Louise Bourgeois

Mortal elements – interview with artist Louise Bourgeois

Like ancient sites abandoned for centuries, Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures remind me of the basic fact of impermanence, yet they can feel as familiar as a recurring dream suddenly recollected. In her installations, psychological relationships among objects are as important as formal ones: this work is sculpture but it is about memory, and the fragility and isolation of the individual–how even a heart of stone is as fragile as a bubble of glass, at the core nothing more than air and dust. Through her use of materials–found objects along with made sculptural elements–Bourgeois creates physical order out of emotional disorder. This is art, not as therapy, but as a transformation of emotion into physical form.

In the conversation that follows, conducted on March 18 at her New York studio, Bourgeois discusses both the work that will be unveiled at the Venice Biennale this summer and the 1992 Documenta installation that preceded it.

LOUISE BOURGEOIS: All of you interviewers flock upon me like birds–to say what? My work is finished; I can’t go through this again. During the BBC film, there were six people around all day. Finally, I’ve succeeded in totally exhausting myself. This is completely unjustified. You people want me to do all the work.

PAT STEIR: That’s what an interview is. . . .

LB: I’m a sculptor, not an entertainer. Or rather, I have discovered that I am an entertainer despite myself. People actually laugh at me, God bless them; I’m rather flattered, but there is a limit.

PS: The piece you displayed last year at Documenta is titled Precious Liquids.

LB: Actually the piece has two titles. Welded in steel over the entrance to its interior is an inscription that says, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” I did not say that it was the guarantee of sanity. There are lots of others. Art is just one way of reaching an equilibrium–of becoming a sociable person.

PS: What about the bed with the little puddle on it and the glass shapes hovering near it?

LB: Here we are dealing with bodily functions; when we are in a tense state, our muscles tighten; when they relax and the tension goes down, a liquid is released. Intense emotions become physically liquid–a precious liquid. That’s where the title comes from. So it is all a matter of being in touch with that flowing of liquids. I could give you a dozen examples–if you are terribly hungry saliva comes at the sight of a lamb chop. In this piece the liquid is suggested by the glass shapes; some are closed like drops and others, open like funnels, are metaphors for the muscles of the body.

PS: What about the tall coat and the little coat?

LB: The coat represents, you might say, the tragedy of the voyeur.

PS: The flasher, in English?

LB: The French do not have that beautiful word. But yes, he refuses to get out of the place. He’s not a casual presence. He’s a very pestering presence. Inside the flasher’s coat there is a little white dress–the dress of, say, a twelve-year-old girl. That little female presence probably has to do with certain memories of mine. Actually, the person who enters the piece should open the coat and see what is in there. On the little dress there’s the embroidery “mercy merci” . . . at that point we are done with the flasher. He is a compulsive creature.

PS: Precious Liquids is very claustrophobic and dark inside; in the Venice pieces nothing is hidden.

LB: But there is a relation between the new work and Precious Liquids in terms of subject matter; they both involve the story of the unconscious–you have to bear it and, if you are gifted and generous enough, and if you like yourself enough, you will come to terms with it.

PS: One way or the other.

LB: The point is that the unconscious is there to stay, bothering you all the time. But you have to make peace with it. In Precious Liquids the girl, for her own protection, for the sake of her own sanity–we go back to sanity–has to come to terms with the flasher. So she closes her eyes, refuses to see him, and turns the matter around by taking refuge in his coat. This is a metaphor for the artist. If the artist cannot deal with everyday reality, the artist will retreat into his or her unconscious and feel at ease there, limited as it is–and frightening sometimes. But since love excludes fear–this is the deepest interpretation–suddenly if you are in love, you are not afraid anymore. This is amazing, but it is true. The little girl has taken the unconscious, not as an enemy, but as a refuge.

PS: I was interested that the figure in Cell (Arch of Hysteria) is male. It is unusual, because the hysteric was always a woman.

LB: This goes back to Precious Liquids, because this is really about tension, the body. The fact that it is a man is not terribly important. It is a remark about the hysterical, and in the time of Jean Martin Charcot, any ill, any disease, was attributed to hysteria, to be precise, and hysteria was attributed to women, which was absurd. This is all it means.

PS: So it’s just a little feminist humor on the way. But I’m still curious about the hysteric as a man.

LB: Yes, well, you are asking too much. If you say, Louise, How is it that this is next to that; what’s the relation? if you ask me precise questions about the visual, I prefer this to the interpretative attitude of the art critic. It’s very rare to find somebody who is able to bring a piece alive, through description, instead of making pronouncements. So it’s art journalism that I respect. I’m all in favor of art journalism.

PS: |Laughter~

LB: You’re really an inquisitive person. So I’ll tell you first of all that the large object in Cell (Arch of Hysteria) is a saw; you know arms were cut, heads were cut; we needed a saw for that, right? And you don’t have to know exactly what, but something vibrates in you; you see that everything has been cut, so you cut the poor creature, because you have been cut off from your past. It is a move from the passive to the active. In my art I’m the murderer. You understand? Besides this disease |hysteria~ was in fashion at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

PS: I want to know why the objects in the found chairs in Cell (Glass Spheres and Hands) are glass bubbles and not figures. There are so many figures elsewhere in your work.

LB: The glass suggests the infinite fragility of the human person. The artist retreats into the handling of materials, because any materials–marble, bronze, plaster, wax, plastic–are less fragile than human relationships. If I talk to you, I may break everything. But, that’s not my fault; I can be very, very sorry afterwards. But a break in a piece of glass can never be hidden.

PS: |Laughter~

LB: They are transparent bubbles. They’re enclosed; you do not get at them. They are sealed off without the possibility of communication and yet they are together. This is a very pessimistic situation. Suppose I want this person to love me and–they’re a bubble, I have no access; I’m unable to make myself heard or loved. Family of Five is also like a school, a learning situation. Well, this is personal, because I have taught, you know, and that has been my experience.

PS: And the marble hands?

LB: I clasp my hands in despair. Artists are not taught, they are made, they happen by accident; so I despair because I have no impact on them.

PS: When I first saw Cell (Choisy), I thought that the house was mounted on a sewing-machine stand.

LB: It’s a 19th-century workbench. I find this period of the end of the 19th century–the period of Charcot, the Salpetriere, you know–mysterious. You find these beautiful machines abandoned here in New York: I like the connection, because it is, in a way, a historical piece.

PS: I was wondering also about the house itself. Is it your childhood home?

LB: Yes.

PS: How did you choose pink marble?

LB: Because its color suggests flesh. The marble in many of my recent pieces relates to flesh. It is very difficult to get pink marble. It’s called portugalo, and usually the pink color is ruined by green veins. I can’t accept that. So, this marble is very special.

PS: Are there rooms inside?

LB: Yes, this is an exact reproduction. I could show you where my parents’ room was, with the terrace. I could show you my room, which wasn’t so nice.

PS: You have the guillotine here over the house.

LB: The house represents the past. I go there, it’s demolished. It was replaced by the Paul Eluard theater. The mayor of the little city said, Louise, I am going to put your piece in a park near the town hall; the French government placed a commission with me. It is a tiny place, but at least nobody’s going to come and replace it with a high-rise. The demolition of the house means that the present destroys the past–cuts it, breaks with it. Oh yes, the idea of cutting is terrible. The guillotine appears all the time in my work–remember that poor guy the hysteric; he had no more arms, nothing.

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