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June 12 2012

Fantasy art school: artists reveal their dream teachers

As London's Hayward Gallery launches its month-long alternative art college, Wide Open School, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and others tell us who their dream teachers would be. Who would you like to be taught by?

This month, more than 100 artists from 40 countries are heading to London's Southbank to host workshops as part of the Hayward's alternative college of art, Wide Open School. Subjects in the timetable range from dining and singing sessions and sushi-making performance art classes to the Sundown Schoolhouse of Queer Home Economics, plus explorations of time and space, forensics and Freddie Mercury.

As the college swings open its doors, we ask a selection of artists who their dream teachers would be.

Tracey Emin

I would like to have been taught by Simone Weil, Daphne du Maurier and Louise Bourgeois. I think it would have made a wonderful trio of art, literature and philosophy – at school, that is all I needed to be taught.

Tracey Emin will be in conversation with Jeanette Winterson on 26 June.

Michael Landy

I was never taught cricket at school and I've never played it, but I do listen to it on the radio. So I would nominate Geoffrey Boycott, ex-Yorkshire and England cricketer, to teach me the basics about batting and bowling. He would tell me to keep my eye on the ball, and to move either forwards or backwards depending on where the ball pitched, and to keep my head still. We would discuss the finer points of the "corridor of uncertainty" and when I played a bad shot, he would tell me that his mum could have done better than me.

Michael Landy is running a workshop on destruction

Bob and Roberta Smith

I wish I'd been taught by Theodor W Adorno and Walter Benjamin, and at primary school by Michael Rosen, who could have warned me about the dangers of too much entertainment on the 1970s TV programme Play Away.

Bob and Roberta Smith is creating a symphony for the public realm.

Marlene Dumas

Joseph Beuys, because of his postcards with Klaus Staeck and his smile!

An evening with Marlene Dumas takes place on 5 July.

Antony Gormley

David Bohm, the inspirational physicist who developed the implications of Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity. He could have involved me in the participatory activity of holomovement in his understanding of the implicate order of phenomena.

Antony Gormley will be talking to critic and writer Michael Newman about time in art.

Jane and Louise Wilson

We have a great admiration for the teaching profession: it would be difficult to find any other profession with as many valuable, dedicated and creative thinkers who, despite the lack of government support, continue to brilliantly inspire future generations. We attended the same comprehensive school in the 1980s and although they no longer exist any more, reflecting back to that time we would find it really hard to agree upon only one artist we would have both liked to have been taught by. Essentially, there are too many. It would have been fascinating to attend a talk by Professor Mary E King about her book The Power of Nonviolent Action (1988). The book is timely on so many levels despite being written before the collapse of the former Soviet Union. It describes the successful use of non-violent strategies to bring about political change, from the pro-democracy movements in the former Soviet Union to the present-day pro-democracy movements in the Middle East.

Jane and Louise Wilson will be in conversation with Caroline Wilkinson on 13 June.

Thomas Hirschhorn

Joseph Beuys, because he accepted everybody in his class – and would accept me. And because he asserted that every human being is an artist, because he included everyone in his work, because he never "made school" in the sense of creating followers, because his teaching was part of his artistic mission, because of his decisions about his materials, because of his work in public space, because he understood art as something which needs to confront social, economical and political issues. And because he makes me love art.

Thomas Hirschhorn is running a class called Energy: Yes! Quality: No! on 3 July.

Mark Wallinger

Great teachers are those that have such a revelatory impact on their students that it might shape their future destiny. Keats's sonnet, On first looking into Chapman's Homer, expresses his passion for poetry by using imagery of exploration and discovery, which never fails to thrill me. And how exciting would it have been to witness Filippo Brunelleschi demonstrating linear perspective for the first time in his baptistry in Florence. But above all, I wish I could resurrect my junior school teacher Mr Holland, even if he might recognise his idea for parent's open day in my upcoming show at Baltic in Gateshead

Martin Creed

I don't believe in teaching. I think people learn things. Nobody teaches them.

Who is your dream teacher?

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April 06 2012

Analysing Louise Bourgeois: art, therapy and Freud

Louise Bourgeois was in therapy for more than 30 years and wrote an essay on 'Freud's Toys'. The Freud museum in London has a display of her work and recently unearthed writings about her analysis

Above Freud's bulbous, oriental carpet-draped couch in 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, hangs a shrivelled, double-headed bronze penis by Louise Bourgeois. In an essay on "Freud's Toys" (1990), as Bourgeois dismissed the ancient artefacts that swarm over his desk and shelves (including numerous phallic amulets), she described Freud's cluttered office, with its "half-dead hysterics", as "a pitiful place". She also referred to Freud's patients as "maggots", which gives additional resonance to the placing of her suspended larval form. Analysis was, in her view, a form of metamorphosis, promising the transformation of seething misery into what Freud described as "common unhappiness". "A maggot," Bourgeois wrote, "is actually a symbol of resurrection."

Though she doesn't acknowledge it in her essay, Bourgeois had been in analysis herself for more than 30 years. In 1951, suffering from depression after her father's death, she entered therapy with Dr Leonard Cammer. The following year she switched to Dr Henry Lowenfeld, a second-generation Freudian who had emigrated to New York in 1938, the same year she did. Lowenfeld had been trained by the Marxist analyst Otto Fenichel in Berlin, where he was also a part of Wilhelm Reich's radical group, Sex-Pol. However, in New York, keen to assimilate to American culture and disenchanted with communism, Lowenfeld became part of the psychoanalytic mainstream and hid his radical past. At the height of the cold war he stole the incriminating Rundbriefe – letters written by Fenichel in the 1930s and circulated among their group of dissident analysts – from his colleague Annie Reich in an attempt to erase that history.

In 2007, just before Bourgeois's retrospective at Tate Modern, two boxes of discarded writings that refer to her analysis, which she underwent four times a week, were found in her Chelsea home; after her death in 2010 (aged 98), her assistant unearthed two more. Selections of these have been exhibited in the Freud museum alongside two dozen of her bulging and sinister patchwork sculptures and installations. These jottings, on random pads, letterheads, even playing cards, offer a glimpse into Bourgeois's psychological states. According to these notes, Lowenfeld considered the artist's inability to accept her aggression as the central problem to be worked through in analysis. "Aggression is used by guilt and turned against myself instead of being sublimated into useful channels," she wrote.

To art historians her free associations and doodles not only suggest clues as to the personal relationships and conflicts that inform all her work, but seem to offer direct links to her creative process (one Isis-like sketch is displayed here next to a similar multi-breasted sculpture, as fecund as the Venus of Willendorf). In an aborted letter to "Mon cher Papa", Bourgeois wrote: "In the 20th century the best work has been produced by those people whose exclusive concern was themselves." Her father was a tyrannical philanderer who had a 10-year affair with a live-in English governess, the discovery of which was the central trauma to which Bourgeois endlessly returned in her confessional work.

The recently discovered archive reveals the artist to have been an enthusiastic list-maker. In 1958, aged 47, Bourgeois compiled a melancholy account of her failures: "I have failed as a wife / as a woman / as a mother / as a hostess / as an artist / as a business woman", and so on. She made a suicidal list of "seven easy ways to end it all" (and throws in another for good measure). She listed her fears: "I am afraid of silence / I am afraid of the dark / I am afraid to fall down/ I am afraid of insomnia / I am afraid of emptiness …" And her feelings about analysis: "The analysis is a job / is a trap / is a privilege / is a luxury / is a duty … is a joke / makes me powerless / makes me into a cop / is a bad dream …"

Many of her automatic writings resemble concrete poetry, such as one arranged as a spiral of injunctions: "Do not risk too much / Do not hide too much / Do not neglect too much …" Others, written in cramped lines, are reminiscent of the webs of psychic "tangles, fankles, impasses, disjunctions, whirligogs, [and] binds" that RD Laing formulates in Knots (1970). Bourgeois asked: "What is it that you want / do you know what it is / is it possible? no, why not / are you looking for a substitute. why? / which one?" On another loose leaf she wrote: "To be hurt / fear to be hurt / to hurt before you are hurt / what hurts?" (She answered her question by reverting to more list making: "to be abandoned / to be criticised / to be attached / to be asked too much / used / to be refused …")

These emotional inventories, with all their tangled logic, were Bourgeois's way of thinking, of working through. It was the art critic Peter Frank who encouraged her to jot down these free associations, not Lowenfeld: "It is not either my medicine nor my duty," she wrote in reference to Frank's suggestion; "I write because I have always felt that if people knew me really, they could not fail to like me. I write or make sculpture to be loved (for what I am)." Bourgeois admitted that this was a lost cause and was dismissive of their worth, suggesting that their meaning immediately evaporated, like Chinese calligraphy brushed on to stone with water: "Tout de mes notes seems remote + foreign except when in the process of being written, they communicate nothing not even to me."

Bourgeois considered art as her parallel "form of psychoanalysis", offering privileged and unique access to the unconscious, as well as a form of psychological release. On a piece of pink paper she scratched the slogan, "Art is a guarantee of sanity." Her artwork was reparative, a form of mental mending. Bourgeois's mother had been a tapestry restorer and Bourgeois often compared her to a spider spinning a fragile web; Maman (1999), Bourgeois's massive arachnid guarding an egg, is on display in the garden of the Freud museum (where Anna Freud's sizeable loom sits upstairs). In her textile pieces, the artist follows in her mother's footsteps by weaving, a craft that Freud, in one of his wilder hypotheses, thought had been invented by women as an unconscious product of "penis envy" (because the results imitate the hair that hides the genitals).

