— Jenny Neill

The Rag Keeper and Weaver of Art

I was arrested first by the dark, linear wood floor inside the cage, lying underneath suspended things. Filmy, yellowed fabrics most seeming to hang from nowhere interspersed with chain link of varying sizes and smaller dark bits; a collar made of shiny, luxurious fur and what seemed like the body of a scorched game hen. All of this and more encircled by a black metal cage with the door propped open, but blocked. To be viewed but not entered.

Spinal Cairn

Photo courtesy of Mike Russell. All rights reserved.

The tour group was moving past this sculpture on to another, yet I wanted to linger here. I followed them, listening as our leader fed us bits of information about other artists and participating as she sought to engage the group in discussing the works.

That cage was in the middle of a space with other pieces around it. A central sculpture, in my attention if not in any real geometric way.

We strolled to another area, another artist, another discussion. I glanced at it each time we moved, looking over my shoulder or past the tour guide, still trying to understand it though from afar. Seeing only the fabric, draped downward like upside-down ghosts. Or maybe bags with sand at the bottom. Shapes seeming to hold fluid though also appearing to be empty. One with wire, like a mini-mosquito net. Another of pink, more transparent than the others.

Caged Chiffon

Photo courtesy of Mike Russell. All rights reserved.

Are those black figures people? Shrunken and scorched. Roasted over a fire? Or some bizarre hybrid of a chicken and a lizard?

A tower of smooth stones, stacked into a spine-like cairn stood tall, curving a little as it supports the fur collar.

And there, amongst a denser grouping of yellowed fabric, a fine net and white chiffon, collected as if on display.

The tour finally stopped here to talk about this installation, one of the most famous in this collection. Originally part of another traveling exhibit, it is on loan from its permanent home especially for this temporary display at the Museum of Modern Art in Cleveland, the inaugural exhibition in its new building.

Once again, our guide asks the group what we see in the work. I interpret the column of stones to be some representation of strength in a dark place, a person finding herself despite being caged or perhaps victimized in some fashion. The dark figures suggested the artist was familiar with slaughterhouses or worked around small, dead animals. The cloth elements seemed more mysterious, perhaps some soft and protective shield from the darkness.

With Peaux de lapins, chiffons ferrailles à vendre (2006), Louise Bourgeois referred to the songs she heard sung by street peddlers as a child. Literally, the title of the work means “skins of rabbit, rag scraps for sale.” In trying to understand the context of this work, I searched for more about these peddler chants. I discovered a French collectibles vendor who published a glossary for collectors. There, more examples of the call of the chiffonier (ragpicker) are given, and “peau, peau de lapins” is among them.

Whatever Ms. Bourgeois’ intentions, the confined recreations of filmy chiffon and skins of rabbit will no doubt continue to startle and engross visitors through the rest of its stay.

Full disclosure: The tour of MOCA Cleveland was provided to me at no cost. My father, Ronald Neill, is on the Board of Directors.