She was the first artist to be invited to make something of Tate Modern's near impossibly unwelcoming Turbine Hall in the year 2000, and what she created was entirely characteristic of her art from first to last – a nasty, long-legged spider on a giant scale to keep watch over us from the overhead bridge, and three horribly impersonal steel watchtowers to keep us under surveillance at ground level. South Armagh meets a hair-raising denizen of the dense jungle, you might say.
Surveillance is a word that resonates when it comes to appraising the art of the extraordinarily long-lived and ceaselessly productive Louise Bourgeois, who died this week, aged 98. Usually it is the onlooker who appraises the work of art. After all, is it not the onlooker's privilege, having paid the price, to do so? It was the opposite with Bourgeois. When you entered a room of work by her, you felt stripped bare all of a sudden, as if voices were shouting questions into your ears, demanding some explanation of why you had lived as you had lived. It seems almost surprising that death should have caught up with her at last, that she is no longer alive to jab the bony finger.
Another entirely fitting word would be a coining of Albert Camus: dis-ease. Not unease. That would be too easy. Camus's word means that we are somehow complicit in our own undermining, that we may have brought on our sufferings by being precisely what we are. No, you never felt comfortable in the presence of a work by Bourgeois.
You felt, somehow, that you were not only under scrutiny, but that you were also being played with, even terrorised, as Hitchcock so often played with you. Things could only get worse. The staging always helped – and the props of her installations, which often consisted of old doors, bits of shabby furniture, creaky beds, bleak, prison-perimeter meshing, often organised in strange, seemingly ever-shrinking circles. Shabby old doors enclosed tiny moments of oppressive, shabby domesticity, dreams of a nightmarishly unhappy childhood perhaps. So little looked pristine. Almost everything seemed gimcrack, just off the skip, pressed into service against its will, unhappily reliving its own wailingly posthumous life. The whole effect was always so unsettlingly dramatic, almost ghoulishly filmic. There was always so much darkness, so many pockets of eeriness in which dread could be left to propagate. There would be deep, thrusting shadows to witness, or strange corners to turn before you entered, in the case of her many Cells, the desolate, three-dimensional structures with which much of the exhibition space was filled at her last major retrospective at Tate Modern, which happened just three years ago, when she was already climbing the long hill, undaunted, towards her hundredth birthday.
She was female all right, but she never fell victim to that old cliché of the essential softness of the feminine. She was soft only in the way that well-worn leather boots are soft. She wrenched the feminine about in her work; she made us feel on our pulses what it was to be a woman who suffers the excruciating physical tumult of childbirth. There was eroticism aplenty, but it was an eroticism stepping out in conjunction with pain. Many of the objects she made looked like anthropological specimens, artefacts which threw back at us our own peculiar cultural habits. One entire gallery in that Tate show was organised to look like such a museum display. She picked us apart, bit by bit, and then sewed us back together again, with an ungainly lumpishness. She never held up the idea of the human for glorification or celebration. She was no female Michelangelo. Nor was she a surrealist, though she knew many of them, and she moved in their circles. For all that, her kind of psychological disclosure was theirs too: to expose the often repulsive underside of things, those secretly oozy things that we can barely acknowledge about ourselves, the grossness of the human, the worm that ceaselessly turns in all our buds. Some of her most celebrated works were her soft sculptures – she inherited from her parents a love of sewing – made from fabrics and stuffing. She helped to dignify the idea of softness, to give it gravity and feeling.
She never ceased to change and change again. Her sculptures were such weird things, as much animistic as modernist. Her whole spirit seems to be summed up in this tiny extract from her diary, written when she was a mere 70 years of age, and with much of her long, wayward creative road still to travel: "The only access we have to our volcanic unconscious and to the profound motives for our actions and reactions is through the shocks of our encounters with specific people." Such telling words. Those shocks she felt are the same shocks that we experience, time and again, when we come up against her bruising work.
For further reading: 'Louise Bourgeois' by Frances Morris (Tate Publishing)