Artist out on a limb with works

LOUISE BOURGEOIS: LATE WORKS Heide Museum of Modern Art, 7 Templestowe Road, Bulleen, until March 11, 2013


Heide Museum of Modern Art, 7 Templestowe Road, Bulleen, until March 11, 2013

AN AMPUTEE lying on her back has a knife for a face. The handle is bolted to a kind of neck and the blade hovers over the sternum. This scary apparition by Louise Bourgeois is psychological rather than forensic. You aren't invited to think that the knife has been the cause of her missing limbs or that it has been planted in the spot where her head was severed. Rather, for whatever reason, her head is the knife.

Called Knife figure, this uncanny sculpture from 2002 is one of several in a large exhibition of the late work of Bourgeois at Heide. Supported by two-dimensional work, the show is rich in symbolic content, often of a morbid or diabolical wit.

Of all the organs in your body, the one most like a knife is your head, because it contains language. Our bodies are just a lump of this and that - all connected like a functional pump - until you add the intelligence that animates it organically. When language and gesture are activated, the body becomes intensely engaging, an organ of intelligence in its own right, which is delightful, dangerous and vulnerable.

Humans are a creature with double organs, because for every clever tube and bulge we possess, we have a word for it, an idea, a story: there's a real organ with blood in it and an imaginary one with metaphors in it. The head as a knife makes sense to me, because we use it to cut other people and cause other people to cut us; and often cut ourselves.

Going into her own past and her own wardrobe and attic of weavings and clothes, the venerable Bourgeois produced invention after invention, all of which explore the symbolism of organs and actions. We see a sinister couple copulate like swollen headless bags that make the spectacle horrific - the primal scene as an engorged nightmare of decapitation - where the sexual organs have completely replaced the intellect.

Or again, she fabricates heads out of old tapestries, which means that the faces are inscribed with other pre-existing patterns, somewhat awkwardly, but in a way that also sometimes explains the outer form and suggests inner inscriptions.

In Bourgeois, the organs are alien, abject and monstrous but also trapped. Within a cage of domestic windows and mesh, she suspends a kind of heart with lewd ventricles, hungry orifices, but useless and isolated, like a specimen of the criminally insane.

Alongside this tour de force of thoughtfully lurid objects, Heide has organised a further exhibition of Australian artists whose work relates to Bourgeois'. Directly or otherwise, the old-mistress of family pain has inspired local artists with the psychoanalytical intensity of her subject matter and her language of construction in fibre.

Two works especially have imagery built around the poison and potency of our organs. One is a sculpture, Night's tongue, by Heather B. Swann, which figures a woman standing on the floor with legs apart. Instead of a head, however, she sports a series of tongues that spurt upward and forward as a sheaf of laurel, a linguistic ejaculation that ends by striking the wall.

As the organ of language but also ingestion, these concatenated tongues vomit forth their own substance, like a telescope of spongy muscle that passes on a will to reach out, even as the body would become depleted through this wanton spewing of tissue, words or licking.

Equally symbolic in its visceral disturbance is Patricia Piccinini's video of a woman who might be a grandmother, sitting peacefully in a kind of cave, a bit like a St Anne by a renaissance painter. Slowly, she begins to vomit blood, a flow so viscous it could be her internal organs. The tubes of red jelly issue forth, as if her last act is for the mouth to produce a final tongue, an endless outpouring of her own gizzards, grief for her life, her mother, her children, the words that were said beyond her control.

Like Bourgeois, these artists discover the unconscious in the body and reveal through metaphor that there is even beauty in bile.

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