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Louise Bourgeois in the documentary film "Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine."
via Art Daily

Ajar

Natasha Marie Llorens

Once we were sitting together at the table, I took white bread, mixed it with spit, and molded a figure of my father. When the figure was done, I started cutting off the limbs with a knife. I see this as my first sculptural solution. [1]

There is no innocence in this gesture by Louise Bourgeois, no matter how old the child-artist was at that table. Her own saliva, her own small fingers collecting half-chewed bread from her mouth to produce an object, her father. There is only this formless sticky wetness taking shape, becoming an object, becoming a person. Bourgeois does not put the man back in her mouth the better to swallow him. She does not return him to the womb. She dismembers him so that he may nevertheless remain an object – an object materialized out of desire and then marked by desire as aggression.

The bread-man represents a moment before desire’s false coherence, when it contradicts itself as it addresses material. This is a moment when the sculptural object does not represent truth, but rather pictures the tension between desire’s composite, a-synchronic elements. A.K. Burns, Lea Cetera, Kerry Downey and Joanna Seitz, Brie Ruais, and Julia Sherman are all, in very different ways, invested in a similar moment of tension-in-material, as opposed to truth-in-material. Each work is left ajar through its effort to picture tension; theirs are objects left vulnerable, objects threatening to slip into incoherence.

Mignon Nixon has described Bourgeois’ attempt to picture tension-in-material as the production of part-objects, which Nixon sees as a material analog to Freud’s “partial instincts.” She writes:

Instincts, according to Freud, are initially fragmented, and these “partial instincts” only gradually coalesce around a sexual object choice. Even then, he maintained, the libido is haunted by component instincts into which it might again break up. [2]

The libido forms just as Bourgeois forms her father: both are temporary structures pasted together with spit and table scraps. Both are vulnerable to those of the subject’s partial instincts that have somehow failed to coalesce around them. The libido is haunted by that which it has excluded in order to become itself, a drive. The part-object is thus an object made to embody a drive terrified of its own dismemberment into parts.

Nixon leaves Freud at this point in order to argue that the part-object is also more than this: “the part, with the breast as its archetype, marked the convergence of the libido and the death drive.” Part-objects manifest instability on two levels – they represent the subject’s chaotic partial instincts prior to the formation of the drives, but they also represent the persistent unstable separation between drives. Part-objects admit that the libido and the death drive do not stay where they belong, that they get tangled in one another, tearing the subject apart in the process. Nixon writes:

First phantasies, Melanie Klein contended, arise from the body in the grip of anxiety and aggression. In rage, the mouth cannibalizes the breast, and so incorporates an object that is at once sustaining and menacing, an object of love and of hate. [2]

The breast and the father as they surface in Nixon’s work are part-objects because they figure forth rage and desire together, distinct yet inseparable. What matters politically about Nixon’s reading is her claim that “Bourgeois and (Jasper) Johns, Nancy Spero, Bruce Nauman, and Robert Gober, among many others … [erode] phallocentrism from below or before – from a subsymbolic or presymbolic position.” The part-object can be considered feminist because it maintains the contradiction of the two drives by way of a “sculptural solution,” in form.

Two aspects of Nixon’s work seem relevant to the works in “Ajar”: 1) Feminist sculpture is a form that erodes phallocentrism by representing the body, desire, and gender as fundamentally unstable, unbounded by idealist notions of either men or women, or idealist modes of socially organizing their bodies. 2) This instability is not innocent. Part-objects avow the rage engendered by subjective instability. They must do so.

It is not the case that bodies or their drives are either frictionlessly fluid or else locked into masterful, seamless coherence. The part-object is useful because it does not drain incoherent infantile rage from the formation of subjective desire. It is the part-object’s ability to maintain antagonism while holding the threshold between the drives ajar that is relevant to the works in this exhibition, and it is also the crux of their political urgency.

The works in “Ajar” are not all objects, yet they operate within the logic of the part-object because they are fundamentally concerned with the object’s ability to materialize contradiction, to figure subjective instability. While none avow rage quite so directly as Bourgeois, each nonetheless probes the well of our collective anxiety – anxiety about the body’s formlessness, about the body’s inevitable failure, about the precise location of female sexuality, and about the body’s exposure to phallocentrism.

[1] Louise Bourgeois, quoted in Christine Meyer-Thoss, Louise Bourgeois: Designing for Free Fall (Zurich, Ammann Verlag, 1992) 53. Cited in Nixon, “Art Objects as Part Objects,” 265.

[2] Mignon Nixon and Louise Bourgeois, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005).


Natasha Marie Llorens is writer and an independent curator based in New York. Recent curatorial projects include "A study of interruptions" at Ramapo College, in New Jersey, and “The Echo of an Address” with Kerry Downey at Columbia University. She is PhD candidate in department of Art History at Columbia and her research is focused on violence and representation in the 1970s and 1980s.