Philadelphia

Louise Bourgeois

The Fabric Workshop and Museum

Louise Bourgeois combined her sculptural installation with a performance piece—her first in 24 years—each of which depended on the same themes and motifs. Both were entitled, She Lost It, 1992, and worked with a brief text. As is often the case in this artist’s oeuvre, the message was feminist in tone but delivered in the form of a children’s story: “A man and a woman lived together. On one evening he did not come back from work. And she waited. She kept on waiting and she grew littler and littler. Later, a neighbor stopped by out of friendship and there he found her, in the armchair, the size of a pea.”

Certain implications of the little story are clear: that a woman is like a child; that she is considered to be, and conditioned to be, dependent on a man—of diminished presence without him; that a woman alone cannot make a go of it, and has no importance. Further, that a man works and a woman simply waits for him to come home; if he does not, she has no resources of her own, no work of her own to do. The implication is that little girls are not so much encouraged to grow up as to grow “down”—to get “littler and littler.” This story was silk-screened onto a 178-footlong cotton-voile scarf that the visitor followed around corners of the exhibition space in order to read it, encountering at the end of the message a ball and chain with the word “fears” on it.

In the related performance piece, a figure stood mummy-wrapped in a similar scarf, and several attendants—one a man wearing a skirt that said, “I had to make myself be forgiven for being a girl,”—slowly unwrapped this figure, simultaneously enwrapping a man and woman. At the end of the procedure the previously wrapped man stood revealed in long white underwear, holding a pea, and the couple was now concealed, hound closely together, face to face, from head to foot.

The point seemed to he that the newly unwrapped man was originally wrapped up with a woman, not a pea, and when the newly wrapped, or wedded, couple is unwrapped, once again all that will remain is a man holding a pea. Put a man and woman together in our society, as in marriage, and the woman will disappear. This theme may be related to the well-known family drama that informs Bourgeois’ work and also to the mores of her pre-women’s-movement generation. It was foreshadowed in a prelude to the performance during which a magician poured a pitcher of milk into ever smaller glasses until it disappeared, leaving a pea in his hand.

Bourgeois’ relentless focus on her themes is balanced and leavened by her endlessly proliferating inventiveness. The event was impressively presented, yet its mock theatricality possessed a charming humility.

Thomas McEvilley