Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 10

Journal of Visual Art Practice Volume 3 Number 2. Intellect Ltd 2004. Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jvap.3.2.


Mother, dear Mother

Sheila de Rosa Amersham & Wycombe College, UK Abstract
This is an exploration of the essays Womens Time by Julia Kristeva1 and A Family Affair by Frances Morris2 and attempts to provide a reading of the artwork by Louise Bourgeois called I Do, I Undo, I Redo. It draws on the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan for clarification of certain central terms, and includes the insights of other critics to widen the analysis of Bourgeois work. In particular this essay will examine Kristevas analysis of women and their place within an inquiry on time and her threefold categorization of feminist history. It will deconstruct A Family Affair, paying particular attention to the towers and their triangular relationship, the spiral staircases, the platforms at the top of the towers, the inside of each of these towers, and it aims to discover whether this monumental installation, I Do, I Undo, I Redo, fulfils Kristevas call for an authentic voice to motherhood. In her essay Womens Time, Julia Kristeva is informed by her understanding of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Lacan reinterpreted Freuds teachings about infantile sexuality, which cites our formation of identity in the bond the child feels towards the mother (from whom it has just been separated). Yearning for oneness with the mother, the child sees the father as a sexual threat and harbours aggressive feelings towards the father. This threat manifests itself in the childs mind as fear of not having a penis and is translated as fear of castration.3 Lacans psycholinguistic theory does not take Freuds Oedipus complex literally, transforming it to a level of the symbolic, in which there is no real threat by the father but a symbolic entrance into the symbolic order of the father. The symbolic 0rder being the male-centred social construct in which we live. Lacan suggests that all our fantasies are symbolic representations of our desire for wholeness.4 In her essay, Frances Morris describes the installation I Do, I Undo, I Redo by Louise Bourgeois, in which Freuds Oedipal family story is reenacted from a different perspective. Three large towers are placed within the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern and within each tower the artist has placed the sculpted figures of a mother and child. Morris explains that Bourgeois intends them to represent three different kinds of maternal relationship. The seated mother in I Do, made by hand of pink fabric, embraces a passive baby and is the image of contented nurturing. In her explanatory note for the gallery catalogue, Louise Bourgeois writes: I DO is an active state ... I am good mother. I am

Motherhood Art Feminism Kristeva Louise Bourgeois

Julia Kristeva, Womens Time. First Published as Le Temps des femmes in 33/44: Cahiers de recherche de sciences des texes et documents, 5 (Winter 1979) and translated in Signs, 7: 1 (Autumn 1981) and reprinted in Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology (University of Chicago Press), 1982. Francis Morris, A Family Affair. This essay was part of a publication entitled Louise Bourgeois to mark the first Unilever Series work for the Tate Modern and published by Tate Gallery Publishing in 2000. Richard Wollheim, Freud, London: Fontana Press, 1971, p. 120. Wollheim is referring to the male child when developing this theme (p. 119).

JVAP 3 (2) 8390 Intellect Ltd 2004


Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism & Postmodernism, Herts.: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993, p. 28. Louise Bourgeois, I DO, I UNDO, I REDO - 28th Feb. 2000, London: Tate Publications, 2000, p. 32. ibid. ibid. Mignon Dixon, Bad Enough Mother, October no. 71 (Winter 1995), pp. 7092. Julia Kristeva, Womens Time, op. cit.

6 7 8

10 ibid.