Bourgeois identified herself as a hysteric and made sculptures, like Arch of Hysteria (1993), that made reference to the "whirlpool of histeria" (sic) in which she often found herself consumed. In the Freud museum exhibition, the engraving that usually hangs above the famous couch – depicting Freud's mentor, Jean-Martin Charcot, the "Napoleon of the neurosis", demonstrating hypnosis on a swooning hysterical patient – has been moved to an adjacent room, where it serves to introduce works by Bourgeois. In that context, the accompanying vitrines contain what looks like outsider art by an inmate of the Salpêtrière Hospital: magical objects with multiple faces; patchwork dolls with amputated limbs over which knives hover threateningly.

The artist was well-versed in psychoanalytic concepts, which informed and have often been used to help understand her work. She frequently annotated the psychoanalytic writings she read; on display here is her summary of a case history recounted in Werner Muensterberger's "The Creative Process: Its Relation to Object Loss and Fetishism" (1963). Muensterberger tells the story of a grieving woman who made a doll out of her late husband's dirty underclothes, a mannequin she tucked up next to her in bed, which evidently fascinated Bourgeois. Her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater, to whom many of Bourgeois's notes refer (did he desire her anymore?), was the director of the Museum of Primitive Art in New York and would have shared her interest in such fetish objects. Her own work was a similarly magical act aimed at exorcising trauma.

But, ultimately, Bourgeois felt that analysis had little to offer the artist. "The truth is that Freud did nothing for artists, or for the artist's problem, the artist's torment," Bourgeois wrote in "Freud's Toys", as if in frustration with the process to which she submitted for so many years, "to be an artist involves some suffering. That's why artists repeat themselves – because they have no access to a cure." Lowenfeld had died four years earlier, ending her analysis but evidently not her pain, which continued to fuel her work. In his essay "Dostoevesky and Parricide" (1926), Freud himself admitted: "Before the problem of the creative artist, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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March 11 2012

Damien Hirst: 'I still believe art is more powerful than money'

Damien Hirst has gone from mouthy YBA to global brand over the past 25 years – and become the world's richest living artist on the way. Here he talks about money, mortality and his first retrospective in Britain

Exclusive poster downloads: butterflies shark spin spots

When Damien Hirst was looking though his archive recently, in preparation for his forthcoming retrospective at Tate Modern, he came across some film footage of an interview he did with David Bowie in the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 1996. "I'm sitting on a big ashtray talking bollocks," says Hirst, laughing. "At one point, Bowie says, 'So what about a big Tate gallery show, then?' And I say, 'No way. Museums are for dead artists. I'd never show my work in the Tate. You'd never get me in that place.'"

He grins ruefully and shakes his head. "I was watching it and thinking, 'Jesus Christ, how things change.' Suddenly, I'm 46 and I'm having what they call a mid-career retrospective. It doesn't seem right somehow."

We are seated on a sofa beneath a big blue Francis Bacon in an expansive first-floor room in Science Ltd, Hirst's central London HQ. It is a vast building on several storeys, and it contains more contemporary art than many medium-sized galleries. There are pieces by Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas and, of course, several spin and spot paintings, and steel and glass medicine cabinets by the man himself. Hirst's Prada loafers are on the floor in front of us, but his signature tinted glasses are nowhere to be seen. He looks stockier than the last time I saw him, just over two years ago, and a bit quieter, more reflective. "It's mortality, mate," he says. "My eldest boy, Connor, is 16. A few of my friends have died. I'm getting older. I'm not the mad bastard shouting at the world any more."

But you're only 46, I say; it's not as if the reaper has you in his sights. "I know, I know, but it's more that realisation that you're not young any more. I've always thought, 'I don't want to look back. Ever.' I think I was obsessed with the new. That's changed."

A mid-career retrospective will do that, I say, teasingly. "Maybe," he says. "But I think it's more that when you're young, you're invincible, you're immortal – or at least you think you are. The possibilities are limitless, you're inventing the future. Then you get older and suddenly you have a history. It's fixed. You can't change anything. I find that a bit disturbing, to be honest."

The exhibition in question, simply entitled Damien Hirst, will "be a map of my life as an artist, not a greatest hits". It will include most of the greatest hits, though, as well as some not so well-known early work. "There's the painted boxes and boards that I put in Freeze [the groundbreaking show Hirst curated in 1988], from when I wanted to be the new Kurt Schwitters. And there's stuff from my student days at Goldsmiths – gloss-painted frying pans I hung on the wall. Embarrassing stuff like that."

It was Nick Serota, director of Tate, who also insisted that Hirst show the early work, as well as the first piece from every series he has made ever since. "The first spot painting, the first spin painting, the first vitrine, the first medicine cabinet. They're all in there, for better or worse," says Hirst. He then relates an anecdote that illustrates both his cavalier attitude to his work and the weight the work carries. It concerns an early spot painting, executed by Hirst himself, rather than (as is the case with the 1,500-strong series that followed) one of his production team.

"I showed Nick a photo of it and he wanted it in the show. It's all drips and splats. Terrible, really. When I moved down to Devon, I stuck it outside behind a barn. Millicent [Wilner] from Gagosian came down to visit and she was freaking out: 'Why have you put it there? In the rain! Jesus Christ, Damien!' It was like gold because it was me, but, really, it's shit."

Is he happy it's in the show, now? "I am, yes. It tells part of the story of my last 25 years as an artist. It's important on that level. It says that I didn't just arrive on the planet going 'Fuck you' to everybody, which is what a lot of people seem to think."

The "fuck you" work is there in full force, too, though. There's the famous shark in formaldehyde, entitled with typical Hirstian extravagance The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) and described in the catalogue as "one of the most iconic images of late 20th-century art". There's Mother and Child Divided (1993), a bisected cow and calf suspended in four tanks, and the mythical bestiary that is the collection Beautiful Inside My Head Forever (2008), which includes a zebra, a unicorn and a golden calf.

There are pristine steel and glass cabinets full of neatly arranged pills, and evil-looking black paintings made of thousands of flies congealed in paint. There are spin paintings with and without human skulls at their centre, and spot paintings that move between the vibrant and the purely ambient. There are more flies, live ones, hatched from maggots and feeding off a severed cow's head in a vitrine, and butterflies, pinned and painted and pressed on canvas, and a single white dove suspended in mid-flight above a human skull. Life and death, beauty and ugliness, the sacred and the profane; all the big Hirstian statements that have appalled some critics with their supposed obviousness, but have also dragged conceptualism from the margins of the art world into the mainstream.

Outside Tate Modern will stand Hymn (1999), Hirst's monumental take on a child's educational figure, complete with exposed stomach organs. Inside, in the massive Turbine Hall, flanked by security guards, will sit a relatively tiny piece entitled For the Love of God (2007), the most expensive work of art ever created in terms of its materials: a human skull cast in platinum and encased in diamonds. A modern vanitas piece about death and money, but mostly about money.

"Putting the show together," says Hirst, "was like a big 180-degree turn for me. I'm looking back at all this work and trying to make sense of it. Some of it is great, and some of it is unrealised and didn't make it in there, and some of it is just shit. It's 25 bloody years of work and, of course, I'm proud of it, proud that I put the effort in, but there's also one part of me going, 'How did that happen?'"

How, indeed? It is a question that exercises the minds of his many detractors in the art world: how did a mouthy, working-class lad from Leeds, with hooligan tendencies, become the biggest – and the richest – artist on the planet? (In the Sunday Times Rich List of 2010, Hirst's wealth was estimated at £215m.) The answer is long and complex, and has much to do with the radical shifts in culture that have occurred over the past 25 years or so, both in Britain and the world: the unstoppable rise of art as commodity and the successful artist as a brand; the ascendancy of a post-Thatcher generation of Young British Artists (YBAs) who set out, unapologetically, to make shock-art that also made money; the attendant rise of uber-dealers such as Jay Jopling in London and Larry Gagosian in New York; and the birth of a new kind of gallery culture, in which the blockbuster show rules and merchandising is a lucrative sideline.

At the centre of this ultra-commodified art world stands Damien Hirst, art superstar: the richest, loudest, biggest YBA of all. Except that, no longer young, he seems – at the very moment when his canonisation by the art establishment is complete – to be in a long period of transition. When I last spoke to him, in September 2009, in his vast studio near Stroud, Gloucestershire, it was exactly a year after the astounding success of Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, his record-breaking Sotheby's auction of 2008. Back then, just before the world markets tumbled, Hirst made headlines by bypassing his dealers, Jopling and Gagosian, altogether, and taking more than £111m in sales in two days of often-frenzied bidding. Right on the cusp of the recession, the Sotheby's auction was a pivotal moment for Hirst – a grand farewell, he told me, to the "big work" he had been making for years. He also told me then that conceptualism was "a total dead end" and said: "You spend 20 years celebrating your immortality, and then you realise that's not what it's about."

