BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 5 November 2007, 14:46 GMT
Making contact
Louise Bourgeois' spider sculpture
Maman in Bilbao, London and Washington DC

By Lisa Jardine

Looking and being looked at, mingling with like-minded peers - going to the gallery today is like going on promenade in the 19th Century.

Louise Bourgeois' 30-foot-high menacing bronze sculptural spider first appeared at the opening of Tate Modern in London in 1999, magnificently answering the challenge of how artists would address the cavernous space of the Turbine Hall in the heart of the reclaimed Bankside Power Station.

Louise Bourgeois' spider sculpture in Tate Modern, 1999
Nesting in the Turbine Hall, 1999
I have wanted to know more about this powerful and prolific woman sculptor ever since. Although her mature artistic career covered exactly the period in which I was growing up and being introduced to contemporary art by my artist mother, I had somehow heard very little about her.

I was apparently not alone. This autumn, Tate Modern is giving us the chance to see a full range of Louise Bourgeois works in a dizzyingly wide range of media, created over a period of almost 70 years. She is 95, and still working.

And the monumental spider is back - Maman, or Mummy, as she is titled, her motherhood visible in the gleaming white, oversized marble eggs suspended in a steel mesh sac under her giant abdomen.

This time she broods splendidly over the paved area outside the Thames-side entrance to the gallery, her finely arched, segmented legs like the vaulting of a cathedral over your head. If you stand with your back to the gallery and look across the river, she frames (and appears to dwarf) the dome of St Paul's.

Lisa Jardine
The idea of a museum visit as a promenade theatre event is a new one for me

Working in media from latex, stitched fabric and painted wood, to bronze, marble and steel, on a scale from the minute to the grandiose, Bourgeois' work reflects repeatedly upon incidents of crisis from her own emotional life.

From the fraught anguish of childhood betrayal - her father's long-running affair with her own governess - to the complex states of mind engendered by the conflicting demands of a creative and a domestic life. She is an artist who requires that we respond to her art with a passion to match her own.

Watching the watchers

Last weekend, as dusk fell, my husband and I set off to take a tour of the exhibition, in the evening hours after six which modern museums now offer as an opportunity for working Londoners to spend calm leisure time in their spectacular interiors.

Louise Bourgeois' Arch of Hysteria at the Tate
Make of Louise Bourgeois' Arch of Hysteria what you will
We find these late-night openings magical, with their heady mix of unhurried intellectual opportunity and friendly social interaction.

There is always something of a party atmosphere as you mingle with your fellow visitors, scrutinize and occasionally chat to the intriguing mix of other twilight museum-goers - many young couples, a few families, quite a number of gregarious groups of teenagers, and of course, older people like ourselves who have chosen this alternative to a Saturday evening in front of the television.

As everywhere in London, English is the language of interaction, but only one of the many lilting languages to be overheard in snippets as you move back and forth between exhibits.

The idea of a museum visit as a kind of promenade theatre event is a comparatively new one for me. I am typical of my generation, I suspect, in still expecting a trip to a gallery to be improving - with the emphasis on it as a place where one will be educated, and above all, somewhere one will be infused with morally uplifting sentiments.

Younger gallery-goers, by contrast, go in search of a more immediate experience - looking for something emotionally challenging, against which to measure the tide of information that floods us, in our engulfing sea of online information.

Or, in the case of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall or the V&A's Friday Late, they simply go to hang out with similarly inclined others, for the shared sense of occasion.


Last weekend's outing to Tate Modern succeeded in convincing me that the excitement of the encounter is an important part of today's visit to the museum.

Turbine Hall's crack
Bridging the divide
On Saturday night we entered the gallery to find that the vast concrete slab floor of the Turbine Hall had been fractured by a 584 ft [167 m] long fault-line - a jagged, zigzagging crack, varying along its length in width and depth, extending from a single point at the top of the entrance ramp, as if the building had been struck by an earthquake, or with a giant pick axe.

This is the much talked-about Shibboleth, by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, a work intended to shift our perception of the world we live in, to remind us that the monumentality and grandeur of the gallery's architecture is undermined by the history of discrimination and tension between peoples that lies beneath the surface of modernity.

A shibboleth is a custom, or idiomatic phrase, used as a test to check who belongs to a particular ethnic or social group, and to exclude those who don't.

