Louise Bourgeois: Knots and Sutures

by Philip Larratt-Smith

Louise Bourgeois, Twosome, 1991. Installation view, ‘Louise Bourgeois: The Eternal Thread’, Long Museum, Shanghai, China © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, New York/DACS, London. Photo: Yang Jiaxi and Zhu Zhe (Jiaxi & Zhe)

  • Mar 29, 2019

In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1920), Freud described observing a game with a spool and thread invented by his grandson Ernst. The infant boy would throw the spool out of his crib and then use the thread to retrieve it, accompanying his actions with the words fort and da (German for ‘gone’ and ‘there’). Freud perceived that this simple game was in fact a symbolic action allowing Ernst to master his anxiety over being separated from his mother Sophie (represented here by the spool and thread) and, by extension, to renounce the immediate instinctual gratification of the maternal breast in favour of the sublimated satisfaction of his game.

Louise Bourgeois suffered from a lifelong fear of abandonment, and much of her art making was aimed at addressing and warding off this fear. In 1991, at the age of 79, she created ‘Twosome’ , a mechanised installation that symbolically enacts an endless pas de deux of isolation and togetherness, separation and return. A cylindrical tank mounted on a track slides slowly in and out of a larger cylindrical casement. Both tank and casement are painted black, which for Bourgeois was the colour of mourning and melancholia. From deep within the casement flashes a revolving red light, a signal of drama and danger. ‘Twosome’  is a diagrammatic image of human existence stripped down to its most elemental tensions and drives (as Bourgeois observed, ‘in and out covers all our functions’).[1]

Louise Bourgeois, The Good Mother, 2003 © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, New York/DACS, London. Photo: Christopher Burke

Louise Bourgeois, Umbilical Cord, 2000 © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, New York/DACS, London. Photo: Christopher Burke

Though often read as depicting the sexual relation of male and female at its most mechanistic, Bourgeois thought of the installation primarily as a portrait of the mother-child dyad which, according to Freud, sets the template for all future relationships. The union of mother and child that obtains when the child is still in utero is the primordial two-in-one. This ideal state of perfect security and comfort comes to an end when the child is pushed out into the world with all its attendant perils. Bourgeois once wrote ‘to be born is to be’ [2] an equation that frames the passage into being as the traumatic separation from the maternal body. The chain linking the smaller and larger components of ‘Twosome’ represents the umbilical cord that is severed shortly after birth but that metaphorically binds mother and child together forever. Several openings cut in the side of the casement and tank were based on the windows and doors of Bourgeois’s country home in Easton, Connecticut, a characteristic conflation of house and maternal body that points to the domestic origin of the trauma. Like the fort-da game,‘Twosome’ is a psychic mechanism for coping with the reality of separation while also representing the unceasing push-and-pull between mother and child at the level of the unconscious.

Louise Bourgeois, The Trauma of Abandonment (detail), 2001 © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, New York/DACS, London. Photo: Christopher Burke

Louise Bourgeois, Torment, 1999 © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, New York/DACS, London. Photo: Christopher Burke

This unbroken bond is one meaning of the eternal thread motif that runs through Bourgeois’s oeuvre. The return to the mother in Bourgeois’s final twenty years was in part a response to her increasing physical frailty and dependency on others, and perhaps also a reckoning with her own impending mortality. Broadly speaking, for the first forty years of her career Bourgeois worked under the influence of a powerful identification with, and complex reaction against, her father. From the late 1980s on, however, her art making underwent a gradual reorientation, both in its motivational impulses and in its forms, processes, and materials, towards a maternal identification. The work made during the first period attempts, in Bourgeois’s words, ‘the unravelling of a torment,’[3] and centres on the problematic relationship with her father which, like a stubborn and intractable knot, becomes more entangled the more she tries to untie it. Unresolved conflicts and traumas from the past would be carried forwards to snarl up and complicate her relations in the present. For instance, Bourgeois’s inability to break her Oedipal deadlock (rivalry with her mother, romantic fixation on her father) would be played out with her husband, children, friends, and fellow artists. The oscillation between aggression and withdrawal that characterises this period gives way in later years to an emphasis on restoration and reparation that coincides with the ascendency of her mother. The eternal thread becomes a suture that closes a wound so that it can heal. – The above text has been excerpted from Philip Larratt-Smith’s essay ‘Knots and Sutures,’ included in ‘Louise Bourgeois: The Eternal Thread,’ published on the occasion of the eponymous traveling exhibition, on view at Song Art Museum, Beijing from 23 March – 23 June 2019.

[1] Louise Bourgeois in Robert Storr, ed., Dislocations (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1991), 37[2] Bourgeois, ca. 1990s, loose sheet, LB-0009.[3] Bourgeois, 6 June 1994, diary entry.