Painting: Passion and Process


10 min talk by Alison Farmer 2001

The spiral has always seemed beautiful and mysterious weather found in art or nature - this has been true from the most primitive societies to the most advanced technologies of today.

In Ancient times, man associated the spiral with the movement of the galaxies as he mapped the skies to predict harvest moons. He would have come into real physical contact with the spiral form in the shape of a shell that would hold life-giving water and food as he watched the spiralling tendrils of a climber plant reach out at new life before him. The shell and plant were powerful images of the gift of life from the heavens and the spiral has long since been associated with the dynamic life force and regeneration.

Science has since revealed to us that we do indeed live in a spiral galaxy called the Milky Way, and the pattern of life itself 'DNA' is in the shape of a spiral.

The form is very pleasing and is used abundantly in sterile decoration, but by attributing personal experience to it, just as early man did, then it can become a powerful and universal symbol.

Louise Bourgeois - a French artist born in 1911 now living and working in America - has used the spiral a lot in her work since the 1960s and has animated its earlier symbolism through her own personal experience of childhood psychological abuse and humiliation. Her father openly carried on an affair with her nanny, even moving her into the family home, and her sick mother finally passed away when Louise was 20 after a long fight with influenza and its the emotional extremes of the tangled and twisted relationships between her family and the unbearable tensions it caused that first made Louise embark on sculpture and prints so that she could CHANGE, DESTROY and REBUILD forms and hopefully stay sane.

Although having a happy adult life, it's these early emotions that have fuelled her work as she tries to capture the tenuous and changeable human relationships with others and ourselves, which often proves chaotic.

As a child Louise found geometry with its stable rules, conveyed to her a sense of stability and has adopted the spiral, her favourite form for solving problems, as an attempt to control the chaos and as a metaphor of the continuous and daily changes of life.

With Louise the spiral assumes various, often-contradictory meanings of tension and relaxation, of power and vulnerability, of creativity and giving up control (when it turns clockwise and outwards from the centre) or destruction and fear of losing control (turning anticlockwise and inwards from the outside).

Louise has not adopted the symbol on purely aesthetic grounds; she calls herself a 'scientist' and has embraced the spirals history, nature and geometry in her artistic exploration, control and depiction of the human condition.

So maybe it's not such a coincidence that the spiralling image of the Lorenz Attractor became an emblem for the early explorers of chaos. It loops around and around forever never exactly repeating itself or intersecting itself, just like life.

Over the years the meanings of Louise's work are continually resurfacing, merging, changing and subtly evolving and to her, life and art has been a journey of self-discovery that is interdependent. Now in her early nineties we can look to a major piece of sculpture done two years ago for the opening of the Tate Modern to see her conclusion so far of this journey.

I DO, I UNDO and I REDO are three monumental steel towers that give a personal as well as public message. They define a lifetime of Louise's work and encompass the whole history of the spiral.
  • I DO is the largest tower at sixty feet. You go up a single spiral staircase to a deck where there is one chair and five oval mirrors.
  • I UNDO is a rectangular tower. You go up an external staircase to an enclosed deck and then come down a spiral staircase into a central cell where there sits a chair and small mirror.
  • I REDO has a double spiral staircase which means two people can go up to the deck together and sit on a pair of chairs beneath four mirrors.

I DO, I UNDO and I REDO are the direct result of Louise's initial desire to CHANGE, DESTROY and REBUILD forms.
The spiral staircases are Louise's strategy of getting humans to replicate and participate in cosmic motion. She describes the spiral as the "beginning of the movement in space".
The three towers are a symbol of regeneration and the use of organic shaped spiral staircases to go up and down are Louise's metaphor of the passing of time and the ups and downs of life.
The three towers can be explored singly but should be seen as a whole and appeal directly to the public to take positive action and engage with other people, partners, friends and possibly strangers. The mirrors make people come face to face with the reality of relationships and through their reflected images themselves.
Each observation deck could be viewed from a sitting area upstairs in the Tate so the individual was not only faced with observing the world from afar, themselves and others close by, but they are also being observed in their contemplation. The Human condition viewed from so many angles can often produce chaotic feelings just as the relationships in Louise's family caused in her.
To Louise her childhood never lost its magic, its mystery or its drama and the size and scale of the towers and the participation of them have captured that Alice in Wonderland feeling but each tower is a complexity of shape and structure. To Louise architecture was the index for anguish, loneliness, denial and repression and Louise has used the geometry of the spiral staircases as a way of controlling the varied architecture of the towers as she does for controlling the chaos of the human condition. The spiral staircase is used to enter, leave, ascend and descend from square, rectangular and round platforms, to enter tubes, observation towers and funnels.

