The Return of the Repressed

Last Thursday evening I went to the talk How Does Textile Work? at the Freud Museum. The talk centred on the current Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the museum, The Return of the Repressed.

In my previous post on Bourgeois, I mentioned that "The return of the repressed" is one of only two segments of text printed on to pages of Bourgeois' fabric book, Ode à l’Oubli.

The talk was by art historian Claire Pajaczkowska, whose essay Tension, Time and Tenderness: Indexical Traces of Touch in Textiles I am currently reading for research.

Pajaczkowska began her talk by saying that Bourgeois came to textiles at the beginning and end of her life; she grew up in a family tapestry-restoring business, and created works from a lifetime's archive (or hoard) of clothes and domestic textiles in her final years. Bourgeois was interested in different types of threads; fibre threads, threads of drawing, threads of writing. Threads were woven into the search for her own identity. She was fascinated by the alchemy of tapestry and the repairing process; she once said that she "always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage."

The name "Louis" (or Louise) was a narrative thread running through the Bourgeois family; her grandfather and father were both named Louis, and her son Jean-Louis. Pajaczkowska remarked that the "e" which turns "Louis" into "Louise" is like a thread going back on itself, going back on a memory.

Pajaczkowska spoke of how the textile is an agent of boundaries which delineates; for example the boundary between clothes and naked skin, between the public and the private. She sees thread as a metaphor for filial relations, as in the threads of a family tree. She spoke of webs and networks as being the privilege of textiles.

Kristeva's theory of the abject, which I have recently been struggling with, came up in the conversation. Bourgeois would go to the meat market and buy huge haunches of meat which she would cast in plaster and then in latex. Rotting flesh is considered abject - it was once alive and now isn't, reminding us of our own mortality. Pajackowska argued that an untitled piece in the exhibition, a hanging slab of meat with genitalia and breast-like protusions, was more challenging than Bourgeois' latex pieces, due to the familiarity and domesticity of the pink towelling it is made from. In fact, the domestic materials Bourgeois used, constructed using child-like techniques, could be considered the opposite of the "serious" art world. Bourgeois operated beyond "taste", and there is a horror (or abjection) of this for the art world. The domestic materials, combined with the crude finish/stitching may horrify "fine" artists. Pajackowska spoke about the "seemingness" of the seams of Bourgeois' work.

The other major theme of Pajaczkowska's talk was that of "holding", both with the hands, and that of immaterial, conceptual containers. All textiles have a tactile quality, but many of the pieces in the exhibition had a particularly touchable quality; I wanted to hold them but couldn't due to the ettiquette of the gallery visit.

 Untitled, 2001, fabric and aluminium. Similar to the fabric heads in the exhibition at The Freud Museum.
Stitches hold everything together (back to the reparative power of the needle again).

The child psychoanalyst DW Winnicott came up with a concept of holding, which he saw as an important component of a mother caring for her child. This "holding" is explored in Bourgeois' piece The Dangerous Obsession, which depicts a cloth woman holding an orb which could represent a new-born child. The pair are enclosed within a glass dome, perhaps demonstrating their all-absorbing relationship. The title of the piece could refer both to motherhood which overtakes a woman's life, and to the creative process.

The Dangerous Obsession, 2003
Interestingly, Winnicott wrote that the child moves on from being held by its mother to holding a "transitional object" made of textiles, such as a comfort blanket or soft toy.

Pajaczkowska explained that the making of objects "held" Bourgeois; she was wrapped up in it, as soon as she had finished making one she would move on to another.

Visitors to the exhibition are then "held" in investigating the work.

There is holding in my book; the book will hold the pages together, and the pockets handkerchiefs and the history and stories which go with them, as well as soft sculpture pieces.

I was pleased to learn at the talk that there is a playful aspect to Bourgeois' work. She enjoyed punning and language play, for example in her series of Femmes-Maisons; "femme-maison" means "housewife" in French. In this series, Bourgeois translated this into literal "house-woman" - women with houses for head.

Femme-Maison, 1945 - 1947

This appeals to me as a writer whose work often employs punning.

"Like a baby book?"

When I tell people that I'm making a soft sculpture book, that is often their first question.

I am not making a baby book; I am making a book which explores the softness of women. A book composed of layers (tissues, fabric?) of women's history, women from my family, women to whom the handkerchiefs concealed in the pockets of the book belonged.

On Being Soft is a patchwork book on two levels; a book patched together out of fragments of fabric, and of fragments of text; of overhead conversations and asides, text messages, private thoughts. Of scraps.

The book artist and critic Johanna Drucker wrote in her essay Intimate Authority: Women, Books, and the Public-Private Paradox that It is not by accident that we see so many materials in  their (women’s) (book)works: doilies, pieces of silk, fragments of kimonos, clothing scraps, soap, photographs, small scrolls, jars and other containers, reused stamps, buttons, ribbons, snippets of this and that.

One female artist who constructed a number of soft books from a life's stash of "snippets of this and that" was Louise Bourgeois. Two, Ode à l’Oubli and Ode à la Bièvre, made in 2002 when Bourgeois was ninety, are constructed from linens she collected over the course of her life, including, Ann Coxon tells us in her book Louise Bourgeois, "the set of monogrammed napkins from her bridal trousseau that serve as the backing for many of the pages". I sewed on linens of a similar age as these linens in my Cure for Love project, although they were not mine but my great-grandmother's; I haven't lived a lifetime in which to hoard beautiful fabrics rich with memories yet!

Speaking of memory, Ode à l’Oubli translates roughly as "Ode to Forgetfulness"; it is the product of a long, rich life. I wonder if the phrase "I had a flashback of something that never existed", printed in red ink on one of the fabric pages of the book, is a wry reference to senility? Certainly Bourgeois' mind was sharp until the very end; she produced art right up until the week before her death.

The only other text which appears in the book is also printed in red ink on old linen (red was a very significant colour for Bourgeois; she wrote that it was both the colour of blood and the colour of paint). It reads "The return of the repressed". Ode à l’Oubli is a book about repressed memories which rise unbidden to the surface; Coxon writes that its pages "tell a story perhaps only truly readable to the artist herself".

The pages of the book are buttoned into the binding so that they may be taken out and displayed on a wall. The pages of my book will also be removable and rearrangeable; each will have a pair of button-holes and will be tied into the cover with ribbon.

There is currently a Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Freud Museum which borrows its title, The Return of the Repressed, from Ode à l’Oubli. I will be visiting the Museum soon to see some of Bourgeois' textile textual art in person.