"Shibboleth represents borders, the experience of segregation," says Salcedo. "So this piece is a negative space."

Questions and answers

The juxtaposition of Shibboleth with Louise Bourgeois' intensely personal art made me stop and think about the nature and purpose of cultural spaces in our modern world. What do we want nowadays, when we enter a gallery or museum?

Children at Glasgow's revamped Kelvingrove gallery
Sense of wonder
According to the French intellectual Andre Malraux - Minister for Culture under General de Gaulle for 10 years from 1959 - whereas once the visitor went to a museum to be provided with answers, now, the responsibility lies with us, the visitors.

The museum experience exists most richly in our own imaginations, created out of a collection of images we each carry with us, gleaned from books, magazines, photographs and film. We bring remembered visual material with us into a museum space which has thereby become imaginary. The installation or exhibition merely acts as a catalyst, prompting us to ask our own questions which we look to the artist to answer.

"Modern museums have imposed on the viewer an absolutely new relationship with respect to the work of art," wrote Malraux. "The museum was once an affirmation, the Imaginary Museum is an interrogation."

As if to provide a perfect example of Malraux's visitor-directed museum experience, those roaming up and down the Turbine Hall last weekend seemed to be making their own meaning, rather than following an itinerary mapped out by the artist.

Hands were held across the crack at its widest points. Children stood arms akimbo over it, peering downwards. Groups clustered as if in consultation at the points where it deepened, or changed direction. It was as if they wanted to heal that negative, scarring fracture.

Inclusive experience

Cultural spaces like Tate Modern can give purpose and a sense of direction to hectic modern lives. We want to get close to and understand artists with their powerful, concretely realised explanations of human experience. Crucially, we seem to want to do this in a communal place - meeting, sharing and reinforcing our moments of understanding.

US artist Spencer Tunick with his massed nudes at the Baltic Arts Centre in Gateshead
Some get more involved
It has become something of a truism nowadays to describe the museum as a modern, secular cathedral - as William Hazlitt already proposed in his early 19th Century characterisation of the National Gallery in London. He called it "a sanctuary, holy of holies, collected by taste, sacred to fame, enriched by the rarest products of genius".

But the 21st Century gallery-goer no longer wishes to be awed by the completeness of the collection, or lectured on the importance of a particular theme. Those meticulously structured, organised and labelled specialist exhibitions which seem most explicitly designed to be instructive may well be experienced by the modern visitor as controlling and coercive.

They seem to deny the individual access on their own terms, leaving no room to breathe. The expert curators self-consciously hold them at arm's length from the project - talking amongst themselves, withholding approval unless the visitor is prepared to follow a pre-arranged route to a predetermined goal.

The "imaginary museum", on the other hand, lays itself open to creatively kaleidoscope acts of engagement on the part of those who enter it. It welcomes, and finds a place for the unexpected collisions that may occur between the visitor's prior knowledge and experience, and the objects on display.

The visitor, meanwhile, feels challenged to use their own initiative and accumulated experience to make sense of what is laid out enticingly before them. Which is certainly what happened to me last weekend at the Tate.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The best fun to be had at an art gallery is to take one shoe off and place it randomly in the middle of the floor. Then stand back and watch all the metrosexual arty types scratching their chins and discussing the 'bravery' of the artist and the possible underlying message of 'the piece'.
James Birtwisle, Leatherhead

The contrast between the turbine and the Bourgeois exhibition shows a great interest in what is essentially entertainment and fun in the case of the turbine hall, here people were more interested in the ways that it may have been achieved, engaged in its making not its symbolism or its effect upon them and the question is what value and is it art or entertainment, I would suggest the latter.

Bourgeois' work showed a great range of thinking and movement through a personal journey related to a vast amount of ideas, thought processes and ways of feeling through materials, not all I enjoyed or thought amazing (cages) but a real experience of a real life in material thinking.
Stephen Murphy, Manchester England

However, late-night openings as described are one thing, being pushed around and breathed down one's neck on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon another, when the Louise Bourgeois exhibition feels airless, dim and mean, with not nearly enough room given to the exhibits. As for Shibboleth, come on, even the crack in the floor doesn't look real!
Gerd Christian Seeber, Eastbourne, E Sussex

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific