The artist’s intellectual sophistication, her mordant commentary, and the weight of the theory brought in to bear on her work can quickly obfuscate rather than reveal what is in front of us. Even when a visual reference is explicit, as in the Arch of Hysteria, critics are quick to jump to conclusions, which are then passed from one to the next. The body in most versions of Bourgeois’s arch is male. Art writers have repeatedly glossed this as a feminist inversion of Jean-Martin Charcot’s idea that hysteria is an illness exclusive to women. But the 19th-century neurologist (with whom Freud studied) firmly believed in, wrote about, lectured on, and treated “traumatic male hysteria”. In the Bibliothèque Charcot at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris there is a photograph of a naked man in the arc en cercle. I am convinced that Bourgeois knows the picture - the similarity is striking. Although the connotations of hysteria then and now are undeniably sexist, and the artist may have wanted to play with that assumption, her use of the image addresses something else: a fascination with psychic/somatic states, with explosive tension as well as its opposite - flaccid exhaustion and withdrawal.
One version of the arch is part of a Cell (1992-93), in which the man has lost his head and arms, perhaps to the saw that stands nearby in the enclosure. Under him, on his bed or covered board, I read the words “Je t’aime” written by hand in red over and over again like an incantation. I love the Cells, and there are several in the show. For me, they hold the attraction of forbidden places in my childhood - an erotic tug to see what is in there. They both lure and frighten me. They beckon me in and keep me out. Sometimes I can peer through an open door. Other times I look through the cage walls. In Eyes and Mirrors (1993), I confront my own voyeurism. In Choisy (1990-1993), a guillotine hangs ominously over a marble house, and I imagine it being cut in two. My body. My house. I can’t help writing stories for these enigmatic spaces, in which I feel both violence and love. They are like mute, motionless narratives, and even when one doesn’t know that much of the iconography is personal - the house is a model of the Bourgeois family house in Choisy, the tapestries in Spider recall the restoration work of Josephine - its intimacy is palpable. And while the artist makes use of found objects - beds, chairs, spools, perfume bottles, keys - their placement and proximity to sculptures of body parts or abstract forms create an atmosphere of only partial legibility and turn the Cells into machines of metaphorical association and recollection for the viewer. I clutch at the fragments of my early memories through the familiar architecture of my childhood house, which allows me to locate my experience in space. Without that frame, the memories are suspended in emptiness. But memories change, too. Each time we remember an event, the present tinges the past, which is always also imaginary. The Cells give us enchanted access to that fragile topos where memory and fantasy merge.
Siri Hutsvedt about Louise Bourgeois - The places that scare you