generous and caring - the giver, the Provider. It is the I Love You no matter what.5 In I Undo, the infant is shown reaching for contact with the distracted mother whose breast disgorges an arching stream of milk. And we have Bourgeois own words to explain that this is intended as a relationship of violence in which depression and guilt result in despair and apathy, One is immobile in the wake of the fear. It is the view from the bottom of the well ... it is total rejection and destruction.6 In I Redo, the inseparable bond between mother and child is evoked by the umbilical cord which ties the floating child to its chair-bound mother. In this final incarnation Bourgeois tells us that The REDO means that a solution is found to the problem. It may not be the final answer, but there is an attempt to go forward ... Things are back to normal. There is hope and love again.7 Morris refers to psychoanalytical studies exploring Bourgeois parentchild obsession which, she asserts, has dominated Bourgeois obsessive personal narratives, and states that her work has in recent years become the subject of psychoanalytic studies exploring Freudian, Lacanian and Kleinian models. Reinforcing this assertion, Bourgeois describes I Undo as the return of the repressed. I take things away. I smash things, relations are broken. I am the bad mother. It is the disappearance of the love object.8 Kristevas Womens Time sets out to explore the way in which the feminist movement both inherits and modifies a certain conception of time. The common idea of time lies within the symbolic order, and is linear like history and language.9 Linear time is masculine, phallocentric, progressive and sequential. Kristeva tells us that female subjectivity is linked both to monumental time and cyclical time, in so far as both are ways of conceptualizing time from the perspective of motherhood and reproduction. Kristeva describes cyclical time as cycles, gestation, the eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm which conforms to that of nature and imposes a temporality and monumental time as a massive presence of monumental temporality, which is all encompassing and infinite - like imaginary space.10 Female subjectivity given over completely to monumental and cyclical time, with no regard to linear time, would represent a problem, according to Kristeva, given the association with language and history. She describes linear time as the construct within which we operate in the Western world today - and which represents a positive forward momentum. However linear time can also be called obsessional time as we are slaves to this time knowing it will inevitably run out. Therefore it is important for women to emphasize the multiplicity of female temporal fields so that a more precise and less commercial understanding of feminism will occupy a global consciousness. This linear temporality is evoked by the title of Bourgeoiss work I Do, I Undo, I Redo suggesting a logical forward progression, whilst also alluding to traditional feminine skills of sewing, weaving and knitting. When Frances Morris describes the three enormous towers of Bourgeois installation as an exploration into architectural structures associated with watching and


Sheila de Rosa

warning, platforms as observation posts and watch-towers, she implies that they are both phallic and patriarchal. Connecting this piece with a rich vocabulary of earlier work on this theme the author concludes that dysfunctional architecture has become for Bourgeois a metaphor for psychological, physical and sexual relationships between people. Marina Warner widens the debate by affording towers a masculine symbolism as a means of sequestering women; whilst at the same time being symbols of womens bodies, as citadels ideally impregnable and impeachable.11 So we have a situation in which towers are intended to both refer to male symbols of power - or the symbolic order, whilst also standing as solid, monumental representations of female subjectivity. The triangular relationship between the towers, which is a theme Bourgeois has explored before, Morris explains, refers to a disrupted family group and stems from a traumatic family event in her early life.12 In an interview with Stuart Morgan, Bourgeois states that Triangle means trouble. Triangle means a conflict in the relationship between three people, or three different sides of the same person.13 It seems to me that this could be construed as referring to the plurality of both masculine or feminine subjectivity. Each of the towers have spiral staircases coiling around the outside, or the inside or both inside and outside. Morris asserts that Bourgeois staircases evoke the ubiquitous fire-escapes of downtown Manhattan, which offer a means of escape from danger. At the same time the spiral staircase, technically the most efficient way of providing access within a confined space, conjures up a vision of those most private and mysterious spaces secreted within everyday structures, such as attics or cellars. The stairway thus becomes both a means of entry and escape, a passageway between the public and the private realm. Morris quotes the artist as describing the spiral as an attempt at controlling chaos,
Where do you place yourself, at the periphery or at the vortex? Beginning at the outside is the fear of losing control; the winding is a tightening, a retreating, a compacting to the point of disappearance. Beginning at the centre is affirmation, the move outward is a representation of giving, and giving up control: of trust, of positive energy, life itself.14


Marina Warner, Nine Turns Around the Spindle: The Turbine Towers of Louise Bourgeois, London: Tate Gallery Publications, 2000, p. 21.

12 Bourgeois father had an affair with her governess, which tore the family apart. 13 Stuart Morgan, Taking Cover, interview with Bourgeois, Artscribe International, Jan/Feb 1988. 14 Francis Morris A Family Affair, ibid. p. 8 quoting Christiane MeyerThoss, Louise Bourgeois: Designing for Free Fall, Zurich, 1992. p. 135. 15 Marina Warner, Nine Turns Around the Spindle, op. cit.

