Ahead of Louise Bourgeois’s debut institutional retrospective in China at the Long Museum West Bund this November, Sotheby’s Hong Kong presents Untitled from 1998, one of the earliest renditions of the artist’s idiosyncratic vitrine sculptures and a prime example of her mature practice.
B rooding yet enigmatic, evoking a dream-like, faintly ominous aura, Untitled features many of Bourgeois’s most emblematic motifs and visual lexicons: the hand, which recurs throughout her oeuvre; the use of stitched fabric, which recalls the artist’s family’s tapestry repair business; and sexually ambiguous globular forms subjected to a ‘hanging’ disposition, which evoke uncertainty and trauma.
Suspended from a hooked steel ring stand, the tumescent glove and cluster of bulbous appendages nestle against delicately translucent purple glass orbs, whose gleaming cold surfaces offer a jolting contrast to the organic fabric textures.
The motif of the hand can be traced back to Bourgeois’s earliest creative endeavours. As a young girl, Bourgeois was asked to sketch missing parts of tapestries in her father’s Parisian fabric workshop. The artist reflects: “I became an artist, whether I wanted to or not … Very early it was easy for me to draw the missing parts of these large tapestries. There were always missing parts, whether an arm, a leg, or something else”.
In Bourgeois’s creations, hands and arms occur frequently, often as symbols of intimacy, support and dependence. The artist has stated, with regards to her The Welcoming Hands sculptures from 1996, which depict Bourgeois’s hands clutching those of her assistant and close confidant, Jerry Gorovoy: “When you are at the bottom of the well, you look around and say, who is going to get me out? In this case it is Jerry who comes and he presents a rope, and I hook myself on the rope and he pulls me out”.
“We are all vulnerable in some way”, Bourgeois once said. In the artist’s oeuvre, vulnerability is powerfully communicated via her hanging sculptures, which exist in a permanent state of uncertainty and ambivalence. Ann Coxon summarizes: “Psychologically, hanging refers to a stage of uncertainty (to be left hanging), or of being blocked or stuck with past trauma (hanging on), or of persistent survival (hanging by a thread)”.
Suggesting an open-ended multiplicity of form and meaning, Untitled is a powerfully sensorial and emotive self-portrait. With its use of Bourgeois’s own glove and socks, the work is strongly reminiscent of the artist’s pioneering 1990s Cells installations – theatrical rooms filled with symbolic personal found objects. Here, as in Cells, the viewer plays the part of a voyeuristic observer. And yet, in spite of the propositional nature of the vitrine, its glass surface prevents us from touching its contents. It is this voyeuristic, fetishistic push-and-pull of allusions – simultaneously begging for and refusing understanding – that completes the potently alluring aura of the work.
Widely regarded as one of the most important female artists of the 20th and 21st century, Bourgeois is currently receiving resurging interest and academic attention. In addition to the recent exhibition Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art, New York that ended in January 2018, the artist will be honored with a large-scale survey at the Long Museum West Bund in Shanghai this coming November.