Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin ‘Do Not Abandon Me’: Collaboration or Desecration?
‘The Art Newspaper’ described it as collaboration between ‘two art titans’. ‘Where Art You’ website described the project as Louise Bourgeois’ attempt at ‘tutelage’. ‘The Guardian’ gave contrasting reviews- describing Tracey Emin as both a ‘visionary’ and ‘an outmoded, overexposed hangover from the heyday of Britart’. It would seem, no one can quite make their mind up – does the Hauser and Wirth Old Bond Street gallery’s exhibition ‘Do Not Abandon Me’ demonstrate a historic collaboration between two world-class female artists, or rather a travesty against Louise Bourgeois’ memory; Tracey Emin defacing the sacred artwork of an art legend?
This issue begins with the very gallery where the exhibition was held. ‘Hauser and Wirth’ have maintained a professional relationship with Louise Bourgeois spanning 8 years, and their support of her legacy is unremitting following her death. ‘Hauser and Wirth’ have so far held 10 exhibitions internationally of Bourgeois’ work, and hold a collection of her drawings that span 60 years. An obituary that the gallery released on the event of Bourgeois’ death illustrated not only an extensive professional relationship, but also demonstrated a personal admiration of her life and works. This autumn, ‘Hauser and Wirth’ curator Laura Bechter will open an exhibition in National Gallery Iceland: ‘Louise Bourgeois: Femme’, making it the gallery’s third involvement with Louise Bourgeois’ work this year alone. This, alongside the fact that last year they opened their Saville Row, London space with ‘Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works’ further expresses the gallery’s deep reverence for her work. The same however, cannot be said for Tracey Emin. This exhibition will count as her first involvement with ‘Hauser and Wirth’ over her 20+ year career and it would seem it’s only due to the involvement of Louise Bourgeois.
Looking at the physical location of the work, the exhibition sat amongst the Hauser and Wirth Colnaghi collection of Old Master paintings and drawings from the 15th to 19th centuries. Arguably, following her demise Louise Bourgeois can be considered as one of these greats; Tracey Emin herself referred to Bourgeois’ death as:
“A really sad moment for art, but a really fantastic moment for female artists because at last we have someone who is up there with the greats”
Within the process of all 16 pieces being created, collaboration can no doubt be identified. Where typical art partnerships are formed between artists of the same generation (Tracey Emin/Sarah Lucas being a fitting example), Louise Bourgeois’ undeniable youth can justify the intentions of this venture. Both artists reached an agreement where Emin would work on top of Bourgeois’ original gouache washes at her own will, Emin would name the pieces and Bourgeois would name the exhibition. However, in the action of Bourgeois providing the base of the drawings, her figures and colours remain the most seductive aspects of the collection, delegating Emin’s contribution to a secondary action. Emin was able to interpret and tease out emotions from Bourgeois’ figures, but her scratchy depictions of smaller female figures climb over and explore the vast, glowing bodies of Bourgeois. The contributions of both artists work together to create complex sexual narratives, or ‘sexual landscapes’ within the pieces, expressing the shared autobiographical nature of both women’s’ practices.
“What I loved about Louise Bourgeois was that she wasn’t afraid of her emotions. Women are actually much better at this kind of thing than men, and Bourgeois wasn’t the Queen of this, she was the King” (Tracey Emin).
This process within the work acts to emphasise not only the aesthetic contrasts between the two artists’ styles, but also the similarities within the subject matter. Louise Bourgeois’ seductive and pulsating bodies are faceless, external human anatomy being displayed in complete states of functionality: in sexual and reproductive peaks. Emin’s additions of figures and text complement this subtlety, putting the gouache shapes into context. As is consistent with Emin’s previous work, an element of reality contributes to the romantic nature of Bourgeois’ washes. Any reader of ‘Strangeland’, Tracey Emin’s autobiographical book, can identify her obsession with portraying gritty reality regardless of social condemnation of vulgar language and overt female sexual promiscuity. In contrast, when asked about the subtlety of her own work, Bourgeois replied:
‘The gaze is much more important than words. Silence is intimacy’
Where the styles of Bourgeois and Emin differ in this circumstance, a mutual respect lay between them.
‘In terms of making a statement in art, which do you prefer, to scream or to be silent? It depends on what you want. If you want attention, you scream’
This statement from Louise Bourgeois would suggest that she understood Emin’s attention-seeking, and often considered controversial actions within her works.
This exhibition seems to encourage the viewer to consider the vast differences between the two artists featured. The dissimilarity between the elegant hand of Bourgeois and the raw, primal sketches and notations of Emin; the delicacy of Bourgeois’ sexual bodies and the vulgarity of Emin’s explicit narrations; the notable
variation in public opinion between art-world heavy-weight and rebellious YBA. But what I think is most palpable, is the shared passion and fierceness displayed by both artists. Two women publicly expressing female sexuality; openly displaying personal emotion and trouble. A shared desire, united despite diversity of generation or geographical location. And in a continuously male-dominated art scene, what could be more contentious?