Archive for October 1st, 2019

Attentive Looking. Louise Bourgeois: Arched Figure

All the time in the world.

Slow down. Pay attention. You have all the time in the world.

I say it to myself. I write it in my journal. Again and again. And just at the moment, it’s working for me.

Of course it’s not true. Which doesn’t bother me because (a) at the moment I don’t believe in “true” as more than an unrealisable, unreconcilable, abstract concept, a simplification ignoring multiple perspectives in a complex world; and more importantly just now (b) if I act as if it’s true interesting things happen.

In the Creative Research program Ruth Hadlow has been teaching us to be attentive. Read a book or essay one chapter, one page, one paragraph, one sentence, one word at a time. Engage. Unpack. Think about what’s being said, how it’s being said, what it is about the work that is interesting you, what your own response is, what is happening between you and the work, how your life experience meets it, how it could extend or change your ideas, your practice. Note the slippage in what I just wrote. The “book or essay” has become a “work” – which could be text, or any type of art work, or an event of almost any kind. A number of us in the class have been facing different life challenges, and we spent time discussing strategies, how to do what we need to do, meet obligations, manage constraints and desires, be responsive and responsible and caring, all within a framework of practice that is sustaining and sustainable.

Easy, right? That’s why they call it “practice” – no end point???

Louise Bourgeois
Arched Figure
1993, cast 2010
bronze, fabric, wood and metal

This work can be seen for another week or two in Here we are at AGNSW. This exhibition “features new acquisitions for the Gallery’s collection by some of the most compelling women artists at work today. Focusing upon figuration and portraiture, their works present human relationships in all their intricacy, pathos and power.” (from the gallery website).

My purpose here is more practice in attentive looking. Careful looking, and for my own purposes, watching my own reactions, my own thoughts.

The work is in the centre of a fairly large gallery, and dominates. I’ve seen it previously, in a much smaller, more intimate area as part of Nude: art from the Tate collection, accompanied by a series of gouache drawings, and included in a section titled “The vulnerable body”. In this larger space that vulnerability has dissipated. I feel less carer or protector, more voyeur. Indeed the body is almost brutally displayed, immediately visible to those travelling down on the nearby escalator. It’s almost like a butcher’s window display. On one visit to the work my thoughts were interrupted by a sudden thump and flurry. Another visitor had tripped on the low plinth and almost joined the tableau, but quickly recovered and continued videoing on his mobile phone, with a quick glance around for more targets, a cruise past two wall works, and on out the entryway.

Am I looking at a spasm of agony, or is it ecstasy? The body is a lean male, and while I first accepted it without question, the longer I look the more it seems unsettlingly mis-proportioned. Just slightly wrong. And the bronze has an unhealthy greenish mottling under the polish.

There is no head, no arms. The contorted arch of the spine, the toes clenching or stretched as the muscles writhe and jerk, express everything. A lecture by Michael Hill on “Rodin’s abject and fragmented bodies” earlier this year introduced me to the idea of the “complete fragment” – just the phrase I find haunting. From Albert Elsen’s book Rodin: “By substituting the test of esthetic and expressive validity for the conventional ideal of completeness, Rodin opened important avenues for the equivalence of form and meaning, through which the modern sculptor could make the human body correspond more completely to his own thought and feeling.” (This may seem to step away from my own attentive looking, but the call to my own recent musing and research is part of the attraction of the work for me). In a physical extreme, the intellect, the head, is not needed. No voice is needed.

The contortion, the muscles in spasm, could be agony or ecstasy. Are we always sure of a difference? Back to Elsen, quoting Rodin’s comments on Michelangelo: “All his statues are so constrained by agony that they seem to wish to break themselves. They all seem ready to succumb to the pressure of despair which fills them.” A veneer of knowledge of Bourgeois’ biography and obsessions suggests agony as a reasonable reading of the work.

One of the readings in the Creative Research program was John Berger’s essay A Story for Aesop, particularly for the example of attentive looking in practice. Berger extrapolates a meandering narrative from his viewing of Velázquez’s painting. Even a generous photo on the Museo del Prado website doesn’t support me in following Berger’s thread. Still, the point of this is not to be “right”. It’s to be engaged. To think. To react. To expand and deepen…

So following my own thoughts, I consider the blanket-covered mattress. It reminds me of the beautiful woollen onkaparinga blankets we used to have (I know mum still uses her’s). The domestic clashes with the crucified (?) figure – that arch of the spine recalls so many crucifixes. An arch, a bridge going nowhere, connecting nothing, a frenzy of denial. And in an awkward segue I must admit my own denial, rejection – of the intense emotion I see, of the role of voyeur, of the exploitation of biography for art.


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