He disappeared into complete silence: Rereading a Single Artwork by Louise Bourgeois

Machine Torture, 1975. After the narration of 'In the Penal Colony' (1914) by Franz Kafka, realized for the exhibition 'Machines Celibataires' (1975-1977). Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.

‘Oh’, she said. I looked down and saw the lady. She looked confused. ‘I thought those legs were part of the artwork, but they’re yours’. The legs in question were mine. They were stood on a ladder while the upper half of my body had disappeared into the attic. It had been watching a fairly horrendous film in which two men were making something unidentifiable out of what looked most like milk and porridge oats, all whilst producing numerous unnecessary movements and noises. It wasn’t my favourite artwork in the show, and before more visitors would start to confuse my legs for an artwork, I decided to climb down.

The show, titled He disappeared into complete silence, is constructed around a single work by one of the most prolific artists of the 20th century, Louise Bourgeois. The centrepiece is a small portfolio, consisting of nine plates, each with an engraving and an accompanying parable. Every plate tells a story about an emotion or experience – the work covers loneliness, abandonment, distress, loss and even murder. Not the most frivolous of subjects, but then again, it is Louise Bourgeois, she who spent most of her career exploring the affair her father had with her nanny and the long-lasting effect this had on her psyche. Not someone to cling on to the more positive and superficial things in life, and rightly so. The important processes take place below the surface.

He disappeared into complete silence, Louise Bourgeois, 1947. Portfolio consisting of nine etchings and nine parables. Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery, New York. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij,

Curators Laurie Cluitmans and Arnisa Zeqo had both, independently of each other, seen ‘He disappeared into complete silence’ and somehow it had kept hunting them, asking them to be displayed somewhere else, in a different context, with a different emphasis. Miraculously the two shared this same passion and as they started talking the concept for the show came to existence. They created a new context for the work by drawing parallels between Bourgeois’ plates and works by other contemporary artists.

In the first parable, for example, Bourgeois describes a beautiful young girl in the city, waiting for a date who doesn’t show. Her loneliness is abstracted in a drawing of a desolate tower. It also returns in Francesco Vezzoli’s short film The End of the Human Voice (2001), shown on the first floor. Bianca Jagger plays a wealthy lady in negligee, neglected by her lover. The film is set in the lady’s mansion where she anxiously awaits his phone calls, desperate to hear his voice again. When she realises their conversations bring her nothing but misery, her desperation turns into anger. Towards the end she begs him to leave her alone. In contrast to Bourgeois’ minimal execution of the experience, Vezzoli’s work drags us through every emotional state of the female soul. It’s dirty, raw and emotional where Bourgeois’ work is distanced, almost cold. But seeing Vezzoli makes you understand Bourgeois, and vice versa.

Plate 7 He disappeared into complete silence Louise Bourgeois 1947 Portfolio consisting nine etchings and nine parables. Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery, New York. Photo: the author

Another brilliant, and incredibly sinister parallel is the one between plate number seven and the torture machine. In the parable, Bourgeois tells the story of a man who is very angry with his wife. So angry he decides to cut her in small pieces, make a stew of her and eat her with his friends. And then there is Machine Turture (1975), a work installed on the second floor, made to the instructions of Swiss curator Harald Szeemann and based on the short story ‘In the Penal Colony’ by Franz Kafka. It is an absurd piece of engineering in which individuals can be tortured for hours using thick needles. In Kafka’s text, as well as in Bourgeois’ work, the victim and the cause of murder are completely insignificant but the murder itself is described as a performance, almost a ritual. These works are not about righteousness or morality, they are merely bringing to light the cruelty and complete absurdity of the human mind. And yes, Freud would have had a field day.

Spread out over three floors of this beautiful old building in Haarlem, part of which, ironically, used to be a meat hall where butchers sold their goods, the exhibition occupies the space brilliantly. There is no shortage of work by the talented and famed, including Tracey Emin’s Cunt Vernacular (1997), Tacita Dean’s The Russian Ending (2001) and some disturbing videos and paintings by Tala Madani, but it’s combined with lesser known, fresher works, too. Good use is made of the different rooms, with big, sculptural installations in the more spacious parts of the building, and drawings, photographic works and small video screens on the walls of the smaller rooms. As I mentioned there is also a ladder to climb when you fancy a bit of disappearing. But beware of the noise on the other side.

He disappeared into complete silence will be on view at De Hallen in Haarlem, The Netherlands until 4 December 2011.