Maman is a steel and marble sculpture of a spider of towering scale and is the largest of a series created in the latter half of the 1990s. Standing at nine metres (thirty six feet) high, it’s of such a monumental size that it can only be installed outdoors, or inside a building of industrial dimensions.
On display at the opening of Tate Modern in May 2000 as part of Louise Bourgeois’s Unilever Series commission for the Turbine Hall, Maman was was last on display outside Tate Modern in 2007 to coincide with her major retrospective exhibition spanning seven decades of her work.
Supported on eight slender, sinewy legs, the body of the spider is suspended above the ground, allowing the viewer to walk freely underneath it. Each ribbed leg is made of two pieces of steel and ends in a sharp-tipped point. Weighty with the threat of peril, it’s as if the spider will run away at any moment and take its carefully balanced wire-meshed sac of seventeen white and grey marble eggs along with it. At once anxiety inducing and yet agile, nurturing and strong, the title Maman translates as ‘Mummy’ in French and amplifies the dynamic contradictions at the heart of the sculpture.
In a text entitled Ode à ma mere or ‘Ode to My Mother’ published in 1995, Bourgeois first introduces 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.
Spiders are usually recognised to evoke of fear, terror and disgust and Bourgeois saw making art as a way to fight fear. As Mother’s Day and International Women’s Day take place this week, perhaps we can look to Maman as a mammoth, matt-black beacon of the essential strength, beauty, and restorative power pervaded by your best friend, mother and the women who surround you.