He would have known that the ‘sculptor’ made images of gods and goddesses; that, as an art, sculptura took its name from scalpere, the verb for carving, cutting.
You — we — see not the breeze, but that which the breeze moves. Meteorology is mainly applied physics. You remember his exclaiming with pleasure at the parasol pines framed by the aeroplane window. Evergreen, symbol of Rome. Your father was not one for forests, so much as ancient history. As a child, he studied in Latin Select Odes by the Roman poet Horace.
A friend has written: thank you for forwarding the obituary, quite a remarkable man. And you a clear ‘chip off the old block’ — the physical likeness is uncanny. How uncanny? So much might be explained. Then again, a chip is also a counter used in games of chance.
The new element is now. ‘The drilling begins the process by negating the stone’ (Bourgeois 1998, 163). Now, four hundred days after his sudden death, you might begin to break off fragments, shape and interpose them into a different image of the daughter. This may take aeons. It is not a question of geometry. Alas, many early structures of your being have been polished to a shine.
In the collection Destruction of the Father Reconstruction of the Father, the late Louise Bourgeois stated, ‘the problem is how to complete the negation, to take away from the stone, without altogether destroying it’ (Bourgeois 1998, 163). ‘The problem’, as concisely expressed here, was an endlessly compelling source for her thinking, her self-enquiry, her work. Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) is an artist perhaps best known for her sculpture on a vast scale, creations that simultaneously commend and refuse the frailties of the human body.
In conversation with curator Paulo Herkenhoff in 2003, she spoke of her work as a ‘rebound’ from an experience (Bourgeois 2003, 13). Performance artist Margaret Cameron has pointed out the accuracy of this word in its avowal of creative action — its relation to physics, ‘the study of matter, energy, force, and motion’, and how they interact. They do so muscularly, ‘caus[ing] something to come into existence’ and become perceptible (Cameron 2016, 21).
Such trembling, like a leaf. Unlike Louise Bourgeois, you were not betrayed by your father. You cannot point to a comparable trauma that split the family unit, imposed appalling silences, shattered inward calm.1 Yet many a child misunderstands an ideal for a certainty; strength as violence; a mood of anger as a presage to the end of the world.
Start with Examples
Examples are all you have (Bourgeois 1998, 130). Yes, though to do so risks nostalgia, reminiscing. Wasting time with blunt implements.
Cause or Effect: The Moon
Like Louise Bourgeois, part of you has remained in your father’s thrall. This is understandable, and not uncommon because the image of the father is monumental. A condition for the burning of candles — for questions, fury, and desire. ‘Monumental’: may refer to an expression of faith; may ascribe the quality of resistance. Louise Bourgeois once characterised stone as ‘a constant source of refusal’ (Bourgeois 1998, 142).
He would never have wished his children to fear him. Your father gave you, first, the moon. When you were born on 21 December 1969, he was waiting off-set at the Channel Nine television studios. He was queued to appear on a talk show, speak as an expert physicist about the Apollo 11 and 12 moonwalks. You were named ‘Cynthia’ as an evocation of Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon born on Mount Cynthus. Also, you were named ‘Ann’ after your father’s mother. Ann taught theory of music.
Cause or Effect: The Cold War, and Aphrodite
Did you internalise a warning, or more simply a prophecy, about being ‘your father’s daughter’? Louise Bourgeois was ‘the third girl born’. Her mother said to her father, ‘don’t be disappointed … she is your spitting image, don’t you think so?’ (Bourgeois 1998, 163). A daughter was no disappointment to your father. You, his third, were conceived after he returned from lecturing in Russia.
With Louise Bourgeois, he could have declared himself to be his work (Bourgeois 1998, 204). Masers, his first monograph, introduced the new field of quantum radiophysics and had been translated into Russian in 1961.2 In the European winter of 1969, he lived in Leningrad as part of a scholarly exchange between Monash University and Zhdanov State University.
You — we — might imagine him at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, not-quite-a-tourist, standing mesmerised under a high coffered ceiling, in the Hall of Dionysus, an interior of stark severity. He ‘spent ages’ there, he recalled, with the famous Taurida Venus, a Graeco-Roman statue of Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and procreation. The Parian marble is fine-grained, semitransparent. You did not ask him what, more exactly, he beheld …
He would have known that in the ancient world while the gods and goddesses were hewn from marble, the human form was wrought from metal and clay. In 1974 Louise Bourgeois made The Destruction of the Father from plaster, latex, wood, and fabric, bathed in red light: red, the colour she called ‘an affirmation at any cost—regardless of … contradiction, … [or] aggression’ (Bourgeois 1998, 222). She did not ‘take away from the stone’: she avoided stone altogether, as well as metal and clay, in a work of organic forms that suggest dismemberment, even a ritual cannibalism. More than once the artist affirmed: after this work was shown, she ‘felt like a different person’ (Bourgeois 1998, 158).