As you would expect from the curator of the gallery which has invested so much in terms of money and reputation on the commissioning of this piece, Morris equates the significance of the spiral to the spiralling development of the artist herself, adding that its formal device of repetition and circling echoes the way she returns over and over again to the same themes and images. Marina Warner, however, describes the spiral as the study of the self, and that the movements of the spinning and twisting structure the artists way of making in the same way as the double helix of the genetic string structures the unique, individual cell. Furthermore, Warner describes the tools used to effect such twists and turns as metonymies through which to explore personal memories and psychological states.15

Mother, dear Mother


16 Exhibition Catalogue, Bourgeois Truth, Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1982. 17 Hilary Robinson, Looking at Bourgeois through Irigarys Gesturing towards the Mother, www.ukonline.co.uk/N .Paradoxa/Bourgeois, and MOMA, Oxford Papers, 1996. 18 Teresa Brennan (ed.), Gesture in Psychoanalysis: Between Feminism & Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London ,1989, p. 133. 19 Stuart Morgan, Taking Cover, op. cit. 20 Christiane MeyerThoss, Designing for Free Fall, op. cit. 21 Alain Kirali, The Passion for Sculpture: A Conversation with Bourgeois, Art Magazine, 1989, p. 71. 22 Robert Storr, Louise Bourgeois: Gender & Possession, Art in America, 1982. p. 136. 23 Julia Kristeva, Womens Time, op. cit. 24 ibid.

Robert Pincus-Witten highlights the importance of the word tordre (to wring or twist) in Bourgeois work as the turning-in-on-oneself of anxiety and depression, and also gives, by way of torsion, the classical concept of the body as torso.16 Another double meaning comes from Bourgeoiss mother tongue; le tour means gyration in French, but also turn, as in a turn of the stair, or a turning in a path, or a time that comes when it is ones turn (implying sequential time); and also la tour means tower. Bourgeois has made many comments about the significance of spirals that Morris omits, for example Helen Robinson equates spirals with Luce Irigarays spinning dance enacted by girls faced with the loss of their mother.17 The girl child employs a different mode of play than the fort/da game of Freuds nephew. The girl child plays with a doll, lavishing maternal affection on a quasi-object, and thus manages to organize a kind of symbolic space; playing with dolls is not simply a game girls are forced to play, it also signifies a difference in subjective status in the separation from the mother.18 For mother and daughter, the mother is a subject that cannot easily be reduced to an object, and a doll is not an object in the way Freuds nephews reel was, or a toy car or gun can be objects and tools used for symbolization. Spirals have elsewhere been described as the spirit of tension,19 as a vacuum or void,20 an exploration of space,21 and spiralling woman, seeking but never finding.22 The very circular nature of the spiral might also be said to be a clear allusion to Kristevas cyclical time. We can gain an insight into the plural significance of Louise Bourgeois work by turning to Womens Time, in which Kristeva distinguishes between two phases of feminism; she explains that the first phase was the struggle of the suffragists and of existential feminists who aspired to gain a place in this linear time, and in this sense the movement was rooted in the socio-political life of the nation so it fitted into the symbolic order. The political demands of these women was the struggle for equal pay for equal work, for taking power in social institutions on equal footing with men and rejection, when necessary, of the attributes traditionally considered feminine or maternal in so far as they are deemed incompatible with insertion in that history.23 The benefits of that struggle were, according to Kristeva, abortion, contraception, equal pay, professional recognition, etc. occurring universally and with more impact upon the world than the Industrial Revolution. However, to laud these as victories seems to me to ignore the important question of whether some of these benefits are what the feminists wanted or even whether they are the best thing for them. Kristeva argues that their cause has been understood and their principle (at least) of equality has been accepted, whilst there is still a struggle in relationship to power.24 She tell us that women who have been promoted to decision-making positions, and suddenly attain the economic as well as the narcissistic advantages that have been refused to them for thousands of years, have become the pillars of the existing governments, guardians of the status quo, and zealous protectors of the established order. This is a


