THE TRIUMPH OF BOURGEOIS VALUES ; Louise Bourgeois's Age, Reclusiveness and Pessimism Might Make Her Seem an Odd Choice of Artist to Launch Tate Modern. Yet She's Also Very Much of Our Time, Reports Mark Irving PHOTOGRAPH ABE FRAJNDLICH

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She is the youngest and oldest of artists. At 89, Louise Bourgeois is both a tangible link with that pioneering generation that included Surrealist and Modernist legends such as Miro, Breton, Duchamp, and Le Corbusier and the most contemporary of artists today. While other, much younger artists frequently go stale some way into their careers, Bourgeois's capacity to rediscover her themes, to recover the territories she has set herself - childhood, memory, and architecture among them - has ensured that her work has only grown in scope and importance. That may be why she has been given, in preference to any number of more media-friendly artists, the accolade of the launch commission from Tate Modern, which opens this week. "She combines the intellect of an adult with the emotions of a child," explains her long-time studio assistant Jerry Gorovoy, through whom the now semi-reclusive Bourgeois speaks to the outside world. It is this combination of emotional intelligence, he goes on, that keeps her fresh and continuously inventive.

We are standing on the bridge that spans the vast cavern of Tate Modern, while around us the air is riven with the screeches of metal upon metal and the acrid showers of welding torches. Behind us stands an enormous spider, over 20ft high, tiptoe-ing on the points of its tightly muscular legs, tautly poised as a ballerina's. Entitled Maman, the creature cradles a cluster of white marble eggs in a caged sack beneath its small body. Below us, trucks and cranes wheel around three huge steel towers in the process of construction. Hard-hatted men work busily between the large steel plates that lie, like discarded toys, across the floor of the 155m by 35m Turbine Hall. These steel parts, shipped ponderously from New York to London to be fitted together on site, now form an ensemble work entitled I DO, I UNDO, I REDO, and, along with the aforementioned oversized arachnid, form part of Bourgeois's Tate Modern commission.

What does it mean? Bourgeois scorns journalists; but eventually I was given a written explanation by her for the meaning behind this ensemble work. Her use of language is, characteristically, structured with superb emotional logic, almost directorial in its tone of dramaturgical instruction (reminiscent of that other grand old apostle of 20th century pessimism, Samuel Beckett).

"I DO is an active state," she declares. "It's a positive affirmation. I am in control, and I move forward toward a goal or a wish or a desire. There is no fear. In terms of a relationship, things are fine and peaceful...

"The UNDO is the unravelling. The torment that things are not right and the anxiety of not knowing what to do. There can be total destruction in the attempt to find an answer, and there can be terrific violence that descends into depression. One is immobile in the wake of the fear. It is the view from the bottom of the well. In terms of a relationship to others, it's a total rejection and destruction. It is the return of the repressed...

"The REDO means that a solution is found to the problem. It may not be the final answer, but there is an attempt to go forward..."

Bourgeois has also said that "an artist's words are always to be taken cautiously - the artist who discusses the so-called meaning of his work is usually describing a literary side-issue. The core of his original impulse is to be found, if at all, in the work itself." Yet somehow this dichotomy makes sense: Bourgeois, a pessimist who believes in solutions, a recluse who obsessively exposes her most private concerns, is an artist at home with contradictions. …