I went to the recent exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’s late works at Heide twice, the second time with my mother. I could tell you every work in the exhibition, some by name but most by their position within the gallery.
The first room held the stuffed and suspended heads of Cinq (2007) and the barred vitrines of Cell XVII (Portrait) and XXI (Portrait), both completed in 2000. The central room became the final room as I couldn’t encounter the looming sculpture of Spider (1997) front-on in case it vanished. Safer to sidle into a smaller room to where the pale weave of I Am Afraid (2009) stretched along a wall. Late works because Bourgeois was eighty-six in 1997 and ninety-eight in 2009. Older than my mother or I could conceive of; at least twenty years older than her parents and older brother had lived to.
The stitches are so neat, do you think they were done by machine? (Me). Of course not (Mother). Bourgeois because my mother hadn’t been to a museum of contemporary art before and because the abandonment of the mother was something I had failed to complete at eighteen. There is still a mass, fine as fibreglass, between us. She didn’t teach me to sew because I was above things like television and needles.
When I first travelled alone, she gave me a small plastic box with measuring tape and red, green, blue, black thread, but I couldn’t even stitch the buttons of my cheap coats and skirts back on. I guess I’d hoped Genet would teach me how to boil eggs in a microwave, or open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew. No chance. Bourgeois was warned against the needle by her mother – it was too explicit an instrument of reparation. She came before the Arras tapestries in her husband’s workshop, her acquisition of replacement fabrics for those losses eaten by damp and mould and rats before the hands and machines of the weavers.
Later, Bourgeois would refuse to adopt, or pretend she had ever adopted, a devotional attitude towards material. The tapestry fragments (saved from the Choisy-le-Roi workshop) preserved on the wire of Spider are preserved in the sense that a sculpture remakes time, but does not halt it.
A sculpture documented, catalogued and photographed is not the sculpture of organic fibre and dyestuff, glass and bone, before you in the museum. The fragments, while extant, have faded, frayed and slackened. Dyes can be fast or fugitive, but all are affected by light and oxygen. Spider is dissembled, transported and reassembled for exhibition because the value (see: survival) of the fragments is a fraction of that of the entire work.
In a way, they’re lucky to have made it this far – restored by working-class women in a production atelier in the years before World War II, the tapestries should have been destroyed incidentally through war or wear or anonymity. Bourgeois’s interweaving of long-hoarded textiles into sculpture and installation constitutes their only possible conservation. The needle, here, would not be truthful.
In my travels I met Vincént, a boarding-house resident with an acquired brain injury. I followed him to florists and menswear stores to select lilies and narrow-waisted jackets for his appearances at conferences on rare musical instruments. We did not speak of the times when one of us needed to vanish; even at eighteen I appreciated the dignity our relationship afforded me. It’s hard to come by, and teachers become a problem when they let you devour them.
I learnt, recently, to weave on a small loom and to twist strands of damp ornamental ginger into cord. An octogenarian basket-maker leant over my shoulders, sure of her skill, to redo my rough twists. I can do a metre in forty minutes if I’m watching something good. After two weeks, my cord has dried straight and strong.
Ainslee Meredith is a poet and cultural conservation student from Melbourne. Her first collection, Pinetorch, was published by Express Media/Australian Poetry in 2013. She has work featured in Going Down Swinging issues #30 and #33.
Photo of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman (1999)