By participating in the towers Louise wants us to contemplate her lifetime public message of the importance of OUR HUMAN NATURE, RELATIONSHIPS and OUR INTERDEPENDENCE ON ONE ANOTHER and the towers can often be seen as a metaphor for marriage, life and our mistakes.

But it's a secret chamber in each tower that contains the personal message and conclusion of Louise Bourgeois journey. Her work over the years has often been associated with the relationship between her and her father or the devastation on her mother as a sexual being by her father's open infidelity, but in each chamber a sculpture examining the bond between mother and child can be viewed.

I Do is the good mother, I Undo the bad mother, with its descending enclosed spiral staircase and in I Redo you can see a mother with her baby still attached by the umbilical cord.

The towers show the importance of Louise's relationship with her MOTHER, which was cut short, and becoming a MOTHER herself, it is the spiral of regeneration and often chaotic relationship between mother and daughter that she sees as the most important thread, at this time, to her life and this is what she has tried to capture in the towers.

I employed a spiral as a way of controlling the relationships of this talk, as it was proving very chaotic. Louise is at the center and i worked creatively outwards through her stratagies for control and the spirals representation to the conclusion of the relationship with her mother. Louise's journey is not unique.

Increasing technologies and urban societies have lead to artists struggling to recreate or rediscover a more meaningful set of values and more artists are exploring the interdependencies between Heaven and Earth, Man and Nature and as Louise has done Man and Man as it is our lack of respect and worship of these relationships in recent centuries that have caused chaos on the heavens, earth and ourselves.

The artist's ideal depends on order and as the external world pulls at us so strongly we create patterns to deal with the difficulties we encounter. Louise has used the spiral to try and control the chaos of the Human Condition as she tries to capture it in her work and Land Artists such as Robert Smithson have employed spirals (Spiral Jetty) as they try and become part of nature rather than overcome it.

And lastly the spiral is also a very strong spiritual symbol, which can maybe help us regain some of the respect for what ever else is out there, and as artists we can help in the contemplation and worship of this, as we all search for an approach to life that brings harmony to the chaos.

If you enjoyed this talk you may want to read a further paper i wrote for Art History at Aberdeen College, Scotland, called 'Spirit of the Stone'

The talk could end here, and infact it did, but it could go on - just like a spiral.

If we take the personal element out of Louise's spiral and see it in purely scientific terms we would have to look from the study of the galaxy - ASTROMOMY through to GEOMETRY. But then we could bring the human element in again (just like a spiral would do) and not look at just the sciences but the scientists behind them. This could get a little chaotic so if we bring in the geometry of the spiral, just as Louise Bourgeois did, as a control mechanism we are lead straight to ARCHIMEDES (225 BC) and his geometrical calculation for the SPIRAL and then we learn that his father was an astronomer called PHIDIAS. Is it pure coincidence we are now faced with a father and son at the periphery and vortex of the spiral rather than a Mother and daughter relationship?


Louise Bourgeois is not unique in turning to geometry and especially the spiral to solve problems. In depicting nature, artists have used the geometry of the Golden spiral/section to help with the chaos of composition and now land artists such as Robert Smithson's spiral jetty are using the spiral to become part of the process of nature rather than overcoming it. Studies of nature have embraced the geometry of the Fibonacci Spiral (which is closely related to the Golden spiral and can be seen in a Nautilus shell or the centre of a sunflower) to try and explain and capture nature. And know those studying geometry are using the Logarithmic spiral especially the Fibonacci one to produce Artistic pictures of Natures first spiral - the shell.