Since then, he has been relatively quiet on the creative (if not the commercial) front, working mainly on his own paintings: that is, canvases on which he, and he alone, applies the paint. Many of them, including a series made after the suicide of his friend Angus Fairhurst in March 2008, were completed in a room in Claridge's that his good friend Paddy McKillen (co-owner of the hotel) loaned him rent-free, in return for some paintings that now decorate the Connaught, another of McKillen's London hotels. An exhibition of that work, No Love Lost, opened at the Wallace Collection in London in October 2009 to uniformly murderous reviews, the late art critic Tom Lubbock comparing Hirst to "a not very promising first-year art student".

Undaunted, Hirst has continued to paint, and when I travelled down to his country home in deepest Devon a few weeks ago, he showed me briefly around his garden shed, where a paint-splattered stuffed bear stood sentinel over a group of partially completed canvases, featuring brightly coloured parrots in lush landscapes and a single big painting of a human head in a wash of what you might call Bacon blue. A few stuffed parrots stood on perches in the centre of the cluttered room, bright yellow and green, as if staring at their painted selves. "When all else fails," Hirst quipped, "get yourself a few dead parrots." It all seemed a long way from a giant blue shark in a tank of formaldehyde. "I've spent a long time avoiding painting and dealing with it from a distance," he said. "But as I get older I'm more comfortable with it."

The house in Devon, where Hirst currently lives with his wife, Maia Norman, and their three children, is one of several properties he owns. He also has a stately home, Toddington Manor, in Gloucestershire, that will one day house a collection of his own work. Near Stroud, he has another house with a vast studio attached, where, not that long ago, many of his 150-strong team of assistants laboured over his serial works: the spot paintings, spin paintings, cabinets and vitrines. He has a houseboat in Chelsea, a house in Thailand, where he spent Christmas, and another in Mexico, although he hasn't been there for a while because "it's a bit wild west out there at the moment".

In London, as well as Science, his organisational hub, he also owns a big chunk of Newport Street in Lambeth, which is currently being turned into a new gallery that will open in 2014 and house his extensive collection of contemporary art by the likes of Bacon, Koons, Murakami, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas and even Banksy – "We do these collaborations with my spots. I got one from him recently and he'd written all over it in big black letters: Sorry, The Lifestyle You Ordered Is Out of Stock."

Over lunch in Hirst's quayside restaurant in Ilfracombe, beneath a pristine glass cabinet full of pills, I ask him if it was always his motivation to be the biggest, the most successful? "I always wanted to be bigger, but not biggest. Even as a kid in drawing class, I had real ambition. I wanted to be the best in the class but there was always some other feller who was better; so I thought, 'It can't be about being the best, it has to be about the drawing itself, what you do with it.' That's kind of stuck with me. Being best is a false goal, you have to measure success on your own terms."

With Damien Hirst, though, it aways seems to come down to three things: art, ambition and money, though not necessarily in that order. For that reason, as curator Ann Gallagher asserts in her catalogue introduction to the Tate Modern show: "Like no other artist of his generation, Damien Hirst has permeated the cultural consciousness of our times." What that says about us – and about Hirst – is a matter of some debate. Writing recently in the New Yorker on the simultaneous exhibition of all Hirst's 1,500 signature spot paintings in all 11 Gagosian galleries dotted around the globe, the American art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote: "Hirst will go down in history as a particularly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That's not Old Master status, but it's immortality of a sort."

Schjeldahl's critical hauteur is not untypical. The bigger Hirst has become, the more he has become an object of scorn to some serious art critics, a symptom of all that is wrong with contemporary art – and the rampant, market-led capitalism that drives it – as well as an easy target for the flak directed at conceptual art in general. "His work," writes Gallagher, measuredly, "is characterised by its directness as well as its ambition; it is both deadpan and affecting, and it provokes awe and outrage in equal measure."

That, one senses, is exactly how Hirst – mellower these days, but still a northern prole with attitude to burn – likes it. Is there a little part of him that still rejoices in the notion that he is, at heart, a working-class lad who is somehow sticking it to the toffs of the art world? "All of me, I'd say," he replies, cackling. "I mean, I don't fit, do I? I can play the game, but I don't really fit. But you get older and you realise that rebellion doesn't really matter to the market. I kind of learned that early on and I've never forgotten it." How early on? "Well, I remember in about 1989, when I was still an outsider and all my mates were having shows and I wasn't, and it really bugged me. As I was making the fly piece, I was thinking: 'I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna kill you with this one, knock you down dead, and change the world.' And I showed it to a few galleries and they all just turned round and went 'Marvellous, darling.' It didn't have the effect I wanted. It had the opposite effect. I was gutted, in a way."

As a young teenager, Damien Hirst wanted most of all to be a punk, but, as he now puts it, "I was just too young and not angry enough." He remembers his mother melting his one Sex Pistols record to fashion it into a plant holder, and he remembers sneaking out, aged 12 or 13, with his "punk clothes" hidden in a bag, then changing into them when he was out of sight of his house. "I think that attitude crept into my art somehow. I was always looking for ways to sneak stuff into the art world and make it explode in their faces. I was an infiltrator."

Growing up in Leeds, Hirst was a handful for his mother, Mary Brennan, who worked in the local Citizens' Advice Bureau. His punk phase came just after the man he thought was his father walked out on the family when Hirst was 12. He also went through a brief shoplifting phase – he was arrested twice – before he was finally accepted on his second application to study an art foundation course at Jacob Kramer College in Leeds.

As a teenager, he made regular visits to Leeds University's Anatomy Museum to practise drawing, and it was there he found inspiration for his first piece of shock art: a photograph mounted on a steel frame called With Dead Head, first exhibited in 1991, in which his 16-year-old self poses, grinning, beside the severed head of a middle-aged man which sits on a mortuary table. It set the scene, if not the tone, for much of what was to follow.

Hirst moved to London in the mid-1980s, and for a time worked on building sites, before being accepted to Goldsmiths in 1986. There, under the tutelage of the artist Michael Craig-Martin, he realised that for the time being, at least, painting was over and that, in contemporary art, the idea was the be all and end all.

"When I arrived there, I was this angry young painter looking at all the conceptual work being made there and dismissing it as pure crap," he says, laughing. "But I got seduced by it. Initially, I was finding pieces of wood, banging them together, and slapping the paint on. It was Rauschenberg, de Kooning and a bit of Schwitters. It had been done to death and they told me so. I went back up to Leeds and I thought, 'OK, I've got to deal with the world I live in – advertising, TV, media. I need to communicate the here and now.' I realised that you couldn't use the tools of yesterday to communicate today's world. Basically, that was the big light that went on in my head."

The rest is art history, though it took a while to be made. You could even say that Hirst the entrepreneur arrived in the public eye before Hirst the artist, when he curated Freeze, a three-part group show of his contemporaries, including Angus Fairhurst, Gary Hume, Michael Landy, Sarah Lucas and Mat Collishaw. It was held in a disused warehouse in London's Docklands in the summer of 1988. The space – and the ambition – was influenced by Charles Saatchi's big gallery in Boundary Road in north London, which opened in the mid-1980s, and initially showed work by pioneering American conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, both of whom influenced Hirst.

Despite being a student show, Freeze became the most talked-about art event of the year in London, attracting the attention of both Saatchi and Serota. "It amuses me that so many people think what happened was calculated and cleverly manipulated," Craig-Martin said later, "whereas in fact it was a combination of youthful bravado, innocence, fortunate timing, good luck and, of course, good work."

By the time he left Goldsmiths, Hirst was already making spot paintings and medicine cabinets, both in highly formalised series, and made with the help of a small team of assistants. In 1991, he had his first solo show, In and Out of Love, in a disused shop in central London. His creative imagination had taken another leap. Visitors entered a room in which live butterflies fluttered around, having hatched from canvases embedded with pupae. In another room, dead butterflies were arranged on white canvases placed around a white table with four overflowing ashtrays. All the Hirstian themes were already in place: life and death, beauty and horror, as well as the sense of spectacle that would become the defining aspect of his work.

At a Serpentine gallery show that same year, Hirst met Jay Jopling, who would soon become his dealer. Things moved even faster after that. For a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Hirst referred in the catalogue to a work in progress that had been commissioned by Charles Saatchi. Entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of a Living Person, it comprised a 14ft-long tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. It did not appear in the Saatchi Gallery until 1992, but when it did, it radically changed the world of contemporary art – and the course of Damien Hirst's life.

Having been bought by Saatchi for £50,000, the shark in the formaldehyde-filled vitrine became an icon of contemporary art of the 1990s and perhaps the defining work of what would come to be known as the YBA movement. ("£50,000 For Fish Without Chips" ran a headline in the Sun at the time.) In 2004, the work was sold to an American collector, Steven A Cohen, for a reputed $8m. In 2006, the original shark, having deteriorated, was replaced at Hirst's insistence by a new formaldehyde-injected one, which was then loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is that shark that visitors to the Tate Modern show will see. (Both Hirst and Cohen seem unfazed by the big art-historical question of whether a replacement can ever have the import of the original art work. Only time will answer that one.)

