Louise Bourgeois at Heide museum: Interview with Heide’s Jason Smith and Linda Michael

Louise Bourgeois: Late Works, opening at Heide Museum of Modern Art on November 24, is the first exhibition in Australia to survey the work of the late, great Louise Bourgeois since her death in 2010 at the ripe old age of 99.
As tribute to the galvanising effect her work had on ensuing generations of artists, Heide II will concurrently exhibit a selection of works by some of Bourgeois’ Australian acolytes – artists Del Kathryn Barton, Janet Burchill, Kathy Temin, Pat Brassington, Brent Harris, Carolyn Eskdale and Patricia Piccinini.
Learn how this coup came about in the following conversation with Heide Director, Jason Smith and senior curator, Linda Michael.

Annemarie Kiely: Louise Bourgeois must be the benchmark for living long, lustfully, productively… 

Jason Smith: …and honestly. I mean her brutal honesty. It’s quite good fun working alongside Linda [Michael] in this way, concentrating on one artist then looking at her influence across the board. During the curatorial process we would come together and say: ‘God, her writings are amazing, full of these incredibly raw statements’.  

Linda Michael: Yes, she was very sharp.

 AK: And very forthright. There is that moment in a documentary when, unsure of where the line of questioning is going, she just shuts down.

JS: Yes, that’s the famous Arena documentary, she holds up a sign that says ‘No Trespassing’, she is not trying to be belligerent or obstructive she is just afraid, it’s protection and fear. That was a terrific documentary and I still shudder when she moves to a wonderful sculpture on a workbench and just pushes it over. It smashes and she says, ‘See! It’s done, now I feel sorry’.

AK: Wasn’t she imbuing that piece with the memory of her father’s mistress [Bourgeois’ live-in English teacher] – the so-called trauma inducing traitor who she credits as the source of much of her artistic inspiration?

JS: Yes, she often talked about herself as the murderer.

LM: There’s that great Bourgeois quote: “Everyone has to thank the fact that artists are artists otherwise they’d be murderers”…something along those lines – artists have to get it out through making.

JS: Her writing is almost overwhelming in its clarity but also in the way in which it targets your intellect and emotions. It is clear.

 LM: I reckon that’s her strength, that combination of intellect and emotion because it’s quite rare that you get both as strongly in the one person. She is really clear, really sharp and she knows a lot of art history and she knows exactly what she’s doing but she’s got this incredible, uncontrollable side of her that she tries to tame through her practice. Or, not a side that she tries to tame, but a side that compels her to make continuously.

AK: She is timeless and style-less, she is so hard to tag, defies every convention, almost impossible to squeeze her into an ‘ism’. She just did her own thing.

JS: Because the materials were lead by the subject, whatever she was dealing with, the subject determined the material resolution and it’s interesting because for all of her writing, and its clarity, and its poignancy and sheer sledge-hammer impact, there are these moments when she is being interviewed that she will say ‘why do you want me to keep talking about these traumas, it is in the work. There is only so much I can say.’

LM: I couldn’t agree with that more, in fact she contributes to the myth interpretation of her work by hanging it on these childhood stories about her work being about the mistress that went out with the father and while that is true, and no doubt a source of some continuing trauma, the work is so much more complicated than that. To reduce it to biography is a trap that she sets for a lot of people and a lot of people fall into it.

AK: Wasn’t Robert Hughes one of the first to say that she showed what it was to be a woman from the inside?

JS: I don’t know if it was him, but there was an early review that talked about her being a leading figure in confessional art, which I would never call it because it’s not about the confessional, it’s about exorcism more than anything else. We have been immersed in some new publications on Louise’s work, particularly on the subject of psychoanalysis, and are really beginning to unravel some of the key motivations in her work. Yes there are the oft’ told stories of the father and the mistress, which we all know, but it’s the intense love of her mother and her death, the death that completely transformed her life. The art became about her never ending grief and the constant mourning for her mother…and even more hard-core, her continuing desire as a woman – eroticism – her needs as a woman. Sex, desire, it’s all there, and it’s still so potent at the end of her life. Not just as a memory, but as a constant.

 LM: Well it’s sublimated in her work.

JS: Yes, there are great quotes about the privilege of sublimation: that it doesn’t  resolve anything, but you have the privilege of deferring it.

LM: Yes, until you are 99.

JS: She was uncompromising until the end, trying not to be self-indulgent. But she did rub a lot of people up the wrong way. She would say, “If you knew me you would love me”.

LM: She talks about preferring to be a student rather than a teacher, because she wanted the praise, she wanted to be told she was good. When she started teaching art the roles were reversed and she wasn’t happy in that position. I suppose an artist producing wants feedback.

AK: Weren’t her studio managers always buffering between the seemingly irascible Louise and her collectors and dealers?

LM: They were saints of a sort. 

JS: She relied very heavily on Jerry [Gorovoy, her assistant]. He was with her for 30 years. They met in 1980. His story is that he was walking her home from an exhibition space in which he had included one of her works and she was going nuts about the installation. While they were walking and talking she slipped. He went to pick her up and she said “I don’t need your help young man”, and they were together from that moment on – in a professional way. She loved Jerry. I went to Louise’s house in 1995 and you were never allowed to ask personal questions about Jerry. Once I casually asked Jerry how old he was, because Louise had asked me how old I was, and she snapped, “That is very personal”. She was very protective of him. She could go places but he couldn’t go places.

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One Response to “Louise Bourgeois at Heide museum: Interview with Heide’s Jason Smith and Linda Michael”
  1. Looking forward very much to the upcoming show coming soon to Heide – a great opportunity

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