Mother of all spiders

An artist whose career spans almost a century is the centrepiece of Tate Modern's opening exhibition. Frances Morris reports on the life and extraordinary multi-media work of Louise Bourgeois.

Three majestic steel towers dominate the vast western end of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. With their spiral staircases, narrow windows and high platforms they are reminiscent of watch towers and lighthouses: places to be seen and from which to observe. Entitled I do, I undo, I redo the towers are, for artist Louise Bourgeois, indicative of the way we endlessly renegotiate relationships during our lives.

They have been staged as sites of encounter. For those who merely stand and stare from the bridge or from one of the balconies in Tate Modern this will be an encounter with space, sculpture and architecture. For those willing to enter the work - you can climb the stairs in each tower - it may be an encounter with the self, a companion or a stranger. Each visitor meets their gaze reflected in one of the dramatically-poised mirrors mounted on top of two of the towers. The towers are punctuated with small sculptures - in marble, glass and fabric - that provide a narrative thread to the visit, a narrative that explores the complex relationships between mother and child that affect all of us, as parents or children.

Astride the bridge at the centre of the Turbine Hall is a fourth work, the largest in the series of spider sculptures which Bourgeois has been making since the early 1990s. With her eggs slung in a steel mesh bag between her sinuous legs, this spider is called Maman (Mother), a mother whose lifetime is spent spinning a protective web through which to ensnare those who might seek to destroy her.

The towers and spider are the largest and possibly the most ambitious works by an artist whose career almost spans a century. Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911. Her father was a dealer in antique tapestry and her mother ran the restoration business. A seemingly idyllic childhood was shattered by an affair between her father and her English nanny, Sadie. Memories of her childhood have haunted her throughout her adult life; she seeks to confront and exorcise that time through her work. Images drawn from the family home - of needles, spiralling treads, chairs awaiting upholstery - are central to her densely-layered iconography. Themes of parent-child relationships, focusing at times on the father and at others on the mother, have prevailed throughout her career.

Louise Bourgeois moved to New York in 1938 wit her new husband, American art historian Robert Goldwater. Her earliest mature works were drawings and sculptures fusing architecture and the personal, evoking both the impact of the newly-created dramatic Manhattan skyline, with its high water towers and fire escapes, and the personal isolation the young Parisienne experienced in a foreign city. Thus, her totemic sculptures were both primitive figures and fantastic skyscrapers, while in her drawings dysfunctional buildings appeared as metaphors for the inexplicable in human relationships. Although her wooden sculptures or Personages were widely acclaimed when first shown in the late 1940s, Bourgeois chose to work at one remove from the major avant-garde movements of her day, such as Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, driven by a belief that art should always be about more than just art. Only in the last few decades and for a generation influenced by feminism and psychoanalysis has her work become a forceful influence.

From the 1940s to the 1980s, Bourgeois explored an extraordinary range of materials and techniques, from carving in marble and modelling in latex to casting in bronze. She worked not only with sculpture but also in drawing and printmaking and performance. During the 1980s and 1990s, at an age when many artists have settled into a mature "late" style, Bourgeois made her most radical move in scale and intention. She turned from sculpture to installation, shifting the visitor's focus from detached viewer to active participant.

The Tate Modern towers developed directly out of a series of Cells done in the late 1980s and 1990s. Steel-framed structures with doors or windows encased three-dimensional tableaux of found objects, pieces of furniture and sculptures, often representing communicative parts of the body such as eyes or hands. An encounter with one of Bourgeois's Cells is voyeuristic: we look in and draw what we can from the experience. An encounter with the towers is different. We enter, we walk up and through and out, experiencing in real time a series of physical spaces and sensations. Enclosure leads to openness, darkness to light, the ground gives way to the top and, as we move back down, these experiences are reversed. Fleeting images of mother and child, marble arms, a Janus-head and strange glass globes are seen on the way, drawing us into Bourgeois's world and into our own personal reflections.

Frances Morris is senior curator at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG. Tel: 020 7887 8000. Website:

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