Summary

Maman is a monumental steel spider, so large that it can only be installed out of doors, or inside a building of industrial scale. Supported on eight slender, knobbly legs, its body is suspended high above the ground, allowing the viewer to walk around and underneath it. Each ribbed leg ending in a sharp-tipped point is made of two pieces of steel, and attached to a collar above which an irregularly ribbed spiralling body rises, balanced by a similar sized egg sac below. The meshed sac contains seventeen white and grey marble eggs that hang above the viewer’s head, gleaming in the darkness of their under-body cavity. Maman was made for the opening of Tate Modern in May 2000 as part of Bourgeois’s commission for the Turbine Hall, the grand central space of the museum. The sculpture was installed on the bridge, overlooking three tall steel towers entitled I Do, I Undo and I Redo, referring to processes of emotional development in relation to motherhood, a central theme in the artist’s oeuvre. An edition of six bronze casts was created subsequent to Tate’s original steel version; their marble eggs have pinker tones than those of T12625.

Maman is the largest of a series of steel spider sculptures that Bourgeois created in the second half of the 1990s, picking up a motif that she first depicted in a small ink and charcoal drawing in 1947. Spider (reproduced Morris p.279) shows a body and round head supported on eight stiff stick-like legs with rudimentary feet and eyes that are curiously multiple and joined. In 1994 she drew a similar figure in red ink, gouache and crayon (reproduced Louise Bourgeois: Maman, p.79); this spider stands upright on four legs that stem from its lower body, two of which are particularly emphasised, suggesting a human figure. In the same year, Bourgeois created her first Spider sculpture using geometric and found forms (Spider 1994, reproduced Louise Bourgeois: Maman, p.79) – a glass jar with a rounded base containing blue liquid hanging below a steel globe, both of which are supported by legs made from straight sections of steel tube bent at angles to hold the body a metre above the ground. This was followed by a series of more organically shaped steel and bronze standing and wall-mounted arachnids (Spider 1994, Spider 1995, Spider III 1995, Spider IV 1996, Spider 1997 and Spider V 1999, reproduced Louise Bourgeois, pp.60–1, 58–9, 62–3, 50, 64–5 and 52–3 respectively).

The regular wire mesh that allows the viewer to see into Maman’s abdominal egg sac is supported by narrow irregular ribs that echo the ribbed spiral of her upper body. Small nippled bulges occur singly and in clusters in the mesh, which is also interrupted by holes that are circular, triangular and diamond in form. These clustered breast-like bulges appear in the artist’s work from the late 1960s onwards, in such sculptures as Avenza 1968–9 (T07781), and most notably arising in latex in a small installation entitled The Destruction of the Father 1974 (reproduced in Morris, p.103). Maman’s wire-meshed egg sac has as its precedent an entire fenced Cell enclosing the body of a Spider created in 1997 (reproduced in Louise Bourgeois: Maman, p.109). Under the spider’s belly full of eggs made of glass wrapped in nylon tights, the Cell contains fragments of antique tapestries, hollowed bones and old Shalimar perfume bottles as well as a pendulous rubber form stuck with pins, brooches and old medals, all attached to the meshed walls, evoking a web full of trapped prey. The objects carry resonances from the artist’s history – as a child she assisted her mother in the restoration of antique tapestries (the family business), the perfume – first launched in 1925 – is her favourite and a stopped pocket watch hanging from the Cell wall once belonged to her grandfather. Bourgeois began creating Cells in the late 1980s – small enclosed spaces into which the viewer may enter in some instances, but may also be excluded from, forced to peer between architectural features or through holes in glass. They usually contain a mixture of made and found objects, including things that have particular historical significance for the artist; pieces of furniture are often combined with sculptural elements, as in Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) 1989–93 (T06899). With its Cell-cum egg sac into which the viewer may enter, the 1997 Spider articulates a claustrophobic relationship to architectural space very different to that which T12625 embodies. Maman’s curving ribbed legs evoke gothic columns that rise to lofty heights above the congregation of an open cathedral, while its marble eggs recall the contents of Cell (Three White Marble Spheres) 1993 (reproduced in Louise Bourgeois: Maman, p.51), in which a small white marble sphere nestles between two much larger ones.

