The first installment of MoMA’s new online project Louise Bourgeois: The Complete Prints & Books includes Bourgeois’s fabric book Ode à l’oubli. In 2002, at the beginning of her 90th decade, Bourgeois constructed the book’s linen binding and pages out of 60-year-old, monogrammed hand towels from her 1938 wedding. Then, working from one page to the next for six months, Bourgeois cut, arranged, and stitched her own used clothing and textiles to form 32 fabric collages. Fragmented and reconfigured, these personal artifacts conspire to be remembered as forgotten.
Imagine the busy hands and loud machinery on a factory floor producing yellow and white checkered shirts. Imagine a shipment of those shirts arriving by truck at a department store. Imagine a woman in New York City, perhaps in the 1950s or 1960s, pulling one of these shirts off its rack and paying for it in cash and coins. Imagine all the scenes of daily life this shirt becomes infused with in the eyes of its wearer each time it’s pulled out of the closet. Now, imagine a stranger’s hands—my hands—running over this fabric that is nearly unrecognizable as a shirt many years later on a quiet afternoon in MoMA’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books.
As I catalogued Louise Bourgeois’s Ode à l’oubli, carefully examining and recording data about the book, I felt subtly challenged to invent stories like this. On page 18, the book even seems to admit to evoking these imagined histories: “I had a flashback of something that never existed.”
Bourgeois worked with her worn and used fabrics in the last decades of her career, discarding their practical functions and repurposing them for texture, color, and composition. As she formalized the elements of Ode à l’oubli by dissecting and suturing its fragments, was she excising all of the memories they contained? Or, did her process have more in common with the acts of masticating and compacting, means by which Bourgeois could devour and contain these memories? Whether viewed as an outward or inward procedure and despite the formal hints at each day’s thoughts and moods over the course of its making, the overarching result is a cryptic absence of its true stories. In this way, the book can be understood as a tribute to the collective forgetting that inevitably extinguishes subjective details. Appropriately, Bourgeois’s title for this book is translated as “Ode to Forgetting.”
However, the artist knew that this book would be preserved in MoMA’s collection, effectively suspending these personal artifacts in a sort of afterlife. In fact, my position as a member of the MoMA team creating this catalogue raisonné, an exhaustive index of Bourgeois’s prints and books, is to perpetuate the remembrance of their now fixed state. Carrying out this task with Ode à l’oubli, articulating its details for posterity, I couldn’t help but sense that Bourgeois encoded within this book an analogy for a particular nuance of forgetting and remembering.
With each collage, as Bourgeois dares the viewer to remember the forgotten former lives of these fabrics, the book elicits attempts at the impossible again and again. As a function of this, Bourgeois is able to issue a warning amidst all the gentle pinks and stable grids—the only other text she includes hauntingly reads, “The return of the repressed.” Lurking in Ode à l’oubli is the suggestion that forgetting cannot always be trusted.