Unlike Edinburgh’s National Gallery, the columns of which join Waverley Station and the Walter Scott Monument in dominating the heart of the city, the Modern Art Gallery is slightly removed from the central pulse. The bustle of Princes Street that crowds the National’s giant pillars is replaced at the Modern Gallery by a calm, green, sculptured landscape and the message, in cool blue neon, that ‘Everything Will Be Alright’. This impressive, atmospheric, even slightly mysterious location is the perfect space for Louise Bourgois’ hauntingly impressive work to be displayed.
Filling 8 rooms and containing bronze sculptures, textiles, prints and paintings, this exhibition is a grand one, yet still barely scratches the surface of Bourgois’ works. In a video piece, the commissioner of Bourgois’ first retrospective show at MOMA (and the first show for a woman there, ever) describes her astonishment at being led down to Bourgois’ basement and being momentarily able to glimpse the vast scope of her production, before Bourgois snapped the light off proclaiming that she had “seen too much”. This exhibition feels like such a glimpse; no matter how long the light remains on it is impossible to not feel hungry for more of Bourgois’ complex, disturbing, beautiful pieces.
Every artwork displayed contains seemingly endless layers and cycles of emotion and thought. Personal stories – such as the traumatic childhood that saw her father carry out a ten-year affair with Louise’s governess – psychoanalytic study and mental anguish are weaved together. Like the limbs made of cloth that twist together and hang limply from the ceiling, her works twist themes and ideas, making all seem knotted. Disembodied breasts protrude from flesh coloured rock, hands reach out and grasp and eyes watch from within stone and metal cages. These are physical works, concerned with the body – particularly the female, mothering body. Yet they are reflections on emotional trauma, anxiety and depression, so even in the most solid pieces there is a haunting fragility.
Louise Bourgois repeatedly uses spirals in her work, fascinated by the pattern’s control, that seems to give order to chaotic existence, but also aware that within these twists is the threat of unravelling. This constant tension between ordering and complete disorder holds the viewer constantly suspended, like one of the pieces – uncertain and uneasy. The entire show grasps you by the guts and wrenches, almost painfully. It is, despite being only a small glimpse into Bourgois’ intelligence and creativity, outstandingly magnificent.