"It's what Jeff Koons once referred to as a high-maintenance piece of art," says Hirst, when I ask him about the practicalities of owning a shark in a tank. "The formaldehyde works are guaranteed for 200 years. I would like it to always look as fresh as the day I made it, so part of the contract is: if the glass breaks, we mend it; if the tank gets dirty, we clean it; if the shark rots, we find you a new shark." At 22 tons, it must be a bugger to transport, though? "Not really. The tank and the shark travel separately. Then you clean it and set it up, add the formaldehyde. Basically," he says, without irony, "it's just a big aquarium with a dead fish in it."

Since the shark first swam into the public consciousness in 1992, it has, as Hirst once admitted to me, "been hard to see the art for the dollar signs". His astonishing earning power came to a head with the Sotheby's auction in September 2008, when total sales were 10 times higher than the previous record for work by a single artist. By then, he already held the record for the most money paid in auction for a single work of art by a living European artist, the emir of Qatar having paid £9m the previous year for Lullaby Spring, a steel cabinet containing 6,136 neatly arranged pills.

"Money is massive," says Hirst, when I remind him of the above quote. "I don't think it should ever be the goal, but I had no money as a kid and so I was maybe a bit more motivated than the rest. I used to argue with Angus [Fairhurst] and Sarah [Lucas] about that all the time when we were starting out and struggling. They'd say: 'You're obsessed' and I'd be like, 'It's important.' See, if you don't care about it, often you don't deal with it, then it screws you. I do believe art is more powerful than money, though. I still believe that. And if I ever find out money's more important, I'll knock it on the head."

For all that, Damien Hirst has become for many the epitome of the artist as businessman, entrepreneur and global brand. It is quite a transformation, given that in the wild years of the 1990s, when the YBAs held their own in the drinking, tooting and necking pills stakes with Noel and Liam and the rest of the Britpop crew, Hirst was the loudest, drunkest and, some would say, most objectionable lad of the lot. His bills at the Groucho club, sent monthly to his home address, were legendary, as was his tendency to go out for a drink on a Friday night and get home in the early hours of Sunday morning. He has not touched a drink – nor popped a pill, nor snorted a line – in five years. Does he miss the good old, bad old days?

"Nah. I've done it, man," he says, shaking his head and reaching for a Diet Coke. "I had a beautiful 10 years and then, suddenly, it started to hurt. I couldn't handle the hangovers: waking up in the sticky filth of the Colony Room on the floor; sweating my way though meetings at White Cube; going to meet Larry [Gagosian] on the Anadin, the Nurofen, the Berocca and the Vicks nasal spray, looking like an alcoholic tramp. It wasn't good. I just woke up one day and thought: 'That's it. It's over.' Haven't touched a drop since."

We talk about Louise Bourgeois, whom Hirst visited before her death last year, and I mention her belief that happy people could not make great art. Is he happy? He laughs. "Making art, good art, is always a struggle. It can make you happy when you pull it off. There's no better feeling. It's beauteous. But it's always about hard work and inspiration and sweat and good ideas. I don't believe it's about God-given genius, but I do believe somehow in the magic of art even though I don't want to. I believe in science. I want clear answers." He pauses for a moment. "I want to make art, create objects that will have meaning for ever. It's a big ambition, universal truth, but somebody's gotta do it."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern, London SE1 to 9 Sep, sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority. Observer readers can buy two tickets for the price of one: the offer is valid on full-price tickets only and must be booked before 4 April. Visit and quote promotional code OBS241 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 07 2012

Louise Bourgeois show brings giant spider into Freud's garden

Freud Museum show was inspired by discovery from a cache of the artist's writing that she had undergone psychoanalysis
Louise Bourgeois at the Freud Museum – in pictures

An enormous spider has just taken up residence in the back garden of a house in Hampstead, north London. The eight-legged beast, which arrived in a huge crate before being assembled on the back lawn this week, is one of Louise Bourgeois's spider sculptures and the most eye-catching piece in an extraordinary exhibition of the late artist's work at the Freud Museum.

Another spider sculpture by Bourgeois was the first piece of art to go on show in the Turbine Hall when Tate Modern opened in 2000. The Freud Museum's spider, made in 1994, is smaller but still an imposing sight, especially in its new garden setting. "The trees will come into bloom over it," said Philip Larratt-Smith, the show's curator and Bourgeois's literary archivist. "Louise liked it when the spiders had a bit of cover and they're a little claustrophobic. I think it'll look very nice here."

Carol Seigel, the museum's director, said precautions had been taken to avoid the sculpture being stolen by scrap metal thieves, after a Barbara Hepworth sculpture was taken from Dulwich Park in December. "It's embedded in the ground – it would be quite hard to remove it and there is security around the house."

Titled Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed, the exhibition was inspired by the discovery of a cache of the artist's writing, which revealed that she had undergone psychoanalysis, a fact she had previously kept secret.

"She went from making these tall, monolithic statues in the early 50s, then re-emerged with a totally new body of work in the 60s," said Larratt-Smith. "It was always a mystery how she got from A to B. These writings fill in the story."

Bourgeois died in 2010 aged 98. She had given Larratt-Smith permission to put the psychoanalytic writings, including notes, lists, drawings and jottings, on public display. They are now on show, alongside her sculptures – including The Dangerous Obsession, pictured – in the house to which the father of psychoanalysis escaped in 1938 after the Nazis invaded Austria.

Bourgeois's favourite sculpture, Janus Fleuri (1968), hangs suspended above Freud's famous couch. It resembles both male and female genitals and is, said Larratt-Smith, a "very dense and compacted symbol, like you'd find in Freudian dream analysis".

Although she was ambivalent about psychoanalysis and its effects on her as an artist, Bourgeois was, said Seigler, "steeped in Freud" and the writings of other psychoanalysts, and her work is vividly influenced by their themes.

With this influence in mind, the Louise Bourgeois foundation approached the museum with the offer to stage the exhibition, which had previously travelled around South America.

The museum has shown the work of other artists influenced by Freud including Susan Hiller, Sophie Calle and Mat Collishaw. Seigel said the exhibition would show "how psychoanalysis has impacted so strongly on both Bourgeois and more broadly on 20th and 21st century thinking".

As one of the major artists of the last century, Bourgeois's work is more commonly seen in large galleries and museums, and to set it in an intimate domestic setting was a particular challenge to the Freud Museum, which receives no public funding.

Discussing a dream that requires no analysis, Seigel said she had "a nightmare that the sculptures upstairs would crash through the floor, destroying not only it but Freud's desk underneath". A structural engineer assured her that the museum's floors were strong enough to support two of Bourgeois's disturbing cell sculptures.

The museum hopes to attract large numbers to the show but cannot accommodate more than 200 visitors a day. "It's a tremendous privilege that we have this major artist in the Freud museum after planning it for nine months," said Seigel. "I can't quite believe that it's happened." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Stuff of dreams: Louise Bourgeois – in pictures

A selection of shots from Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed, a new exhibition at the Freud Museum

October 20 2011

VernissageTV PDF-Magazine No. 19: Towers, Sand, Marble, a Parachute, Two Parks and a Spider

Out now: VernissageTV PDF-magazine No. 19, July 2011.

The topics of VernissageTV’s PDF Magazin No. 19 are Istanbul Biennial 2011, Louise Bourgeois at Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Carsten Nicolai at The Pace Gallery in New York, Yutaka Sone’s solo show at David Zwirner in New York, Phase 2 of The High Line Park in New York, Sarah Sze’s Highline Public Art Project, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, the Found Objects photo series by Didier Leroi, Frieze Sculpture Park 2011, and reviews by Lee Sharrock of the group show Air I Breathe and the Frieze Week in London.

Artists in this issue: Louise Bourgeois, Carsten Nicolai, Yutaka Sone, Sarah Sze, and Simon Rodia.

Click image or this link to download the magazine (25 MB) or hit the jump to view in Issuu Reader.

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September 15 2011

Louise Bourgeois: À L’Infini. Artist Talk with Jerry Gorovoy at Fondation Beyeler

Jerry Gorovoy was Louise Bourgeois assistant for more than 30 years. He is a profound expert of her work. In this conversation with Dr. Ulf Küster, the curator of the exhibition Louise Bourgeois: À L’Infini at Fondation Beyeler, Jerry Gorovoy talks about the different aspects of Louise Bourgeois’ work and his personal experiences with the artist.

Louise Bourgeois: À L’Infini. Solo exhibition at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen / Switzerland. Artist Talk. Dr. Ulf Küster (Curator, Fondation Beyeler) in conversation with Jerry Gorovoy, September 4, 2011.

Hit the jump to watch the conversation in full length.

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September 05 2011

Louise Bourgeois: À L’Infini. Exhibition at Fondation Beyeler

Louise Bourgeois was one of the most exceptional artists of our time. Her life and work inspired many artists of younger generations such as Tracy Emin or Robert Gober. To honor her 100th birthday, the Fondation Beyeler is devoting an homage to Louise Bourgeois by placing her work in dialog with the museum’s permanent collection, especially artists with whom she had a special relationship, such as Paul Cézanne, Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti. In this video, we walk through the exhibition and hear the curator of the show, Dr. Ulf Küster, talking about the concept of the exhibition and the relevance of Louise Bourgeois’ work.

Louise Bourgeois: À L’Infini presents sculptures and drawings by Louise Bourgeois as well as the famous Cell, Passage Dangereux. The highlight of the exhibition is the monumental spider sculpture titled Maman that sits in front of the museum in the Berower Park.

