Feeling, Not Looking

I was 17 the first time I came across Tracey Emin’s work. My Bed was the first piece I saw, and I had never seen such a raw representation of the chaotic aspect of human emotion. As for Louise Bourgeois, it was only when I read Siri Hustvedt’s texts on her for class did I really pay attention to her. After that, I viewed the practitioner with respect and admiration for channeling the turbulence of her youth so gracefully into her artworks. For me, both female artists tackled such massive themes that I too grappled with growing up, such as identity, desire, sexuality, and loss. To me both their work encapsulates the shared experiences of womanhood, the tenderness and the fury that springs from it.

Recently, I found out the two had collaborated together on a series of 16 intimate gouache works before Bourgeois’s death in 2010. Titled Do Not Abandon Me, the project consisted of Bourgeois giving small paintings of the human form to Emin, and gave the younger artist free reign to do whatever she pleased. Emin ended up writing over the bodies, adding lines of poetry and little figures to the original forms. The result was something unforgettable: Bourgeois’s bodies of crimson, cobalt blue, and beige were now marked with Emin’s narratives, and imbued with feelings of anxiety, desire, and a fear of loss. Even though I can only view the series through a laptop screen, my immediate reaction to it is visceral.

My favourite piece, Reaching for You, encapsulates yearning and a disconnect between the soul and the physical body. One of Emin’s signature female figures lies at the centre of one of Bourgeois’s forms, and stretches out an arm towards a diffusion of deep blue dye. I cannot see the woman’s face; it is a bouquet of lines. There is something poignant about the image but I cannot pin it down. Does it stem from the outstretched figure, or is it something due to the her being trapped by Bourgeois’s original red outline? A loneliness lingers over the scene, maybe due to majority of the image consisting of negative space, or the smallness of the figure in comparison to the rest of the composition. Either way, the piece is so unabashedly human for me – there is no other way to describe it.

The feelings I have every time I view the series are almost ineffable: both artists appear so vulnerable that I cannot help but empathise and connect with them. Even though I have only ever seen works by the two artists online, I feel a part of the deep bond they shared while working on the collaboration. I feel as if they will never abandon me.

Stephanie Yeap

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