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Exhibitions: Louise Bourgeois and Gillian Wearing!

June 19, 2012

At the end of last month, I went to see two exhibitions in London that I’d been looking forward to for some time. These were ‘Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed’ at the Freud Museum and ‘Gillian Wearing’ at Whitechapel Gallery. I’d been eager to see them, expecting great things, so it’s good that I wasn’t disappointed.

Having previously had my opinion of the late Louise Bourgeois’ work positively transformed by seeing her major retrospective at Tate Modern in early 2008, I was excited to be able to see her work in person again. That exhibition had been absolutely vast, showing how prolific she was; continuing to make work into her 90s, and being up close to her Cell pieces made me appreciate the way her sculptural installations could create a heightened sense of drama, very atmospheric. This exhibition at the Freud Museum was somewhat smaller, with some quite different work on show. Pieces such as knitted three-dimensional forms and vitrine pieces made as recently as 2010 appeared here, as well as her older more well-known work. More of her writing was displayed, including notes from the psychoanalysis that she took part in from 1952 to 1985, which was appropriate for the location.

I found it interesting that some pieces had been curated within the context of the Freud museum’s own year-round displays, such as the bronze ‘Janus Fleuri’ (1968) suspended above Freud’s famous chaise longue where he had practiced psychoanalysis and his clients had revealed their dreams. It looked quite weighty; the placement could be symbolic of heavy thoughts, dreams and anxieties. It’s always described as being phallic and referencing both male and female, but to me it looks more like a croissant. Other work was displayed in a more standard manner, in the exhibition spaces upstairs that were more blank and didn’t add extra potential perceptions to the pieces, allowing them to speak for themselves.

Later pieces such as 2009’s ‘I Am Afraid’ state her fears in perhaps a more obvious way than some of her previous work, this piece spells it out literally. It is a large rectangular cushioned panel on the wall (framed) made with pale silver satin, words appearing in darker silver thread, but they’re so neat they look printed, perhaps weaved into the design rather than embroidered on the surface. Some of it says “I am afraid of silence/ I am afraid of the dark/ I am afraid to fall down/ I am afraid of insomnia/ I am afraid of emptiness”… really pouring out her fears of abandonment and conveying sensations of emptiness and worries about being alone. Overall I found this exhibition very interesting in showing her last pieces of work alongside more familiar pieces, and appreciated the context of it being in the Freud museum, which I’d never visited before, with the Freud family’s collections of unusual artifacts around the house too.

Gillian Wearing at Whitechapel Gallery was intriguing in part because I wasn’t hugely familiar with all of her work before, and also because I knew she’d made some work in which she appeared dressed as other people, which relates to some of my own practice based around notions of disguise and constructing fictional identities. I found it exciting to see work I was totally unfamiliar with, including her 2010 moving image piece, ‘Bully’, in which a method acting instructor directed people to improvise a scene based on archetypes and memories of one person’s experience of being picked on as a younger boy. He assigned a person to be the victim, people to be a direct threat and people to be witnesses who felt uncomfortable and did nothing. It was fascinating to watch as the director got more emotionally involved and it seemed to blur reality with acting. It reminded me of the case studies I’d researched for Psychology A-Level, such as Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment  and the Milgram experiment in which people were assigned roles within a certain context and acted upon them regardless of their own ‘normal’ personality or morals outside of the experiments. Fascinating stuff!

The 1997 video, ’10-16′ features children’s fears being read over visuals of adult actors appearing to be talking, as though they were their own childhood hopes and fears, but in the present tense, which is really disconcerting, as it’s clearly a child’s voice from an adult’s body. Really strange because when you start to ignore the reality of what you’re seeing and hearing, you believe in these characters despite the bizarre contrast between voices and appearances. The adult actors appear in different locations, doing different things, there is a mix of sadness, humour and nostalgia, with a bit of loneliness and isolation too.

Upstairs I found large photographs, in which she appeared as other people through wigs, disguises and I think even wearing masks. These are very reminiscent of my own portrait performance photography, as well as of Cindy Sherman’s work. ‘Self Portrait as My Grandmother Nancy Gregory’ and ‘Self Portrait as My Grandfather George Gregory’ (2006) are pieces I found particularly disconcerting because if you look closely at the eyes you can tell it’s all the same person, but if you didn’t see ‘Self Portrait’ in the title the effect of the wigs and masks is so transformative that you could suspend your disbelief and think that they are ‘genuine’ portraits of separate people. There is a whole series of similar works made from 2003 to 2012, and I found these really interesting in relation to ideas about constructing identity and acting out roles, and the metaphorical mask people put on in everyday life in how we present ourselves to the world.

I found both of these exhibitions absorbing and am glad I got to see them before they finished. It was amazing how much they both seemed to connect to other ideas, especially psychological concepts!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2012 10:35 pm

    Most interesting!
    I will be in London in a couple of weeks.
    Is it still on?

    • July 22, 2012 5:42 pm

      Sorry, think it’s finished now! I’m sure there’s loads of other interesting exhibitions still on though! I’m keen to see the Damien Hirst exhibition soon.

      • July 23, 2012 1:11 am

        I went to see Hirst..it was spectacular yes…but then again also disappointing. Not much feeling in it…

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