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"Arch of Hysteria"
Louise Bourgeois, "Arch of Hysteria," installation view, "Hysteria and the Body."
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Vito Acconci, "Kiss Off," 1971, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
HYSTERIA AND THE BODY
The Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon
January 16 to March 29, 2009
By Patricia Robertson
Louise Bourgeois’ famous bronze sculpture The Arch of Hysteria is the psychic centerpiece of a clever show developed by National Gallery of Canada curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois called Hysteria and the Body.
She’s assembled some excellent work from the Gallery’s permanent collection on contemporary feminist themes — the familiar and well-realized conceptual feminist subjects of the body, gender and identity all resonate and vibrate in this diverse show as the controversial 19th-century medical concept of hysteria is played out. Naturally, this nervous disturbance was the sole purview of female patients in the emerging field of psychiatry.
The emotionally-charged exhibition of modern works runs the gamut from drawing to video, sculpture, installation, multiples, embroidery, lithography and other media. “What’s most interesting about this show is that all of these artists explore the theme of hysteria from their unique vantage point,” says the curator.
Drouin-Brisebois, who wrote her thesis on the female nude in feminist performance art, says the show covers the heady period between 1970 and 1990. The artists in the show take two approaches to hysteria, she explains. “The mimicking of hysteria and the examination of hysteria as historical fact in archival research, from stereotypes in medicine and art history.”
Artist Shelagh Keeley’s Writing on the Body exemplifies this second approach, the curator says. “She takes snippets of medical books, explores disturbing themes relating to medicine and women, and makes art from that research.”
Writing on the Body, a groundbreaking work exploring pain, loss and separation, was created by the Oakville, Ontario-born artist for a 1988 installation at the Sagacho Space in Tokyo, and it was purchased by the National Gallery in 1989.
Louise Bourgeois has two other works in the show: Saint Sébastienne and The View from the Bottom of the Well. The French-born artist’s work was the subject of a Tate Modern retrospective exhibition in 2008. Based in New York since the late 1930s, Bourgeois’ remarkable career spans some 70 years and encompasses decades’-worth of significant art movements. Talking about the deeply personal and raw themes she explores, she has said “My early work is the fear of falling. Later on it became the art of falling — how to fall without hurting yourself. Later on it became the art of hanging in there.”
Swiss video artist Pipoletti Rist may well be the natural successor to Bourgeois’ art of internal distress mixed with the ardent self-portraiture of Cindy Sherman (who also appears in the show).
Rist contributes four intense works to Hysteria. The acid-coloured, distressing images in(Entlastungen) Piplottis Fehler (Absolutions: Pipilotti’s Mistakes) are a jagged take on human angst. The video opens with jarring close-ups — a woman (Rist) dunked under water, who also swims with desperation. In another scene, she falls down suddenly and seems overwhelmed by her environs.
In the Beatles lyric-inspired I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much, Rist embodies contemporary hysteria as she romps around in a revealing black dress, full white breasts exposed, while the film slows down and speeds up erratically, creating a simultaneous mood of joviality, despair and anxiety.