Walking into the exhibit “Louise Bourgeois: Sleepwalking” is like suddenly stepping onto the very border between sleep and wakefulness, the border where human imagination, completely uncensored, generates visual embodiments of memories, fears and obsessions. The spiral lines and round shapes of both the sculptures and paintings in the exhibition seem to melt into one another, forming a seemingly endless repetition of arching lines.
Bourgeois called the drawings she created between November 1994 and June 1995 “insomnia drawings” because she drew them at night, while listening to the quite hum of a radio, the sound of the traffic outside, and, the exhibition notes suggest, the monotonous voice of a metronome. The drawings, consisting of geometric shapes repeated numerous times, function as Louise Bourgeois’s “drawing diary.” They represent shapes that either calmed the artist or helped her reflect on what had happened during the preceding day.
The most prevalent shape in these is the circle, a visualization of the cyclesthrough which a human mind turns each time night and day change, cycles that connect past, present and future into a single never-ending spiral. “Every day you abandon your past or accept it and then if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor,” said Bourgeois in a comment posted on the wall of the exhibition.
Her sculpture The Spider is an echo of past thoughts and longings, inspired by a disturbing family life. The artist comments that the spider is a representation of her mother, revealing her as a cornered victim, yet powerful enough to corner others. The tentacles of the spider represent the palpability of the psychological power and the control the mother can exercise over the house.
Extended tentacles and round protruding shapes abound in Bourgeois’ work. These can be perceived as landscape features as well as body parts, like these in Veine Noire (black vein), a black-and-white marble sculpture representing a dense conglomerate of round protuberances. Another sculpture, Nature Study # 3, represents a human hand emerging out of an orb of entangled tentacles. Having emerged, the hand grasps one of the spiraling tentacles as if in an attempt to free itself of their hold. This surreal scene of corporeal birth reveals Bourgeois’s art as a mixture of figuration and abstraction.
Bourgeois’s fascination with the arches and protuberances of the human body is further exhibited in the sculpture The Arch of Hysteria, a headless human body, suspended in mid-air by a cord. The protruding ribs and pelvic bones of the body underline the sharp curve of the spine. Legs and arm hang heavily, almost touching one another, to close the arch, symbolic of sexual pleasure and hysteria.
The curving and spiral shapes are built into what is almost a labyrinth of arches and circles, a dreamlike world whose idiosyncrasy is by no means contrived. The visual effects or repetitive patterns are rendered even more expressive by a four-minute audio piece calledÂ Otte, in which Bourgeois sings a song, making masculine words sound feminine by giving them the ending “otte.” Every action performed by a male has a softer “otte” female equivalent, turning the song into a witty play of words, exposing gender stereotypes.
The ringing, slightly monotonous sound of the piece resonates in the exhibition every ten minutes, adding to the feeling of dreamy sleeplessness that seems to unite the arching, spiraling, cyclical shapes, which comprise Bourgeois’s paintings and sculptures. The artist strives to express her restless, turbulent imagination through the almost obsessive repetition of these shapes. Perhaps this imagination is comprised of elements from the past, accepted or abandoned, yet continuing to live in the labyrinths of a sleepless mind. Or perhaps it was just the whirlpool of sensations that the present breathes and the future will carry.