Louise Bourgeois: The Eternal Thread

Long Museum
Xuhui District, Shanghai, China
3 November 2018 – 24 February 2019
Curator: Philip Larratt-Smith

Louise Bourgeois: The Eternal Thread is the first large-scale museum exhibition in China of work by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. Widely regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Bourgeois is renowned for creating a body of work that fuses psychological depth with high formal invention. The show offers a focussed survey of major works from the artist’s entire career, including Personage sculptures from the late 1940s, Cell installations from the 1990s, the fabric works of her final decade, and the monumental spider sculpture Maman.

The Eternal Thread allows for multiple readings of Bourgeois’s work, which are symbolically linked by the unifying motif of the uncut thread that runs throughout her oeuvre. In her early drawings, the thread often symbolizes hair and the skein of time. Her hanging sculptures exist in a permanent state of ambivalence and doubt: secure yet vulnerable, fixed yet susceptible to turn and change, they are suspended from a single point and literally hang by a thread.

The motif of the uncut thread also references the prominence of fabric and sewing in the last fifteen years of Bourgeois’s life. Her fabric sculptures and drawings were made from the clothes, bedlinen, towels, and other textiles saved over the course of her long life, a fact that invests these works with a strong biographical and emotionally resonant note. Bourgeois was born into a family of tapestry restorers, and worked closely with tapestries as a youth.

Her iconic spider sculptures are representations of her mother, who was in charge of weaving and restoration at the workshop in France. Thus the eternal thread also stands for the umbilical cord that binds mother and child together. The spider creates its web, which is a living architecture, out of its own body, just as Bourgeois made her sculptural forms out of her own body.

For Bourgeois, sewing, stitching, and joining are symbolic actions that enact her wish for reconciliation and reparation, even as they ward off her lifelong fear of separation and abandonment. Engraver, painter, sculptor, and installation artist, Bourgeois worked across different media throughout her life, and yet her output is rooted in a consistent set of emotional themes. Indeed, the eternal thread may be read as the realm of the unconscious, timeless and eternal, from which the multifarious and at times contradictory forms of her art emerge.

Louise Bourgeois
Arch of Hysteria, 1993
Bronze, polished patina, hanging piece. 83.8 x 101.6 x 58.4 cm
Collection The Easton Foundation
© The Easton Foundation/VAGA, NY Photo: Christopher Burke