Saturday, July 5, 2008

Taking up room and filling space (Juliet Miller, Louise Bourgeois)

The last two chapters in Juliet Miller's The creative feminine and her discontents focus on the work of two artists: Cornelia Parker and Louise Bourgeois. I like so many of the works that she discusses, especially of course Parker's exploded garden shed ("Cold, Dark Matter: An Exploded View").

But I was particularly struck by some of Bourgeois' pieces. "The Destruction of the Father," for example, is a large open mouth-like cavern, filled with smooth forms that might be teeth. In the middle is a table with smaller forms on it.

For Bourgeois, it harks back to memories of childhood dinners that were ruled over by her father in a nervous and stifling way. In her later imagination, she tries to break with the claustrophobia of those dinners by reconstructing it: this time, in her art work, the father is thrown on the table, dismembered, and devoured - creating a different and more disturbing form of claustrophobia in the viewer. Bourgeois rekindles the memory and embodied experience of having to perform "nice", as a girl and young woman, and in this work, as Roger Cook says, "Louise is determinedly not nice" ("Critical essay", Harvest vol. 45, 1999:150). Instead she creates a space for her rage and violent feelings.

"The Destruction of the Father" was made in 1974. Two and a half decades later, Bourgeois made the three towering steel constructions for the opening of the Tate Modern in London, which she named "I Do, I Undo, I Redo".

Each of the three constructions had a set of steps and mirrors at the top, and visitors were invited to enter into them. The coupling of love and destruction - "I Do, I Undo" - were here followed by the possibility of reparation, "I Redo". But, as Juliet Miller points out, the most powerful thing that the towers communicated was their enormous size and the way in which they filled up the space. Miller argues that historically and culturally in the West, "femininity" and being a woman has been associated with making and containing space, such as in the home, rather than moving into, filling out or affecting space (p. 30-31). Bourgeois' sculptures then are also interesting in the way they challenge what it means to be a woman: "Here was a woman taking up room and filling space with a freedom and abandon not usually associated with the feminine" (p. 117).

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