The exhibition was conceived together with Louise Bourgeois (who died on May 31, 2010) and curated by Dr. Ulf Küster (curator, Fondation Beyeler) in cooperation with the Louise Bourgeois Studio, New York.

In October 2011 a book on the exhibition by Dr. Ulf Küster will be published by Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Louise Bourgeois: À L’Infini. Solo exhibition at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen / Switzerland. Interview with Dr. Ulf Küster (Curator, Fondation Beyeler) and opening reception, September 2/3 30, 2011.

PS: Photo set after the jump. See also: Louise Bourgeois: Maman at Fondation Beyeler.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.

September 02 2011

Louise Bourgeois: Maman at Fondation Beyeler

On the occasion of the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at Fondation Beyeler, the museum is showing the artist’s famous sculpture Maman. This video documents the installation of Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider sculpture in the garden of Fondation Beyeler in Riehen (Basel, Switzerland). The video shows how the legs of the spider are assembled, and how the different parts of the sculpture – legs, body, eggs, head – are put together and how the sculpture is erected.

Louise Bourgeois’ Maman is one of the best-known works of the artist and the highlight of the exhibition, which the Fondation Beyeler has mounted in honor of her 100th birthday on December 25, 2011. The exhibition was planned together with the artist who died on May 31, 2010 and emerged in collaboration with the Louise Bourgeois Studio. It is curated by Ulf Küster, curator at the Fondation Beyeler. The exhibition opens on 3rd September and runs until 8th January 2012. There’s an artist talk at Fondation Beyeler with Louise Bourgois’ long-standing assistant Jerry Gorovoy on 4th September 2011, 11.30am.

Bourgois began using the spider as central image in her art in the late 1990s. Maman was first shown in Louise Bourgeois’ exhibition at the Tate Modern as unique steel and marble sculpture in 2000. Subsequently an edition of six bronzes was cast by the artist. Bronze casts if Maman are on permanent display at The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, Mori Art Center Tokyo, and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

According to the artist, “The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.“ (Source: Tate press release)

Louise Bourgeois: Maman at Fondation Beyeler. Installation in Berower Park, Riehen / Switzerland, August 30, 2011.

PS: Photo set after the jump.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.

June 03 2011

Venice Biennale: Prada on parade

Fashion couple confirm their places as major cultural figures with display from their art collection

If any designer has effortlessly vaulted the confines of the fashion world to become a major cultural figure it is Miuccia Prada and on Saturday she and her husband and Prada CEO, Patrizio Bertelli, will confirm their status.

Their new venture is opening to the public: a semi-permanent display of works from their art collection, housed in a faded but imposing 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Enter the Ca' Corner della Regina from the water, and you come straight to the work that occupies the lofty, Doric-columned hall, Anish Kapoor's Void Field: a series of sandstone blocks, each with a curious black hole penetrating its surface, giving the impression that these mighty boulders are at the same time hollow or weightless.

It was part of Kapoor's 1990 British pavilion for the Venice Biennale, the 2011 edition of which also opens today on Saturday.

In the surrounding rooms are Italian artworks from the mid-20th century and contemporary international pieces. Among them are Damien Hirst's 1996 Loving in a World of Desire, in which a beach ball hovers, lifted by an air blower, several feet above the ground and Maurizio Cattelan's Untitled of 1997, a stuffed ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

Tucked beyond the elegant courtyard is Cell (Clothes) by Louise Bourgeois, which contains the only possible reference to the couple's day job: nighties, little blouses and delicate 1930s dresses drape themselves emptily within the suggestion of a bedroom.

According to Prada – who wears a pleated-silk skirt, black merino sweater and sensible, striped-plastic flat sandals that she swaps for mountainous heels to be photographed – the couple began buying art in the early 1990s after a friend suggested their Milanese working space would be "perfect for sculpture".

That started them off, she says, "on a full immersion in learning ... We wanted to understand [the 1960s Italian art movement] arte povera better, and contemporary art".

Bertelli, more leonine than the impishly twinkling Prada, chips in: "We didn't seek advice: we studied, we went to museums. We attempted to understand how certain things happened in the arts."

This art-history course was not meant to result in a collection. "I hate being a collector," says Prada. "We just bought some pieces. And now there is so much of it it's a pity for it to stay in stock."

At the suggestion that learning is possible without buying, the designer, who has a doctorate in political science from the University of Milan, says: "I completely agree. It's vulgar, this desire to own things, but it is also very human."

The Ca' Corner, which once housed the archive of the Venice Biennale, has recently lain empty. Last year, the Venetian authorities offered it to the Fondazione Prada, which has staged regular temporary exhibitions in the city. The foundation has the space for six years, with the option to remain for another six.

Meanwhile, the couple are also building a large-scale, permanent gallery in Prada's native Milan, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas.

Under Bertelli's direction, a gentle restoration of the dilapidated Ca' Corner has been undertaken. But this is no white cube: Pino Pasquale's sculpture Confluenze (1967), which consists of shallow vessels of water placed on the ground, sits beneath a glorious painted ceiling on the piano nobile, while Jeff Koons's multicoloured steel Tulips (1997-2005) glints nearby.

As Prada begins to speak about the way the art works in the context of its faded building, Bertelli cuts in and there is a swift back-and-forth of bickering ("He thinks I am speaking in banalities," she says, goodnaturedly).

Bertelli forges ahead: "We didn't want to be too logical with this palazzo. We didn't want to invade, or wipe out the space.

"We wanted it to keep its veneer, and we did not want to exaggerate the skin of the floors or ceilings with makeup."

A critical commentary on each other's remarks is a feature of the conversation: so how do they agree when it comes to buying art?

Into a waterfall of swiftly spoken Italian from Bertelli, Prada interjects: "He is obsessed by Sigmar Polke." And: "Every time he buys another Lucio Fontana, I say 'Not another Fontana!' "

Bertelli bats back: "She is like the fox with the grapes in the fable. It is easy for her to say 'Not another Fontana,' because if I didn't buy them she would."

There are four of the Italian painter's egg-shaped, slashed canvases on the palazzo walls.

They generally buy separately, according to Prada, and only once have they fallen out badly over a purchase.

"It was the first piece I bought, and he sold it, because he thought it was horrible," she says, laughing. It was a Dalí.

Her strategy, she says, is to "never buy anything except those things that change my ideas, if only in a small way".

She also keeps art and fashion well away from each other: "I refuse the connection," she says. "For me those things are completely separate, except to the extent that your mind is your mind, and my work reflects myself."

The opening few days of the Venice Biennale are a social event, with artists, curators, dealers, critics, collectors in the city to see art – and each other.

Roman Abramovich's yacht is moored not far away, and Elton John has pitched up to see an exhibition hosted by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk.

Each night sees a baffling array of parties, from prosecco-fuelled celebrations to discreet dinners. Do Prada and Bertelli enjoy the exclusive social scene enjoyed by the world's wealthiest collectors?

Prada replies with a laugh: "I have succeeded in going to not one single party at the Venice Biennale."

On this, at last, they agree: "Our social life," says Bertelli, "is not very sparkling." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 04 2011

Louise Bourgeois: Moi, Eugénie Grandet - review

Maison de Balzac, Paris, is perfect setting for Bourgeois's final exploration of a daughter suppressed by a domineering father

In the last weeks of her life Louise Bourgeois, who died last May, was still working, her energy focused on the heroine of Balzac's novel Eugénie Grandet, whom she saw as the archetypal daughter broken by an odious, all-powerful father. Born in 1911, into a Parisian family almost as conventional as the one Balzac described in 1833, Bourgeois would have suffered a similar life of painful resignation, had she not become an artist and subsequently moved to New York.

"I love that story. It could be the story of my life," she told an interviewer in September 2009. In keeping with this rationale, her work, particularly in the closing decades of her life, drew on autobiographical elements, with her father in the role of the domineering adulterer who thought women were doomed to a subservient position. Her installations, sculptures (bronze spiders), drawings and engravings relate directly or allude to her youth and family life.

Grandet is thus the ultimate incarnation of a tragic destiny and Balzac's home in Paris the place for the last rites of exorcism that Bourgeois had prepared. She wanted her final work, still as powerful as ever, to be shown in this house, rather than a big museum or gallery. Obviously because it is Balzac's home, but also because the place is just right, with small, rapidly oppressive rooms, narrow staircases and gloomy wood-panelled passages. The works themselves feel cramped. The exhibition at Maison de Balzac, Paris (until 6 February) starts with an imaginary portrait of Grandet, which might well be a self-portrait of Bourgeois herself at the age of 20.

The Grandet series, properly speaking, consists of 16 small items of embroidery. The choice of technique is a clear reference to women confined to needlework, as a way of spending or idling away their time. But the word "embroidery" is inadequate to describe something that is both a reliquary of sorts and an exercise in recycling. Bourgeois has attached artificial flowers, pins and buttons to rectangular pieces of grey or white fabric, evoking pressed flowers, a withered bouquet on a grave or perhaps some distant memory. Another piece suggests a clock, the silk thread sketching out its hands.

One room breaks with this pattern: a drypoint engraving pasted on to one of these pale bases depicts a pregnant young woman, naked but for a sad fabric flower. The same allegorical figure appears in another series, My Inner Life, done in 2008, comprising engravings and drawings coloured with gouache and watercolour.

