Autotopography: Louise Bourgeois as builder.(Critical Essay)

By Bal, Mieke | Biography, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Autotopography: Louise Bourgeois as builder.(Critical Essay)


Bal, Mieke, Biography


1. AGAINST BIOGRAPHISM

The concept "autotopography" refers to autobiography while also distinguishing itself from the latter. It refers to a spatial, local, and situational "writing" of the self's life in visual art. In this paper I will argue that in the case of self-expressive artists such as Louise Bourgeois, art criticism wrongly props itself up against the artist's statements and stories, to produce biographical narratives that sidestep or even ignore what is most characteristic of the artist's work: its visual nature. Yet the element "auto-," or self, need not be thrown away with the bathwater. Nor, of course, can "-graphy," or writing, be so easily dismissed. I propose the term "autotopography" to accomplish three goals: to explain the biographical tendency in Bourgeois criticism, to characterize Bourgeois' work as visual art, and to position her work culturally. As will become clear, when Bourgeois' work is conceived of as auto-topographical, its relationship to autobiography--to writing one's own life--becomes more rather than less meaningful but can no longer be an alibi for criticism's intellectual laziness.

Since estranging criticism from its obsession with the biographical is my first goal, I will engage a single work closely, so that its visual properties and cultural significance can be brought to the fore. I have selected one of Bourgeois' most famous and most frequently exhibited works, her 1996 installation Spider. I have chosen it both for its public accessibility and because it triggers biographism most strongly, almost irresistibly.' The huge spider hovering over an iron cage "is" the artist's caring mother, and the fragments of tapestry decorating the cage come from her parents' workshop in tapestry restoration. Suspending--but not ignoring--these autobiographical elements, I will first broach this work as the installation it primarily is: as a piece of building.

Indeed, nowhere more clearly than in her Cells, a series of installations from the late 1980s and 1990s, of which Spider is an example, is Louise Bourgeois' work architectural. (2) The installations are huge and yet have a great intimacy. They invite the viewer to enter a space that is filled with the artist's gadgets, memorial objects, bedroom furniture, or body parts. If they don't invite physical entrance, then at least their doors are left ajar to allow peeping in; inviting, that is, an act of voyeurism that is emblematic for looking at art from the principle of "non-indifference." (3) Not only are these works fundamentally architectural; more specifically, they are domestic. (4) Their personal quality intensifies the critical tendency--it appears nearly irresistible-- to read Bourgeois' work as autobiographical. While at the same time acknowledging that her work and her own rhetoric strongly solicit it, I object to such a tendency for two reasons. I find it authoritarian, as if the artist rather than the public is the master of its meanings. And I find it paraphrastic, reiterating the artist's words--in Bourgeois' case, primarily her writing and interviews--time and again, thus saying about the work what concerns its maker and what we already know. Instead, Bourgeois' visual rhetoric is geared toward a fiction of autobiography that is shaped through a domestic environment that literally surrounds its content--the Cells are round. Thus, autobiographical reading ought to yield to reading these works--in ways I will suggest below--as autotopographies. (5)

Autobiographical readings of works of art are predicated upon two assumptions: that the work narrates elements from the artist's life and, at the same time, that it expresses her/his personality. Both narrative and expression are problematic as modes for reading Bourgeois' Cells. Narrative, on the one hand, is a function of Bourgeois' architecture, because, uniquely, she infuses form--including the form that informs her work's architecturality-- with memory. …

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