Last week was the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth. At the celebrations in Cardiff, there was a pillow fight between 1,200 volunteers, a procession of older people on mobility scooters, and a picnic where everyone was invited to come in their pyjamas. Dahl’s books are certainly full of joy. Yet behind the playful façade a darker side always lurks in the corner.
Two London art shows takes us back to a childhood, each in a very different way.
In 2011, art dealer Anthony d’Offay – the one who first brought Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol to the UK - made an unprecedented large donation from his contemporary art collection to the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, stipulating that they be exhibited in rotating ‘Artist Rooms’, curated by d’Offay himself and travelling to smaller venues around the country. A great initiative, making contemporary art accessible to more people, and creating mini-surveys of individual artists in a more informal and much more intimate setting than the traditional retrospective.
ARTIST ROOMS: Louise Bourgeois, is a treasure within Tate’s new Switch House. Louise Bourgeois died in New York in 2010 at 98 years old, making art until her very last days. In Bourgeois’ practice, complex psychological issues are expressed through the artistic language of the body. At Tate, limbs and genital parts in soft fabric or hard bronze are suspended mid-air from the ceiling; three-headed latex busts protrude from caged cells. One story from her own childhood dominates Bourgeois’ art more than anything else. Growing up in Paris, Bourgeois’ father engaged in a 10-year-long affair with the English governess, which left a lasting imprint on the young Bourgeois (she calls it her ‘trauma’). Her art addresses it in many forms. Most literally, in her 1974 work Destruction of the Father, consisting of various bodily parts in soft latex laid out on a table. Bourgeois spoke about a livid childhood fantasy of a father who was pulled onto the family dinner table, dismembered and gobbled up. It could come straight out of a Roald Dahl story.
In the Tate’s room a black male figure (Single II) is suspended from the ceiling and contorted in the 'arch of hysteria' - a mental state coined in the 19th century and usually associated with the female. The male is placed next to a version of the famous Spider, of which Bourgeois has made many, displayed all around the world. The spider represents Bourgeois’ mother, who died young: weaving, protecting, making and repairing. Children love the spider: it has the right mix of joyfulness and threat that keeps them on their toes. How benign it appears when contrasted with the haunted male figure, arched in pain. In an interview with current director of Tate Modern, Frances Morris, shown outside the room, Bourgeois has a simple reply to the question of what an earlier work, consisting of three sculpted forms, refers to. “I don’t know. She says. The father or the mother. I am the child”.
Rachel Rose, a young artist at the start of a promising career, offers another interesting take on childhood stories. New York-based Rose made headlines last year, debuting in the UK with a solo show at the Serpentine Galleries, and in New York at the new Whitney Museum. She also created an art installation at Frieze Art Fair in the form an underground tunnel. Visitors could escape the serious business of Frieze for a moment, to lie on soft carpets and listen to sound recordings of animals from nearby London Zoo.
Rose’s artwork currently on show at Pilar Corrias also invites us on a carpet but this time in front of a large screen, which shows an animated film on an eight-minute loop. Lake Valley (2016) is set in an imagined suburb, where we follow a day in the life of a cosy white pet, seemingly a cross between a rabbit and a dog. The pet is left alone by its owners, and looking at a landscape painting on the wall, is transported into a dreamlike world of forests, flowers and lakes. Rose uses a complex editing technique that overlays the different, colourful aspects of the landscape like fragments of a live collage. One of her art teachers at Columbia University said of Rose’s distinctive editing style that it provokes “little explosions in the brain”.
The initial feeling of playfulness, both in the film itself and in the inviting setting, slowly makes way for a much darker atmosphere. A soft, drawn-out tune with an ominous undertone weaves the quilt-like scenes together, like a steady background chorus. The pet is rejoicing in the beauty of nature and the company of other pets. But the fantasy world is flooded with a heavy sense of loneliness and a desire to belong. It is hard to leave the film, even after repeated viewings, as Rose manages to play on our emotions, drawing us in to her ambiguous world of simple joy interwoven with an increasing feeling of unease. The loop ends with a fireworks scene. The rabbit-dog, alone again, is watching, enthralled in the dazzling display or colour and shape, as we are in turn fixated on the screen. Fireworks, usually associated with exuberance and celebration, have never looked so sad. We can be surrounded by beauty, but alone in the world.
Louise Bourgeois spent her last forty years alone in her New York townhouse that she shared with her husband, art historian Robert Goldwater, until his death in 1973 (the house has just been opened to the public last year). But her art kept her sane, and her loyal assistant Jerry Gorovoy, who came in every day until she died, kept her company. In a grid of red paintings on musical paper in the Tate, Bourgeois has depicted both their hands intertwined. Called 10am Is When You Come To Me, it shows us how much Bourgeois appreciated the company of Gorovoy.
Gorovoy knew Bourgeois like no one else. After her death, he sometimes pictures her inside her house. “…(W)hen I see her, she is always sitting in the back room with the window open, listening to the children in the schoolyard behind. She was like a child, in the end. An arrested child.”
ARTIST ROOMS: Louise Bourgeois, is at Level 4 Switch House, Tate Modern
Rachel Rose, Lake Valley, Pilar Corrias, until 29th September
Louise Bourgeois’ home is on 349 West 20th Street, New York and will soon be opening for public tours. Check for updates on www.theeastonfoundation.org
Quotes taken from 'Rachel Rose, Driven by Distraction, Heads to the Whitney', Blake Gopnik, NY Times, Oct 16, 2015 and from 'Inside artist Louise Bourgeois' New York Home', Lucy Davies, The Telegraph, 15 June 2014