The exhibition ends, in the depths of the house, with one of Bourgeois's most intense works, indeed one of the most powerful in contemporary art as a whole. It is divided into two vertical parts. On the right are five quotations embroidered in red letters, each phrase symptomatic of Grandet's suffering. On the left is an engraving of a naked woman, highlighted in gouache, with a white foetus howling in her womb. I could not help thinking of the self-portraits by Antonin Artaud, extraordinary drawings he did between his release from the Rodez asylum and his death.

We saw the same engraving at the beginning, but in its initial virginal, almost happy state. By reworking it in red, painting over some parts, apparently using her fingers more than a paintbrush, Bourgeois added almost unbearable violence. What the initial portrait of Grandet merely suggested now becomes fiercely explicit.

This piece originally appeared in Le Monde © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 12 2010

The Louise Bourgeois I knew

Artist Louise Bourgeois died on 31 May, aged 98. Her assistant and longtime friend Jerry Gorovoy recalls her brilliance and extraordinary sensitivity

When I was 16 a psychic named Frank Andrews who lived on Mulberry Street in New York City read my fortune and told my mother: "Your son will be involved with a much older woman."

Eleven years later, in March 1980, a tiny 68-year-old woman with intense blue eyes and a strong French accent came into the SoHo gallery where I was working and started screaming that she didn't like the way I had installed her sculpture – one of 10 abstract sculptures in a group show that was my curatorial debut – and wanted it removed. We went for a cup of coffee to try to work things out. On the way back she slipped and fell on the cobblestone street and I realised how vulnerable she was. Years later, I understood that this woman who had behaved so aggressively towards me was simply afraid of showing her work.

A few weeks later she invited me to her Chelsea home and showed me some early paintings and drawings. I knew right away that she was the real McCoy. The way she spoke, lived and worked were all of a piece, inextricably linked together. She was extremely well read and highly intelligent, having received a classical French education and studied mathematics at the Sorbonne, and yet she existed primarily in a world of emotions. I had never encountered anyone who talked about her art – its motivations, symbolism, forms and themes – in such psychological terms, and I was hooked.

It was not so much that she had met everyone – Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Willem de Kooning, Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, David Sylvester – but that her interpretations of their work were completely original and revelatory to me. I learned from her that art history and art making were really two separate things. Certain works of art are important historically but no longer offer an experiential quality.Like most of the art that matters to me, Louise's art affected me emotionally and transformed me. Though her work was raw self-expression, it was also her way of understanding herself. It has a timeless dynamic that goes way beyond the visual: a profound capacity to awaken in others a heightened consciousness of what it is to be alive.

One encounter followed another. Louise was a complex puzzle of a thousand pieces, and although in the 30 years I knew her I filled in many sections, some regions remained unknowable. The visual world that she invented for herself was pathological down to the last detail. There was a split in her psyche, as if her past with all its demons kept returning to invade the present. Sometimes I was with a mature intelligent woman, flirtatious and fond of black humour, and sometimes with a 12-year-old girl. These two personas, which operated in a sexualised world, are present in the work.

Her affectivity and sensitivity were extraordinary, often painful. If someone wore a green shirt she would ask him to change it or she would refuse to look at him. If someone's voice reminded her of her father, she might turn on the unwitting victim and viciously attack him. She suffered like a beast from jealousy. Anyone who got too close to me was put on warning. Her fear of abandonment was intense. At a certain point she stopped travelling for her exhibitions. Whenever I left for an installation of her work she would fall apart, and when I returned I had to be punished for making her suffer. It got to the point that I felt guilty every time I left.

It took the art world a long time to digest her output, with its lack of a signature style. Her range of formal invention, and her ability to handle any material and express her emotions, were a gift from the gods. I'm not sure people realise that she saw the artist as a poor tormented figure. Believe me, Louise was a tormented woman. Like a sufferer of Tourette's syndrome, she always felt that she had to confess everything, which could be uncomfortable for others, and once called herself the woman without secrets. She really believed in the old French saying "tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner". In her art she was utterly fearless and in real life she said she was the mouse behind the radiator.

Late in life her agoraphobia returned and Louise no longer left the house. She asked me to tell anyone who wondered why she wasn't at her shows that she no longer travelled in space, only in time. You tell them, she said, that the work is more myself than my physical presence. But it's not true for me. Louise Bourgeois passed away on 31 May 2010, and I miss her presence. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 02 2010

Tracey Emin takes on Louise Bourgeois for new exhibition

Tracey Emin has long regarded as her as an inspiration. But will she be shown up by her collaboration with the late great artist Louise Bourgeois?

So, today we managed to get anal sex and a large red penis into the Guardian. All a bit rich for one's blood, really. The piece was a story I wrote about a collaboration between Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin, completed before the great French artist died, aged 99, in May. Has Emin pulled off working with Bourgeois as an equal? Or do the words "giant" and "minnow" spring to mind?

Here's also the piece from the Art Newspaper, where we first read about the collaboration. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 16 2010

The Surreal House at the Barbican

This new show is 'a mysterious dwelling infused with subjectivity and desire' featuring artists such as Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti and René Magritte

June 06 2010

Louise Bourgeois's greatest work of art | Germaine Greer

'An artist's words are always to be taken cautiously." So said Louise Bourgeois, an undeniably great artist, who died last Monday at the age of 98. The people penning her eulogies had no time, and their editors little use for caution. The familiar tropes were trotted out, one after another, words that Bourgeois had rehearsed dozens of times. When asked about the formative influences on her work, Bourgeois would never name any other artist. Instead she referred to her invalid mother, her faithless father, and his English mistress. In this narrative she was a lifelong girl-child. Of her husband, Robert Goldwater, and the curious circumstances of the adoption of a first son Michel after only a few months of marriage, and the bearing of two more, Alain and Jean-Louis, she had little to say. A gullible world is only too ready to believe that her work is "highly influenced by painful childhood experiences" and that the "maman" she has been portraying since the early 1990s as a spider is her actual mother, not just any misremembered mother, and not herself. "Her sculpture was molded by trauma" ran last Monday's headline in the Washington Post. Among the many statements of Bourgeois is one that runs: "If your need is to refuse to abandon the past, you have to recreate it. You have to do sculpture." The word "recreate" suggests invention, hence transcendence. If Bourgeois's work was only about herself, we would not now be celebrating her as an innovative genius.

The great themes of her work are threaded on a narrative string that is as manufactured as the works themselves, which is not to say that Bourgeois was a liar or a humbug. She made a rational and respectable decision: if her works were to be reduced by successive generations of writers to pieces of evidence in a personal case history, then the case history itself would be an artwork. She would manage her own text.

She was seldom required to account for herself before she became the first woman to be accorded her own retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1982, when she was already 71. The account she gave of herself then has been improved, in some cases embellished, and in others simplified, as the years went by. It was in 1982 that fledgling gallerist Jerry Gorovoy gave up his job at the Sidney Janis Gallery to become her assistant/manager; he is still involved with the Studio Louise Bourgeois after 28 years. Just how much he has to do with the techniques of production that have been producing multimillion dollar versions of Maman for galleries all over the world is anybody's guess. Bourgeois kept him under wraps that he has never seen fit to cast aside. Few people are aware that in 1993 he was the model for The Arch of Hysteria.

When 31-year-old Robert Goldwater met 27-year-old Louise Bourgeois in Paris in 1937, he was a professor of art history at the State University of New York, and a close friend of the influential critic Clement Greenberg and Alfred H Barr, founder director of the Museum of Modern Art. She was a graduate of the Sorbonne and a perpetual art student. When she married Goldwater and went to live with him in New York, she found herself at the centre of the American art establishment. In 1941, Barr persuaded a donor to buy her sculpture Quarantania for Moma and in 1969 it was illustrated in Goldwater's What Is Modern Sculpture? Later, Bourgeois would dramatise her scorn for art historians in a performance piece called Confrontation (1978), but her relationship with her academic husband, who was curator of the Rockefeller collection of primitive art, not only allowed her to handle some of the most charismatic objects ever made by human hands, it also brought her into close contact with artists who had fled occupied Europe, such as Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, André Breton and Joan Miró. She is now said to have loathed them all because they were "father figures". She certainly acknowledges no influence from any of them.

Though Bourgeois's art practice is understood to be both discontinuous with the masculine tradition and a reaction against it, and she has been hailed as a feminist heroine as a result, it is an identification that she rejected, saying with typical disingenuity: "I am lucky to have been brought up by a mother who was a feminist and fortunate enough to have married a husband who was a feminist, and I have raised sons who are feminists." She claimed to be an artist, not a woman artist. Hapless male critics struggle to understand what is going on in her work, why female figures have breasts that work as arms, why a sculpture called Fillette shows a bulbous scrotum beneath a veiny shaft and moth-eaten glans, and just why it is that her work seems so perverse and challenging – if it is not, after all, feminist.

Bourgeois came to artistic maturity long after motherhood, widowhood and menopause. On the brink of old age, she became as a child again, free to reinvent herself and her world. Hard became soft, iron became glass, out turned to in; categories existed only to be subverted. From within her beyond-feminist panoply of contradictions, Bourgeois will continue to mock all certainty, not least certainty about the artist herself. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 04 2010

Book now!

