Needled reviews Louise Bourgeois, Nature Study.
Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Until July 6th.

I like Louise Bourgeois. I like what she stands for. She’s a woman whose early work challenges and outlasts so many of her surrealist contemporaries, with their ludicrous, dick-swinging excesses. I like her investigative, excavatory treament of sexuality and power. I particularly like her beautiful and evocative manuscript-textiles.

(Louise Bourgeois, Hours of the Day (cover), 2006)

Threads of complicity and humour, reproach and chutzpah run through her work. And despite its inward-looking self-scrutiny, what she makes has always seemed to me to be generous and dialogic in character. I can take or leave the psychoanalytic turn some approaches to her art have taken, but I like Louise Bourgeois. So I was really looking forward to the exhibition of her new work at Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. I visited the exhibition about ten days ago. I’ve been profoundly troubled by it ever since.

In Inverleith House’s tradition of creating conversations between new art and old archives, Bourgeois’ work is set alongside the collections of John Hutton Balfour, one of the Botanic Gardens’ most important early patrons, and a teacher of plant science. Balfour’s teaching aids, notebooks and illustrations were downstairs; Bourgeois’ gouaches and objects upstairs.

It was interesting to see Balfour’s teaching illustrations in the nineteenth-century spaces in which they might actually have been used. But I really wasn’t sure what to make of these three-foot high illustrations. The apparatus of the exhibition didn’t really help much. We were probably told enough about Balfour: his obsession with the economy of nature as evidence of divine workmanship seemed predictable enough. But these were just enormous teaching aids. It was like being in an undergraduate powerpoint lecture illustrated with (even by nineteenth-century standards) really bad slides.

I was at the exhibition with a biologist. He was mildly interested by the approach to scientific inquiry and pedagogy that Balfour’s illustrations evidenced, but felt that most other people at the exhibition wouldn’t really be concerned with this at all. “People just like the way this stuff looks,” he said, “like the way that old microscope slides are reproduced with a sort of empty fascination all over the internet. People say, ooh, that’s pretty, but don’t really ask why they like looking at hundred year-old insects”

I confess that I do like looking at such things, but I also like thinking about the why of that looking as well. Unlike my biologist friend, I believe it’s possible to regard such things not just as generic scientific ‘curiosities’ but as objects that are aesthetic and critical and contextualised (such as in the work of this talented designer, whose ‘creature series’ displays a careful reverence for the historic traditions of scientific illustration, as well as capturing the essential melancholy of the scrutinised object.)

But the thing was that Balfour’s illustrations didn’t invite this kind of looking. Rather than being (like other botanical images of their era) careful or critical or questioning, they seemed crude, expository, brazen, even. And I was completely bamboozled by what kind of relationship I was meant to conceive between these giant didactic images—whose sole purpose was instruction—and the art of Louise Bourgeois.

(Louise Bourgeois, Self Portrait (detail), 2007. Photograph Chris Burke. Courtesy Cheim & Read.)

Upstairs, the walls were awash with delicate puce daubs. Breasts multiplied in bloody repetition. This was vintage Bourgeois. These new gouaches respond, like so much of her work, to human parts and parting: separation, integrity, abjection. Femininity appears in these images as a something that’s in process—a process as disturbingly repetitive and perpetual as Psyches tasks. Bleeding, feeding, replicating—constantly iterating and re-iterating. Bourgeois’ gouaches also display her characteristic ability to shape-shift through several subject positions, using the natural transitions that a series of repetitive images provides (here most obviously between the positions of greedy, needy mother and child). And the formal quality of these gouaches—bright pink smears that are loud and fleeting, almost rowdy—add to the sense of impermanence and questioning and process in the work.

But why oh why were Bourgeois’ gouaches exhibited alongside Balfour’s teaching aids? What sorts of ways did the curators imagine that these two sets of incredibly different ‘nature studies’ speak to each other? There was no conversation or connection that I could see at all, apart from the obvious inference that the sexual parts of plants and women are, um, a bit like each other. Surely this unbelievably crass association between femininity and flowers couldn’t be what was meant here? And it wasn’t just that the two sets of images were dissimilar, but that they were produced in such completely different discursive contexts, at very different moments, for completely different purposes, and addressed to totally different kinds of audience. What was to be gained from their contiguity? This question bothered me the whole time I was looking at Bourgeois’ work. It has bothered me since. In fact, puzzling about Balfour got in the way of my enjoyment of Bourgeois. I really didn’t see how any sort of appreciation of her work was helped by accompanying it with thirty enormous and rather rudimentary diagrams through which young Victorian men might learn about the parts of plants. Where were the “strikingly similar themes” between the two bodies of work, mentioned in the exhibition blurb?

I’m still troubled by what was going on in the space between upstairs and downstairs at this exhibition. And somehow the whole experience has made me like Bourgeois less. But am I missing something? Am I misrepresenting Balfour? According to Catriona Black in The Herald, the pairing of Balfour and Bourgeois was the result of a “casual conversation” between the exhibition’s New York and Edinburgh curators. If anyone thinks that there is more to it than that, can you let me know?