The title Maman translates as ‘Mummy’, the appellation a child uses for its mother. Like the title Fillette (meaning ‘little girl’) that Bourgeois gave to a large plaster and latex penis that hangs from a wire (1968, reproduced in Morris p.147), the title Maman enhances dynamic contradictions at the heart of the sculpture. Words accompanying a suite of nine etchings published in 1995 by Editions du Solstice, Paris, entitled Ode à ma mere or ‘Ode to My Mother’, first introduce the spider as a maternal figure – the artist’s mother:

The friend (the spider – why the spider?) because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider. She could also defend herself, and me, by refusing to answer ‘stupid’, inquisitive, embarrassing, personal questions.

I shall never tire of representing her.
I want to: eat, sleep, argue, hurt, destroy …
Why do you?
My reasons belong exclusively to me.
The treatment of Fear.
(Quoted in Louise Bourgeois, p.62.)

In this text Bourgeois has emphasised positive attributes a spider may have and she has also connected her own artistic processes with those of a spider: ‘What is a drawing? it is a secretion, like a thread in a spider’s web … It is a knitting, a spiral, a spider web and other significant organisations of space.’ (Quoted in Louise Bourgeois, p.50.) However, spiders are more usually thought of as a source of fear and disgust, the most extreme association perhaps the black widow spider who eats her mate. Maman’s towering scale and sharply pointed feet suggest a sinister and menacing aspect concurrent with a sense of fragility that is evoked through the precariousness of balancing and in the associations that the artist has with the form of the spiral in its upper body. The spiral recurs in Bourgeois’s work in two and three dimensions, including an Untitled print from 1989–91 (P77679) and the hanging sculpture Spiral Woman 1984 (reproduced in Morris, p.281). The artist has described the spiral as ‘an attempt at controlling the chaos’ and has commented that ‘Spirals – which way to turn – represent the fragility in an open space. Fear makes the world go round.’ (Quoted in Marie-Laure Bernadac and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (eds), Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father, London 1998, pp.222 and 223.)

For Bourgeois making art is a way of fighting specific fears (Bernadac and Obrist, p.267), one of which is the ‘trauma of abandonment’ that she suffered not only through her untimely birth on Christmas Day (Bernadac and Obrist, p.246) but also on her mother’s death in 1932, when Louise was only twenty-one (Bernadac and Obrist, p.207). Having experienced motherhood herself, she has dealt with the ambivalent feelings a mother may have for her children, as contradictory as those a child may feel for his or her mother. Just as the 1971 sculpture Le Trani Episode represents ‘a double attitude to be like a mother, and to be liked by a mother’ (Bourgeois quoted in Morris, p.288; sculpture reproduced p.289), Maman may be read as referring to more than one possible maternal figure: the artist, her mother, a mythological or archetypal mother and a symbol of motherhood. In a diary entry in March 1975, Bourgeois wrote: ‘You need a mother. I understand but I refuse to be your mother because I need a mother myself.’ (Quoted in Bernadac and Obrist, p.72.) Encountering Maman always from the perspective of the child looking up from below, the viewer may experience the sculpture as an expression of anxiety about a mother who is universal – powerful and terrifying, beautiful and, without eyes to look or a head to think, curiously indifferent.

Further reading
Louise Bourgeois, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2000, p.6, reproduced pp.46–7.
Louise Bourgeois: Maman, exhibition catalogue, Wanås Foundation and Atlantis, Stockholm 2007, reproduced p.75.
Frances Morris (ed.), Louise Bourgeois, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007, p.170, reproduced p.171.

Elizabeth Manchester
December 2009