Sheila de Rosa

paranoid type of counter-investment in an initially denied symbolic order, but it does not prevent its propagation around the world, moving to levelling and conformism, which can be considered as sad.25 However, Kristeva prefers that women should consider this phase of feminism a success, and she says we should rejoice in, and profit from, what has been achieved. If women are accepted into a system that has been patriarchal and organized in a way that could be considered alien to women once they become central to that power, Kristeva argues, their critical, differential and autonomous interventions can render these decision-making institutions more flexible, and in this way feminists can profit from the situation now in evidence. The second phase of feminism Kristeva links with younger European women who came to the movement after May 1968, and have almost totally refused the notion of linear temporality; an attitude which does not seem to be present in the work of Louise Bourgeois. This current of feminism thinks of itself as another generation, qualitatively different from the first one in its conception of its own identity and consequently of temporality as such. These feminists have undertaken an exploration of the dynamic of signs, the cultural signifiers or the means by which language is constructed, in particular, the meaning given to that language which positions women as other and not constituting the symbolic order and therefore with no power or voice. This is a feminism which situates itself outside linear time demanding the recognition of an identity which can never be the same as masculine identity. They are not to be compared in any way with the opposite sex; their identity is totally different from anything that exists within linear temporality, it is exploded, plural, fluid and non-identical.26 The temporal field that these feminists belong to is a mix of mythic, cyclical and monumental time, in other words the time of marginal movements. Kristeva expresses serious concern about the marginality that this type of feminism embraces. I do not want to dwell on the various reservations Kristeva articulates about women attempting to confirm their irreducible otherness. Let me just mention three of these reservations. One is the danger of becoming an inverted form of sexism itself, in which Motherhood will be reduced to a battleground in which growing numbers of women choose to conceive and rear their children without men. A second problem Kristeva sees as inherent in the affirmation of a feminine identity as distinct from male power is that it tends to posit a single identity for women. Indeed plurality is the focus of Kristevas proposed alternative, which I strongly advocate - which I imagine? Thirdly, these women also feel alienated from their relationship with their own bodies, that of the child, the mother, another woman or man: her argument is that this denial will and is already leading to a new form of feminism that aims to find a specific discourse closer to the body and emotions, a discourse that will be a mixture of the old attitudes and will be based on the desire to be a mother, and in which plurality takes the form of differences not just between women but even within individual women. Kristeva describes Motherhood as

25 Luce Irigaray describes this form of feminists as pseudomen in Literary Feminism, ed. Ruth Robbins, Macmillan Press Ltd., London, 2000, chapter 6, p. 149. 26 Kristeva, op. cit.

Mother, dear Mother


27 Interview with Terry Sultan, Defining the terms of Engagement: The Art of Louise Bourgeois in Charlotta Kotik, Terrie Sultan, Christian Leigh, Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory Works 19821993, exhibition catalogue, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 1994. 28 See Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis & The Sociology of Gender, Berkeley: University of California, 1978, pp. 16667, in which she states women often never separate sufficiently from their mother; their identity never becomes distinct from that of their mother, and they remain unconsciously, in a state of merging or fusion. However, it seems to me that Bourgeois is using humour strategically to expose the comedy in this statement.

the slow, difficult and delightful apprenticeship in attentiveness, gentleness, forgetting oneself. The ability to succeed in this path without masochism and without annihilating ones affective, intellectual and professional personality such would seem to be the stakes to be won through guiltless maternity.

This would position the new feminism in a broader anti-sacrificial current fighting against established constraints, one which experiences the repressed, nocturnal secrets and unconscious universe that motherhood brings without the sacrifice. Lacans example is central to Kristevas conceptualization of femininity. In his Mirror Stage Lacan argues that one of the formative moments of a childs development is when he catches sight of himself in the mirror; seeing his own reflected image allows the child to hypothesize his own identity. Lacan uses the idea of a child before the mirror as a metaphor for self-awareness. Louise Bourgeois concurs, she sees mirrors as a lesson in self-evaluation; a vanity; and are about having the courage it takes to look at yourself and really face yourself.27 The rostrums on the top of the towers I Do and I Redo contain four round [sic], pivotal mirrors which are situated with their faces inclined towards the platform as if to enclose and shelter the wooden chair(s) or person on the chair. There is a fifth mirror on I Do which is mounted on a raised arm like a giant surveillance camera. In A Family Affair Frances Morris argues that these are places of communication. These are places of confrontation between self and image, and communication between self and other, in an ironic poem called The Five Ws by the artist she tells of an imagined conversation visitors to her towers would have, it was a dialogue between a father and a son. On the I Redo platform there is an extra chair and a steel-framed glass cabinet containing a double-headed sculpture - its significance is not referred to by either Louise Bourgeois or Frances Morris. However, the presence of two-headed imagery in previous work has been described by the artist as representing her mother and her father, I have to feel that my parents buttress me ... I have to feel - in order to be a decent person - that my parents are on my side. It could also be read through a Kleinian objectrelations lens depicting aggression on behalf of Bourgeois towards her mother, as a reparation towards her mother in which she concedes similarities between the two women.28 And is a clear visual metaphor for female plurality. In this essay we have seen that Kristeva acknowledges the advantages gained by the first phase of feminism, but remains sceptical about the stance taken by the second, more militant, phase. She maintains that the once sacrificial role of the mother in society can be lifted from their shoulders with a more flexible and free discourse, and motherhood should join the symbolic order as a name, which has thus far never been an object of circulation, fitting into society in its proper and natural place. Kristeva calls for a new generation that advocates an intermingling of all three approaches to feminism, all three concepts of time within the same historical moment, opening up a space where individual difference is allowed free play.


