Opening Disclaimer: Please note as was expressed in booking at the gallery, it is important to mention that should you wish to visit, the following exhibition includes artistic depictions of a sexual nature, nudity, pregnancy and childbirth – which may or may not be triggering to those attending or reading this article.
It was my absolute pleasure to spend a Spring afternoon at the Hayward Gallery in London, exploring this vast yet intimate collection of key pieces of art by the artist Louise Bourgeois.
I must confess that I knew very little about the artist prior to the exhibition, however am grateful to have a friendship circle whom are self professed textile enthusiasts, and suggested we go together, which in itself was lovely as one of my first ventures back into the “real world” not only post lockdown but also sans children, signalling the transitional end to my maternity leave and return to *clinical work (*I make that distinction as anyone whom has children knows, looking after children is an very much hard work in itself which should be treated with respect and recognition).
The collection itself is the largest curated body of her textile based art work, which I was surprised to find out that she only pieced together in the last two decades of her life, from the age of 80 until her death in 2010, at 98 years young. Of the many reflections I have of the exhibition, this is probably the most poignant, as it got me thinking about how many of us rush through life like there is a deadline to complete, or achieve milestones by a certain age or imaginary date – pressured about the uncertainty of our final hour – when in actual fact there is no age limit on our ability to evolve, create or start a new chapter.
Despite my morbid introduction, the exhibition itself focussed very much on the aspects of birth and mothering, both the child and the woman herself as she is “birthed” into the role of motherhood . Louise was able to articulate and express herself through beautifully intricate yet simple sculptures, paintings, and textiles. She experimented with various fabrics and objects, often jarring with one another (delicate silk lingerie, next to jagged wood for example) the manipulation of a number of techniques to include weaving, embroidery, sculpture, quilting, printing and painting, to name a few.
One of her most famous art installations is that of the Maman, a large sprawling metallic spider sculpture made of steel, which gave her the apt nickname “spiderwoman”. I have memories of this being installed at the Tate Modern in London over twenty years ago now, though at the time in the follies of my youth I never thought to think of its significance. Louise describes the Maman as “an ode to (my) mother” – and likened the spider to mothers in how they weave a web of family life and memories together, and are also helpful and protective creatures as they eat mosquitoes, an insect carrying toxins and that would bring harm to others. This is not unlike the many mothers I meet in clinic and on maternity ward, whom, within a few seconds of giving birth, note a complete overhaul of their priorities, roles and responsibilities, and where the “mama-bear” protectiveness becomes paramount. The Matriarch is born in front of our very own eyes, and even when a child grows up, leaves home and has a family of their own, these somewhat primal instincts and neurochemical tinglings of love and affection never truly fade, as being a mother takes centre stage in her core identity of being.
I was moved by a number of the works, but mostly the namesake of the exhibition which was on the ground floor. I was particularly struck by the doll like woven padded female figurines placed in various positions not uncommon in the mothering journey, including the pregnant body, image of the foetus (incased in a pink mesh), lying in the foetal position on the bed and another on her back with baby born still attached by the umbilical cord. The art works were sexual and graphic in nature, and at times shocking and uncomfortable, but still retained an element of femininity and wonder – much like pregnancy and childbirth itself.
Its hard to pick a favourite piece of work, but if I had to choose I would say it was the sculpture of the “Good Mother”, pictured above. It is of a female figure, on her knees, her breasts attached to 5 spools of thread around her. The art evoked in me a strong a sense of sacrifice and selflessness, to have the spools attached, or should I say, literally hanging by a thread off her nipples whilst she has a tired and forlorn expression. I am yet to meet a mother whom has not had that experience, often smiling through the exhaustion, of trying to being more than “good enough” (which although Winnicott writes about poetically, is often easier said than done). I also began to wonder what these spools represent in our busy modern lives – Louise Bourgeois created a lot of art with themes centred around not only motherhood and parenting, but also on domesticity, childhood trauma, hidden emotions, mental health, sexuality and the patriarchy. In actuality, there are many things, places or people, both past and present, in our fantasy and our reality, that we may be holding onto, even by just a thread. Those of you whom have worked with embroidery thread will know that it may appear dainty and fine but it is extremely strong and not something you can easily break – so the act of being pulled in different directions, coupled with our efforts to continue to live up to the exceptions (of ourselves as much as of others), is enough to weigh anyone down.
The Woven Child is on display until the end of the week, 15th May 2022, so if you are in the area and/or passing through Southbank in London and have an interest in motherhood, sexuality, perinatal mental health or just want to see some great textile art – please do consider going along.
Final Disclaimer: It goes without saying, but I suppose I must declare in the world we live in now that this was not a paid or sponsored post – I am not an “influencer” in any fashion, but rather just someone that enjoys art and wanted to share her reflections as a Perinatal Psychiatrist, Mother and Quilter (not necessarily in that order).