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Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress, and The Tangerine

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress, and The Tangerine, Dirs: Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach, Opening at Film Forum, June 25

Louise Bourgeois in the documentary film <i>Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine.</i> Photo courtesy of Art Kaleidoscope Foundation.
Louise Bourgeois in the documentary film Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine. Photo courtesy of Art Kaleidoscope Foundation.

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress, and The Tangerine, the final film in The Art Kaleidoscope Foundation’s trilogy of artist documentaries, opens with anxious shots of the wooden exterior of Bourgeois’ Precious Liquids (1992) and coaxes the viewer through the door of the work to examine the bare bed and sensual glass vessels of its interior. Bourgeois declares over an ominous soundtrack: “You have to be very aggressive to be a sculptor, really.” Directed by Amei Wallach and the late Marion Cajori (1950-2006), the film moves on to explore the multiple forms this aggression takes: resistance to material, manipulation of memory, and emotional fortitude. Along with editor Ken Kobland, the directors weave together footage of interviews in Bourgeois’s Brooklyn studio in the ‘90s, images of wounded World War II soldiers, and clips of the artist’s seminal 1978 performance A Fashion Show of Body Parts.

The intimacy of the film is rooted in the fact that Cajori and Wallach favor empathy over voyeurism. True to Bourgeois’s insistence that she is not her body but her body of work, they go as far as to empathize with the artwork itself—the film takes its three-part structure from the title of Bourgeois’s I Do, I Undo, I Redo towers at Tate Modern.

Rather than documenting the details of Bourgeois’s process, the directors focus on fleeting moments of physical interaction between the artist and her completed work—now her hand glides over its marble double, now she tips over an hour glass full of red sand. At one point Bourgeois shakes the legs of one of her giant spider sculptures to verify its strength. “The spider is my mother,” she says, “[It] can be banged around…can take a lot.” Female resiliency in the face of violence comes up often in dialogue with Bourgeois; The Mistress, The Father, and The Mother are inescapable archetypes attached to her complex creations. Artistic “aggression” is not overexposed in the film. Wallach and Cajori preserve the magic of the disproportion between the charming artist and her grand sculptures.

Both in awe of her verve and touched by her vulnerability, commentators in the film temper apt observation with intuitive and candid reflection. Amei Wallach’s interviews piece together Bourgeois’s life and career, from her childhood in war-torn Paris to her influence on the Feminist movement of the ’70s. The artist’s loyal assistant Jerry Gorovoy characterizes Bourgeois, with her intensive focus on personal psychology, imagery, sexuality, and gender, as a welcome relief from the strict formalism of Clement Greenberg and his devotees. “She can be very wounding…” close friend and critic Robert Storr admits, but “she’s creating a world that’s more interesting than it would be if she wasn’t there.” MoMA Curator Deborah Wye exclaims of their first encounter: “I was in her power… it was a transformative event in my life.” In a sexualized moment, Pandora Tabatabai Asbaghi, Curator of the Prada Foundation, lifts a floral print dress hanging from a bone in Untitled (1996) to reveal a wheel—a reference to Duchamp and a symbol of masculinity. As ever, in the shadowy room this piece embodies, Bourgeois has deftly merged male and female, not to mention the organic and the artificial, the elegant and the grotesque.

In an essay in Phaidon’s monograph on the artist, Allan Schwartzman claims of Cell (You Better Grow Up) (1993) “encountering the work is something like looking at an animal in a cage.” Watching Bourgeois move objects around in her Cells and rupture the eerie stillness of their interiors with her voice, the viewer of this film is allowed the rare privilege of inhabiting the charged, “caged” spaces. We see her, playfully regal in a hot pink coat and sparkly cap, casually pick up an oversized spool of red thread in Red Room (Child) (1994) or angle the oval mirror in several directions in Red Room (Parents) (1994) to exhibit the inevitable distortion of memory. If the animal Schwartzman imagines in the Cells is like Rilke’s trapped “Panther” in Paris, we enter the psyche of the beast long enough to glimpse what “rushes down through the tense, arrested muscles, / plunges into the heart and is gone.”

In the film’s most tender segment Bourgeois incises lines into the surface of a tangerine and peels back the shapes of the rind to make a small figure with the fruit’s core as its phallus. She remembers this act as a dinner ritual performed by her father, his “work of art.” “He would stand up and announce that he was making a little portrait of his daughter,” she recalls with tangible shame. He would “marvel” at the tiny phallus and announce his regret that his “daughter [did] not exhibit such beauty.” Her narrative escalates to tears and she exits the room, leaving the figure that had unfurled from the tangerine to wither on the table.

The film pulses to a close with haunting electronic music layered over a series of shots of Bourgeois’s spiders in a sort of glorious infestation of cities around the world. In memoriam of Cajori, Louise Bourgeois fulfills the high expectations set by her previous artist documentaries on Joan Mitchell and Chuck Close.


Laura Hunt

Laura Hunt is an artist living in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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