From Louise Bourgeois in London to Chicks On Speed in Dundee, check out the best art exhibitions up and down the country this week

June 01 2010

A web of emotions

Louise Bourgeois was most famous for her spiders, but sex, rage and fear fuelled her greatest art. Adrian Searle salutes her dirty mind and tender heart

The art of Louise Bourgeois puts the feeble one-hit wonders, the diamond skulls, the next-big-thing careerist chancers and the defenders of this or that latest tendency in their place. Her work sees off all the dumb arguments about whether contemporary art is worth looking at, or whether it is about anything. Her art is full of content and meaning. It demonstrates all kinds of skills and inventiveness. Her art is full of variety and it is utterly consistent.

Bourgeois's work refutes all the complaints people make about recent art. Her art is poetic at a time when the word has become debased. She could carve a pair of marble hands or make a little figure from the most wretched and raddled scraps of old cloth. She happily used ready-made objects – mirrors, laboratory glassware, old clothes, bits of machinery. Her art is about jealousy and sex and the things that make life worth living and, at times, make it unbearable. Her art is full of subversive humour, dangers and fears. And there was something about this little old French lady living in New York that was as tender and ferocious, as indomitable and as canny, as the things she made.

Bourgeois was a wise old bird, and she had a dirty mind, as her work demonstrated over and over again, since she began in the 1930s. She had strong opinions and was as likely to form her views from the most laughable self-help books as from great literature. In her long life, she met just about every artist worth mentioning. She knew Vuillard, Bonnard, Matisse, Léger (who told her to stop painting and start sculpting), Duchamp and Miró, Brancusi and Giacometti, as well as all the younger artists who came to her regular, argumentative Sunday salons. As a rule, she said, she reacted against them all, which for Bourgeois meant going her own way.

At a big group show some years ago, looking at a sculpture of a naked, headless woman whose body arched off the flat bed of a huge old band-saw, dangerously close to a fearsome rusty blade, an American standing next to me announced, loudly: "Louise Bourgeois never liked her father, overly. Nor he her." He was really only repeating a part of the artist's own self-perpetuated legend, a story she told to herself and her art told the world. "Everything I do is inspired by my early life," Bourgeois wrote in the 1980s, and what inspired her most was her father's affair with little Louise's English tutor, Sadie, whose neck, the artist said, many years later, she would like to wring.

That Bourgeois's art was an unending exorcism is not in doubt. Her 2007 Tate retrospective opened with a model of her parents' chateau, over which hung the blade of a large guillotine. Writing on Freud, she said the psychoanalyst "did nothing for artists, or for the artist's problem, the artist's torment". Artists repeat themselves, she observed, "because they have no access to a cure". To be born an artist was both a privilege and a curse.

A writhing nest of penises

In her art, women became houses, mothers became spiders, and spiders hung around "the doorways of the years" like prostitutes. In one sculpture, she portrayed her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater, as a vulnerable, almost feminine head emerging from a writhing nest of flopping penises – she wanted to make him sexy, she said; and she also produced a costume bulging with rows of breasts, to be worn by a man. We are all vulnerable, and all male-female, she said. So there she is in the famous 1982 Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, grinning mischievously and carrying a huge latex sculpture of a cock and balls. There were penises and vulvas and eyes, mangled rabbit sinews, things that look like cowpats and things that look like sex toys. Her art was one of transformations, of ferocious vulnerability and tender violence.

As well as objects, her environments, which she called Cells, were also containers of feelings, of atmospheres that could smother you or cut like a knife. Her most popular works were probably her big spiders, but they were not her best work. The thing about Bourgeois was that she was free to make what she pleased, good and bad alike. But she was never mediocre.

Bourgeois's lesson is not to do with her style or manner as an artist, nor even her longevity, though she had to wait till she was in late middle-age to get the wider recognition she deserved. Other artists have had to wait as long. Nor was it a case of late flowering, because Bourgeois's art has been consistent, whatever its materials, and whether in sculpture, installation, in drawing and printmaking and writing. Bourgeois was more interested in life than in having a career, except that for her, life mostly meant being an artist and making work, and nursing her childhood grievances, which fuelled all her art. "You gotta watch that woman," Bruce Nauman once said of her. And still we must.

'I am still a girl trying to understand myself': Louise Bourgeois in her own words

On drawing

"I have drawn my whole life. My parents were in the tapestry restoration business, and as a young girl, I would draw in the missing parts of the tapestry that needed to be re-woven. My ability to draw made me indispensable to my parents."

On sculpture

"At the dinner table when I was very little, I would hear people bickering – the father saying something, the mother choosing to defend herself. To escape the bickering, I started modelling the soft bread with my fingers. With the dough of the French bread – sometimes it was still warm – I would make little figures. And I would line them up on the table and this was really my first sculpture."

On the art world

"Women had to work like slaves in the art world, but a lot of men got to the top through their charm. And it hurt them. To be young and pretty didn't help a woman in the art world, because the social scene, and the buying scene, was in the hands of women – women who had money. They wanted male artists who would come alone and be their charming guests. Rothko could be very charming. It was a court. And the artist buffoons came to the court to entertain, to charm. Now it has changed, now the younger men are in – older women and younger men."

On England

"England is very, very important to me, because in my family the English could do no wrong. When my father picked a mistress, it was always an English girl: if he made her pregnant, she could be shipped back to England and he would not be held responsible. It never happened, but I've made a lot of work called The English Can Do No Wrong."

On critics

"I do not need the musing of the philosophers to tell me what I am doing. It would be more interesting to let me know why I am doing it."

On feminism

"The feminists took me as a role model, as a mother. It bothers me. I am not interested in being a mother. I am still a girl trying to understand myself."

On modern art

"What modern art means is that you have to keep finding new ways to express yourself, to express the problems, that there are no settled ways, no fixed approach. This is a painful situation, and modern art is about this painful situation of having no absolutely definite way of expressing yourself."

On spiders

"I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn't get mad. She weaves and repairs it." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Best of Bourgeois

Cells, spiders, human figures and womb-like sculptures ... let Jonathan Jones guide you through the remarkable work of this most inventive of artists

Untitled, 1950 and Femme Volage, 1951

Stacked triangles of wood create the semblance of a human figure in one of Bourgeois's early sculptures, Untitled (1950). "Primitive" carvings in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art may have influenced this totem-like form, as did the paintings of the abstract expressionists. Yet the personality of Bourgeois, as ever, shines through. The rough-cut wood, the asymmetrical stacking, create an inner tension; while the work suggests architecture, its prickly irregularity communicates unreason and rage.

Femme Volage, by contrast, is eerily light – a floating, human-like figure that seems like a phantom. You can easily imagine this work sitting in a slick 1950s apartment, or perhaps villain James Mason's modernist retreat in Hitchcock's North by Northwest. But its jagged and jumbled wooden components create a human form that seems to have been irradiated, reduced to essentials.

Fragile Goddess, 2002

Seeing this sculpture among classical nudes, you realise that it turns the millennia-old western tradition of sculpture as the depiction of the human inside-out. Organs, fluids, eggs, scrotal sacs all might come to mind; the secret life of the body and our most primitive biological heritage swarm this nest of coeval somethings.

Janus Fleuri, 1968

There is a neolithic sculpture from the Middle East in the British Museum that resembles this piece; you might equally think of collapsing kidneys, even a turd. A compelling portrayal of sexuality exploding, then falling in a heap. Surely one of her masterpieces.

Cumul I, 1969

Bourgeois claimed she saw no sexual forms in this teeming nest of, er, sexual forms. (Artists don't always have to make sense.) The whiteness of marble creates an ethereal, cloud-like quality: hence the title.

Destruction of the Father, 1974

Bourgeois's evisceration and revelation of the body's inner secrets culminate in this work: an inside-out sculpture that takes us into an alien reality of seething flesh. The violence contained within it is personal and vengeful – especially given that title.

Louise Bourgeois by Robert Mapplethorpe (1982)

This photograph did a lot to popularise its subject, and can almost be seen as a collaborative artwork: the formidable object the artist holds, her feather fur coat and her extraordinary smiling features conspire with Mapplethorpe's intensely charged monochrome. You sense someone dark and full of secrets.

Cell (Eyes and Mirrors), 1989-93

Among her most explicitly autobiographical installations, the Cells recreate architectures that Bourgeois remembered from childhood. This series of works is perhaps her most influential, and arguably her best: dense, claustrophobic interiors, thick with association.

Maman, 1999

The 20th century produced many icons of the wounded psyche, from Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon to Salvador Dali's Great Masturbator – almost all created by men. In her series of vast spider sculptures, Bourgeois digs into the psyche from a new perspective: a woman depicting a creature she calls "Mother", nurturing yet overwhelming.

St Sebastienne, 1992

If the art of Louise Bourgeois seems at times to come from outer space, she was also an artist in the traditional sense of the word – a sculptor, reinventing and acknowledging tradition. Here, she responds to the European tradition of depicting St Sebastian, tortured with arrows, as an image of desire and suffering – but does so in pink fabric, as if it were a childhood doll. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 31 2010

Louise Bourgeois dies, aged 98

Grande dame of American and European art, whose work was founded in childhood

Louise Bourgeois, the French-born, American-based artist best known for her sculptures of vast metal spiders, died yesterday in a New York hospital at the age of 98. Bourgeois, who only found widespread acclaim late in life, had suffered a heart attack at the weekend, a spokeswoman said.