Louise Bourgeois wrote about needing to ‘differentiate’ between her private memories. ‘Are you going to them or are they coming to you. … If they come to you, they are the seeds for sculpture’ (Bourgeois 1998, 225). By ‘seeds’ she meant ‘origins’.
You were very young when your parents argued about your father’s favouritism towards you, his third daughter. You heard this as you heard other altercations, but the idea also took hold as pressure in your chest, and around your skin. From that time, it weighted your learning about vulnerability, power, rightness and goodness. Inwardly, every day, you braced for something like the sculptor’s struggle to ‘win the shape’ (Bourgeois 1998, 142). For better and for worse, you attached a significance to comments that generated a contingent image of yourself—
Of course, the child wants to please (Bourgeois 1998, 360). For this child, it was more a matter of attempting to partake in pleasure, even happiness. Louise Bourgeois remarked that her emotions, including fear, were inappropriate to her size (Bourgeois 1998, 367). This counted in adulthood as in childhood. Hers. And his.
Precision is a source of authority, as well as an aesthetic principle. Your father taught that each change in the state of matter has a name. ‘Life’: makeshift and irreducible — perhaps ‘life’ is the only name for the felt immensity of human love against the infinite tenderness that might convey it.3 His love is beyond dispute. Tremendous. Enduring. Yet he knew its energy, matter, and force best when he was overseas, far away, travelling and apart from the family.
Is colour stronger than language?
In the high forehead corniced by hairline and eyebrows; in the spread of the nose, width of the mouth: the likeness is definite. Definite, but hardly definitive. At this moment, you are working in black and white. Black for mourning, yes, and for the unknown, the unnameable, the-not-yet-come-to-light. Louise Bourgeois described white as ‘a renewal’ (Bourgeois 1998, 222). It is also the sum of all possible colours. With reference to physics, because they lack specific wavelengths, black and white are not colours.
When your father died on 21 December 2015 the moon was waxing crescent, the breeze was warm as breath. Slowly, amid sharp sorrow, you became aware that, in your own displacing of air; carving out space; standing poised in a glimmer of your truth, you need not expect to evoke him. In becoming newly perceptible, the inherited symmetries are devolving. Louise Bourgeois said: ‘if the past is not negated in the present, you do not live’ (Bourgeois 1998, 357). Here I cut in with, ‘even as the negation is not entirely yours to complete’.
You — we — I. There is no ode to this. I could not have imagined how I would feel like a different person. Sleeves rolled up, I bow down to the muses. I drill, chisel, and pare, putting the image of the father to the use of my unconscious (Bourgeois 1998, 163).
1. Bourgeois, 1998: 248: ‘Within the family there was a kind of virus that was really traumatic for us — not only for me but for my brother and sister as well —… caused by my father bringing his mistresses into the house’.
2. Gordon Troup (1959). Masers: Microwave Amplification and Oscillation by Stimulated Emission (London: Methuen); the translation was edited by T. A. Shmaonova, and published in Moscow by the Publishing House of Foreign Literature: Троуп, Г. (1961). Квантовые усилители и генераторы, Пер. с англ. Под ред. Т. А. Шмаонова (Изд-во Иностранной литературы).
3. Bourgeois, 1998: 183: ‘that is to say that we’re made of completely contrary elements, opposed elements; and this produces formidable tensions’.
Bourgeois, Louise (2003). ‘Paulo Herkenhoff in Conversation with Louise Bourgeois’, in Storr, Robert, Herkenhoff, Paolo & Schwartzman, Allan eds (2003). Louise Bourgeois (London & New York: Phaidon)
Bourgeois, Louise (1998). Destruction of the Father Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews 1923–1997, Marie-Laure Bernadec & Hans-Ulrich Obrist eds. (London: Violette Editions)
Cameron, Margaret (2016). I Shudder to Think: Performance as Philosophy. (Brisbane: Ladyfinger Press)
Horace [Quintus Horatius Flaccus] (1930). Select Odes, ed. with intro., notes & vocabulary by John Jackson (Oxford: Clarendon Press [first printed 1919])
Trofimova, Anna (2011). ‘Face to Face with Classical Antiquity: Antony Gormley’s Exhibition in the Galleries at the Hermitage Museum’, in Frank Althus & Mark Sutcliffe, eds (2011). Antony Gormley: Still Standing. A Contemporary Intervention in the Classical Collection (London: Fontanka Publications), pp. 93–103
Troup, Gordon (2015). [audio interview ‘About Russia in 1969’ interviewed by Cynthia Troup 31 May (North Carlton, Victoria)