Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Louise Bourgeois’ unfeasibly large testicles. Her father’s too

After an entire few weeks of study and reading, I thought it was time to take some of it out into the world, see what I’d learned.

The other evening I went to Seduced at the Barbican, a show about sex. It was a members-only evening. True, but I only mention that fact for the joke, of course — and because no-one there made the joke. It wasn’t that kind of evening. We weren’t that kind of people.

It was busy, really busy, almost as busy as it had been a couple of years ago, for a show about the 1960s Brazilian art movement, Tropicalia. Lots and lots of well-behaved, thoughtful men and women — in fairly equal numbers — examining lots and lots of images of other people having sex. They — we — examined the images calmly and with apparent dispassion, denying the actual pornographic urge that gave meaning to most of them in the first place. In a sense, it was less honest than a lap-dancing club, though the floor was cleaner. I couldn’t help thinking we were like Victorian gentlemen claiming they’d bought an Alma-Tadema to further their knowledge of classical plumbing technology.

It wasn’t, as the Guardian had said, the most intelligent show of the year. But it was interesting. The usual British Museum and National Gallery crew were rounded up: Greek pottery, Roman frescos, Japanese prints, Fragonard paintings — though no Alma-Tademas. A grand, historical parade of *****s and *****s and ****ing and ****ing.

(I use asterisks, by the way, not out of any prudishness but because those kind of words still retain the power to shock network server firewalls — as I know to my cost. I’m writing a book about swearing and if I don’t astericise or euphemise, emails to major companies regularly get bounced back to me or sent to Reading gaol or wherever it is electronic sexual transgressions get punished and incarcerated.)

The sheer repetition of all that historical material had the comforting, familiar feel of any collection. There’s a certain eroticism, isn’t there, about any collection — paintings, stamps, antiquities — if only for the collector. Looking at the same thing again and again and again: it’s like children reading the same book over and over. To become bored is to grow up. Repetition is the neurosis, its enactment, its embodiment: that’s what Freud wrote, I think.

There was a Nan Goldin slide show, of ordinary couples having sex while Bjork sang. It was tender and honestly mundane — quite unlike nearly all other sexual images, deliberately so, obviously. It caused a family dispute. My wife thought that including pictures of the ****ing couples’ young children was exploitative: a child can’t give informed consent. I said: there’s no intention to exploit, it’s what was there, it wasn’t set up or created by the photographer. Not my finest logic, I know. Hmm, she said, they still make me uncomfortable. I agreed.

There were Robert Mapplethorpe’s portraits and self-portraits of extreme homosexual sado-masochism. When I first saw them, at the ICA in the early 1980s, they were shocking. Then AIDS made them tragic. Now, well, they’re historical documents, almost as quaint as Belloq’s photographs of pre-first world war New Orleans prostitutes. A little more uncomfortable, though. How can you get a whole fist up there? asked my wife. Relaxation techniques? I suggested.

There was the artist filming themselves in slow motion. There always is. This time the artist was having sex, naturally. You could only see her face. I found myself thinking: good haircut. It was, at least partly, a female riposte to Andy Warhol’s Blow Job, which was showing on a wall opposite. An art world equivalent to, say, the call-and-response coupling of Hank Ballard’s Work With Me, Annie and Etta James’ answer record Roll With Me, Henry. The artist’s name was all lower case: kr buxey. I can’t be the only one who saw a joke there, too: ee cummings.

And then there were the Louis Bourgeoises, Couples. Two giant, lumpy couples coupling, made of cloth and overstuffed like a child’s soft toys, imprisoned in vitrines. Like all Bourgeois’ work, they are erotic and overripe in their grossness and plasticity. Dreams, not reportage.

Both couples are missionary-positioning. One of the women’s arms, clasped tight around the Mr Blobby-like male, is metal and leather — part prosthesis, part fetish. Between one man-toy’s legs are an oversized pair of testicles. Bourgeois’ father’s testicles, quite clearly. At 96, her relationship with her long dead father has lost none of its perversity and fixedness. Her heart — maybe more of her — still belongs to dada. And to her abiding fury at both his affair with her governess and her mother’s disinclination to admit its existence.

Then you notice that the heads are missing. All four figures are decapitated. This is Bourgeois’ long-simmered act of revenge, the most wonderful, vicious imagining of the primal scene, as Freudians call it. Adults having sex. Not as the child might actually have glimpsed it, accidentally or not, through a keyhole or from the cot, but, as I’ve learned, in its dreams and imaginings. Here is adult sex in the way a small child’s inner world might conceive it — two big, big stuffed toys, face to face. Then, to take it an emotional step further — the small child’s dreams again — you cut the heads off. Daddy’s, mummy’s, the governess’s.

I’m not over-interpreting this stuff, by the way. Bourgeois is quite clear and open about the work’s intentions: parents, sex, the primal scene, revenge. The figures’ cuddliness is not ironic but in itself a further act of violence: that which we can’t physically destroy we attack with jokes. Good old Freudian, bad little Bourgeois.

There’s a common point, regularly made by Freud and other Freudians about Oedipus’s complexity. It’s this: if that sexually and violently resonant mother-father-child dramatic triangle didn’t find an echo in us all, Oedipus Rex wouldn’t still be playing in (subsidised) theatres two and a half millennia later. These ****ing Bourgeois Couples made me think the same about the notion of the primal scene. If they didn’t have some general resonance or touch something embedded in us all, then they wouldn’t chill the way they do.

Later, I read — yes, I did do some half-term, sorry, reading week, reading — something by DW Winnicott. He’s the English psychoanalyst who — among other things, admittedly — was primarily responsible for the erection of a statue of Freud. Now, it sits outside the Tavistock but, originally it stood down the road outside Swiss Cottage swimming baths — to which the erection party repaired for celebratory tea and biscuits. Yes, I know it sounds like I’m making it up or confusing it with a Joe Orton play. But it really did happen like that. And, with one of his life’s major ambitions fulfilled, Winnicott died within months.

This is what he wrote in The Theory Of The Parent-Infant Relationship: ‘Death has no meaning until the arrival of hate and of the concept of the whole human person. When a whole human person can be hated, death has meaning, and close on this follows that which can be called maiming: the whole hated and loved person is kept alive by being castrated or otherwise maimed instead of killed.’

Sex and violence: I suspect they’re here to stay.

Sound & vision

‘Mon coeur est a papa