fragmentation, especially given Bourgeois’ 30-year stint in psychoanalysis. While her relationship with psychoanalysis was complicated, art offered Bourgeois, in her own words, a ‘guarantee of sanity’.

Sanity comes not through resolution but through repetition; Bourgeois often referenced Camus’ essay on Sisyphus and claimed that ‘an artist performs his/her problems…the representation…continually repeats’. This is best seen in an entire room dedicated to Bourgeois’ ambivalence surrounding motherhood. In works such as The Reticent Child (2003), Umbilical Cord (2000), and The Good Mother (2003), small woven figures –impassive pink babies and manic mothers – play out her anxieties over and over.

Rejection (2001)

‘I need to make things’ Bourgeois once declared, ‘The physical interaction with the medium has a curative effect. I need the physical acting out. I need to have these objects exist in relation to my body’. Bourgeois’ textiles give shape to the inchoate, express what cannot be articulated in words, and give a whole new meaning to the idea of airing one’s dirty laundry.

And the spiders? Even as a fully paid-up arachnophobe I have to admit that the gigantic Spider (1997) is the star of the show. It awaits you upstairs like a nasty surprise, straddling yet another cage. This time the chair inside is empty but there are various cherished personal belongings in the cage, including bottles of Bourgeois’ favourite perfume. Is the spider standing guard over these treasures? Bourgeois certainly takes a much more benevolent attitude towards these creatures than I do, viewing them as the ultimate symbol of creativity, fellow weavers, and crucially, repairers. She noted the resilience and perseverance of these artisans: ‘if you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it’.

Later on, doing my best to get that spider out of my head, it occurred to me that it wasn’t just protecting bottles of perfumes. It’s watching over the entire motley crew of heads and bodies: they might be a bit weird, they’re often ugly, and some of them are scary but there is a certain vulnerability to them. Alone and exposed, they seem in need of emotional repair. I’m not often reassured by the presence of a spider but in this case, I’ll make an exception.

Dr Emma Syea is a Visiting Research Fellow in Philosophy at King’s College London and a Lecturer in Philosophy at Florida State University.