Cell VII, 1998
Metal, glass, fabric, bronze, steel, wood, bones, wax, and thread, 207 x 221 x 210.8 cm
Private collection, courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation/VEGAP, Madrid
“My reminiscences help me live in the present, and I want them to survive. I am a prisoner of my emotions. You have to tell your story, and you have to forget your story. You forget and forgive. It liberates you.” —Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911, Paris; d. 2010, New York) enjoyed an exceedingly long art career, spanning almost an entire century. In the last twenty years of her life, Bourgeois created artworks using, reusing, and converting all sort of objects, different types of architectural features, and her personal belongings. During this time, she devoted much of her energy to create a series of haunting, room-like spaces. Bourgeois called these installations Cells, a term that invites associations with imprisonment and monastic contemplation, as well as with the most basic element of the human body, the biological cell of a living organism.
The first Cell she constructed in 1989 was a mixture of salvaged building materials such as old doors, windows, wire mesh, and glass, combined with made and found objects. By the mid-1990s Bourgeois began to add textiles to her Cells, including old garments, primarily her own and those of her mother, which she had saved for many years.
At the age of 87, Bourgeois produced Cell VII (1998). The piece consists of a room-like space created out of old wooden doors. One of the doors is open, inviting the viewer to see inside, where pieces of furniture and items that have a strong emotional charge for the artist are on display. The Cells are described as “her most autobiographical work.” Each object that Bourgeois has collected and displayed in Cell VII references her childhood and her parents’ work: a model of the house in Choisy-le-Roi, south of Paris, where the artist spent her childhood; a spider in a corner that alludes to figure of her mother; personal items of clothing hung from bone-shaped coat hangers; and a pinkish form on the top of a miniature staircase that appears to be crossed by needles. The objects Bourgeois uses relating to sewing and mending were a central item in her Cells, representing her parents who ran a tapestry restoration workshop and gallery, where the artist assisted from an early age. In Cell VII Bourgeois communicates aspects of her life, creating a space with a lot of emotion where she is trying to confront and transmute her own history.
1. Jerry Gorovoy and Pandora Tabatabai Asbaghi, eds., Louise Bourgeois (Milan: Fondazione Prada, 1997), back cover.
Show: Cell VII (1998)
Look closely. What is the first thing you notice about Cell VII? List five words you would use to describe it.
Describe the mood the artwork conveys. What aspects of Cell VII give you this impression?
Imagine that you can walk inside. How would you feel? Where would you go? If you could take one of the objects home, what would you take and why?
Imagine other ways in which Bourgeois could have displayed the objects. How would a different type of presentation have changed the meaning or the feeling of her work?
Bourgeois said that used garments contained memories of people, relationships, and places. What do you think about her statement? Do you have clothes that remind you of someone or something important in your life? If you do, where do you keep them? Do you use them? On what occasions? Why do you use them in those moments?
Read Bourgeois’s quote: “My reminiscences help me live in the present, and I want them to survive. I am a prisoner of my emotions. You have to tell your story, and you have to forget your story. You forget and forgive. It liberates you.” What do you think about this quote and how it relates to this piece?
6. Gorovoy and Asbaghi, back cover.
Write a story
Divide the class into groups of four. In their groups, have them write a story about Cell VII. Ask them to create a story that connects all objects on display. They can use the following questions to inspire their narrative:
– Where is this place?
– Who owns these objects?
– Why are they arranged like this?
– What is the relationship between them?
Explore a memory and create a Cell to convey that moment
Louise Bourgeois said about her artwork: “Each Cell deals with a fear. Fear is pain…”Ask your students to think of a moment in their life when they experienced fear. When was it? What were they afraid of? Bourgeois transformed that fear into art and used her Cells to externalize those moments.
First debate whether art can be used to transmute difficult moments. Challenge students to try to create a Cell based on their fearful moment. The Cell can be done by drawing, creating a collage, or making a small sculpture out of recycled materials. In creating their sculpture they may take into account questions related to space, balance, materials, and scale.
To start, design and sketch the room-like space. What materials would you use to create this room? Think of the interior. What objects would you place in it? Give the Cell a title and write a label (a short paragraph) that explains the piece.
Display all the Cells in class and discuss with your students how they felt about creating them. Did something change about the difficult situation? If they want, they can talk about why they selected those specific objects to represent that moment. Did the Cell help with the situation?
7. Louise Bourgeois quoted in Lynne Cooke and Mark Francis, Carnegie International 21, exh. cat. (Pennsylvania: Carnegie Museum of Art, 1992), p. 60.
Installation: An artwork comprised of various objects designed to stablish a relationship with the environment and prompt complex and multiple associations. Its components are to be viewed as a single work of art. Sometimes the viewer can walk through it.
Autobiographical: Marked by or dealing with one’s own experiences or life history.
Found object: An existing object found or selected by the artist and incorporated into a work of art.
Tapestry: A form of textile art, traditionally woven on a vertical loom.
Restoration: The process of fixing and repairing damaged elements in an artwork, so that it returns as much as possible to its original condition.
Inés Cabello, “Las relaciones íntimas entre el arte y lo doméstico: Louise Bourgeois,” Croma Cultura, June 23, 2013.
http://www.cromacultura.com/las-relaciones-intimas-entre-el-arte-y-lo-domestico-louise-bourgeois/ (In Spanish)
Guggenheim Museum exhibition Louise Bourgeois http://pastexhibitions.guggenheim.org/bourgeois/exhibition.html
“MUSING: The Liberation of Louise Bourgeois,” Louise & Maurice, April 11, 2015.
http://www.louiseandmaurice.com/ – !MUSING-The-Liberation-of-Louise-Bourgeois/cmbz/55295d830cf2aa18119c6a31
Haus der Kunst Museum exhibition Louise Bourgeois. Structures of Existence: The Cells