Sheila de Rosa

In the work of Louise Bourgeois we have seen that the power and verticality of the towers, the father/son relationship played out on the I Do platform, and the title of the work are masculine and, as such, reject the second marginal phase of feminism situated outside linear time. Balanced against this the subject matter, small sculptures, spiral staircases and the towers express an eternal maternal struggle representing the female body. In this way Bourgeois makes visible the cyclicality of female subjectivity operating within linear time. Kristeva points to the increasing number of women who not only consider their maternity compatible with their professional life, but also indispensable to their discovery of female complexity - comprising both joy and pain. Indeed Bourgeois demonstrates this plurality by showing us not only the difference between women and men, or the difference between one woman and another, but also the difference within the same woman at different times. Francis Morriss essay positions Bourgeois experiences as daughter and mother as integral to the understanding of this work, and in so doing Bourgeois illustrates Kristevas argument for a third generation of feminism situated within a discourse on motherhood. Whether this work manages to insert the Mother into the symbolic order as a vital object of circulation remains to be seen; however, it does portray a plurality of female identity. The many layers of meaning, symbolism and temporal fields seem to indicate that I Do, I Undo, I Redo is a genuine and successful attempt to give motherhood an authentic voice.* * Efforts are being made to publish images of Louise Bourgeoiss I do, I Undo, I Redo on the JVAP website supplement at: http://www2.ntu.ac.uk/ntsad/nafae/ supplement.shtml (Ed.).

Works cited
Bourgeois, L. (2000), I DO, I UNDO, I REDO, London: Tate Publications. Brennan, T. (ed.) (1989), Gesture in Psychoanalysis: Between Feminism & Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge. Chodorow, N. (1978), The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis & The Sociology of Gender, Berkeley: University of California. Dixon, M. (1995), Bad Enough Mother, October no. 71. Irigaray, L. (2000), in Literary Feminism (ed. Robbins, R.) London: Macmillan Press. Kirali, A. (1989), The Passion for Sculpture: A Conversation with Bourgeois, in Art Magazine. Kristeva, J. (1982), Womens Time, in Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology, University of Chicago Press. Meyer-Thoss, C. (1992), Louise Bourgeois: Designing for Free Fall, Zurich. MOMA, Oxford Papers, 1996. Morgan, S. (1988), Taking Cover, interview with Bourgeois, in Artscribe International, Jan/Feb. Morris, F. (2000), A Family Affair, in Louise Bourgeois, London: Tate Publications.

Mother, dear Mother


Robert Miller Gallery Exhibition Catalogue (1982), Bourgeois Truth, New York. Robinson, H., Looking at Bourgeois through Irigarys Gesturing towards the Mother, www.ukonline.co.uk/N.Paradoxa/Bourgeois. Sarup, M. (1993), An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism & Postmodernism, Herts.: Harvester Wheatsheaf. Storr, R. (1982), Louise Bourgeois: Gender & Possession, Art in America. Sultan, T. (1994), Defining the terms of Engagement: The Art of Louise Bourgeois, in Kotik, C., Sultan, T. and Leigh, C., Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory Works 1982-1993 (exhibition catalogue), Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York. Warner, M. (2000), Nine Turns Around the Spindle: The Turbine Towers of Louise Bourgeois, London: Tate Gallery Publications. Wollheim, R. (1971), Freud, London: Fontana Press.

Suggested citation:
de Rosa, S. (2004), Mother, dear Mother, Journal of Visual Art Practice 3: 2, pp. 8390, doi: 10.1386/jvap.3.2.83/0

Contributor details
Sheila de Rosa is a multimedia artist working in print, photography, ceramics and glass. Since graduating with an MA in Fine and Applied Art Practice from the University of Hertfordshire last year, she has divided her time between completing a commission for the Brighton Festival Fringe, organizing a solo show and facilitating arts practice to a variety of groups. Contact: Amersham & Wycombe College, Amersham Campus, Stanley Hill, Amersham, Bucks., HP7 9HN, UK.


Sheila de Rosa