With her death, American and European art has lost not only a tremendous and hugely influential artist, but a direct link between the art of the 21st century and belle epoque Paris, with cubism, symbolism, surrealism and abstract expressionism, and all that followed.

Born in Paris, on Christmas Day 1911, she recounted that the attending doctor had told her mother, "Madam, you are quite ruining my day." Her personality and her art were to match, and there are few artists who have claimed so outspokenly that their work has been founded in childhood and adolescence.

Her parents ran a prosperous family business devoted to the repair and resale of medieval and 17th and 18th century tapestries and textiles, living above the showroom in Paris.

As a child, Bourgeois had a talent for mathematics. In adolescence, she began helping in the workshop of the business, repairing the destroyed lower portions of old tapestries, sewing fig-leaves on to the genitalia of the naked figures on works destined for prudish American collectors. At about this time her philandering father introduced his lover, an Englishwoman called Sadie, into the household as the children's tutor. From her, Bourgeois learned English, as well as jealousy and hatred.

All of this became part of the Bourgeois legend and the engine of her art. As an emigre French artist who moved to New York in 1938, her career developed slowly. Critical and commercial success only came when she was in her 60s. Although it was not until 1982 that New York's Museum of Modern Art gave her a retrospective – the first it had ever mounted of a woman artist – she was by then already well-known, if regarded as uncategoriseable, marginal, even eccentric. The exhibition transformed her into the grande dame of American art.

In the same year, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe took a number of famous portraits of Bourgeois. She wore a black coat of monkey fur and carried something under her arm as a sort of prop: a big, obscene black latex sculpture, resembling a gigantic penis and balls. She insisted it was not a phallus at all. It was, she said, her little girl. In Mapplethorpe's images, Bourgeois smiles mischievously for the camera. The image is immensely seductive.

Bourgeois made sculptures in all kinds of media; she made wonderful prints and drawings, created claustrophobic installations and fabricated little sewn dolls and giant metal spiders with equal care. She even recorded herself singing childhood songs, broadcast in an empty Venetian tower.

There were many-breasted creatures, beautifully carved marble hands, things that were sexual and strange and filled with secrets and barely suppressed violence. Refusing to describe herself as a feminist, she was one anyway. She has lessons for all artists alive now – inpersistence, commitment and individuality, and in the difference between art made as an adjunct to a career, and art borne out of inner necessity.

Bourgeois made great work and bad work, and didn't care to choose. She even published her insomniac bedside drawings.

"My memories are moth-eaten", she wrote recently, in a crabby hand, next to a beautiful, abstract drawing. We have lost a great artist, but the art goes on.

Adrian Searle is the Guardian's art critic. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 04 2010

Tate Modern at 10

It started with Louise Bourgeois's giant sculpture. Since then, Tate Modern's Turbine Hall has been filled with a succession of spectacular slides, sunsets and visions of the apocalypse. As the gallery turns 10, we talk to the artists who took on the commission of a lifetime

Since it began in 2000, the Unilever series of annual commissions in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall has become the most significant long-term project instigated by any museum in the early 21st century. There are now similar installations in Paris and New York, and the series has developed its own cumulative energy. Let's hope this is sustained through the current economic crisis.

Invitations to participate are increasingly daunting for artists. The Turbine Hall presents an enormous opportunity, but also a huge career risk. One doesn't want overblown monstrosities, or for artists just to make grandiose versions of the kind of things they have done elsewhere. The space is too compromised for Richard Serra, for instance, who installed a great work in Paris's Grand Palais in 2008.

What I'm always hungry for is artists who turn us back on ourselves, who provide an experience that refreshes the way we think. I want them not to perform according to type, but to queer the space and make us think about art and ourselves differently.

The appeal of the spectacle, for a singular and gobsmacking novelty, is hard to resist. The best artists have not gone for the obvious. But however subtle their proposal, and no matter how serious their intent, Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth still became Doris's Crack, while Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project had the public using the mirrored roof to spell out rude phrases with their own bodies as they lay on the floor below. The recent How It Is, by Miroslaw Balka, seemed an invitation for spooked-out blunderings and fumbles in the dark. There are better ways of looking.

The Turbine Hall is the most public museum space anywhere, and is spectacular in itself. Being here is like being in a stupid movie we have already seen. To show here is a test of an artist's capacity and ingenuity. No one accepts the commission lightly, and no one can get away with going through the motions. This is exhilarating. The series has demonstrated the limits and capabilities of artists, of their work and ideas. In an age of spectacle, it continues to put art itself to the test.

Adrian Searle

2000 Louise Bourgeois: Maman

Bourgeois will be 100 next year, and no longer gives interviews, so the fact she's even speaking to me proves how much the first Turbine Hall commission meant to her. The twisted steel legs of her giant spider Maman, alongside a sequence of fabulous, hellish towers, gave the brand-new Tate Modern an instant visual signature, and made the then 89-year-old French-born New York artist a household name. Until then, Bourgeois had been revered by a small world of contemporary art fans; did this sudden popularity surprise her? "No," she says modestly. "The space is so beautiful – anything placed inside it would cause a strong reaction."

As an artist, Bourgeois dwells on the strange and darkly remembered interiors of her childhood; the intensity of her meditations on sexuality and power easily filled the colossal space. Maman turned the surrealist obsession with the male psyche on its head, creating a haunting image of motherhood – a spider carrying her eggs.

Before this, Bourgeois says, "I made a series of small sculptures with mirrors and chairs. They were about looking and being looked at. To continue these concepts on a large scale was an opportunity I could not pass up." What mattered to her most about this installation was the audience's engagement with it. Her towers were designed to be ascended, paving the way for subsequent participatory installations. "The towers were meant to be an experience. If you did not experience all three towers in sequence, then you did not get the piece."

Did Maman affect future work? She says not, beyond the opportunities afforded by scale; As she points out, her work is relatively immune to outside influences: "It has an internal logic all its own." Jonathan Jones

2001 Juan Muñoz: Double Bind

After completing Double Bind in June 2001, Muñoz said he wanted to retreat from constant travel and exhibitions. He had just finished preparing a mid-career survey show, to open in the US that October. He wanted to pay more attention to drawing and to his writing, both of which he felt he had neglected. He died suddenly in August that year, aged 48, while on holiday with his family in Ibiza. The things he had been writing that summer have been lost, somewhere in the hard drive of a broken laptop.

Muñoz was extremely aware of the potential this space offered, but also the risk. "It's a killer," he told me as we stood on an upper level of the gallery, looking down, just before his project was announced. The problems of installation were both artistic and technical. There were arguments and accidents. He had wanted to place figures on the false floor he constructed at the level of the bridge, where, in the distance, he had also installed a pair of empty lifts that rose and fell through the full height of the space. But in the end, he said, the floor resisted whatever figures he put there. Instead, it became a vast image of unapproachable emptiness. There were figures, little groups of them, in the cavities between the floor and the false ceiling he created below it. Despite the crowds and the work's complexity, there was something pensive about Double Bind. It induced feelings of solitude and wonderment.

I think Muñoz saw this as a summation and the beginning of a new phase of work. Since his death, there have been proposals to reinstall it in various locations, none of which the artist had in mind. The Atocha station in Madrid was one such possibility, an idea curtailed by the al-Qaida bombings of 2004. An old warehouse on the river in Bilbao was also considered when his Tate Modern retrospective travelled there in 2008. As it is, all the elements remain in storage. AS

2002 Anish Kapoor: Marsyas

The title of Kapoor's vast scarlet trumpet referred to the late Titian of that name: a depiction of the mythological character Marsyas, flayed alive by the god Apollo. The most obvious aspect of Kapoor's piece, a "skin" stretched over a frame, was its scale: it was almost too big for the space, and that was the point.

Though it divided critics, some of whom thought it bombastic, Kapoor remains delighted by Marsyas. "Just a big thing is boring," he explains, "but a big thing with another purpose can be awe-inspiring. Marsyas did everything I wanted. I wanted it to occupy a space that hadn't been imagined, [to be] a work that wasn't viewable as a whole, but in bits."

Visiting the sculpture after it was installed, "was the first time I had been able to get to know the work. You'd go in, and visitors were having exactly the same experience I was." In particular, people noticed the hum of the electricity substation next door – almost as if it came from the sculpture. Kapoor laughs: "Yes, I think it's a low G, actually." The piece formed a backdrop to an impassioned anti-war staging directed by Peter Sellars, while Arvo Pärt composed a work in its honour. (Of the Sellars, Kapoor says cautiously: "When Peter's pieces become agit-prop, they can become a little overwhelming.")

The commission taught him some practical lessons. "It needs to be organised as a real campaign. You have to install it over two to three weeks – it's got to happen quickly." Since then, he has resisted the more grandiose offers that have come his way. But next year, Kapoor will take on one of Europe's biggest and most intimidating spaces, Paris's Grand Palais – almost as scary as the Turbine Hall itself. Charlotte Higgins

2003 Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project

"At the time, I was incredibly happy with people's reactions – they were so diverse," Eliasson says of the gigantic wintry sun he installed at the far end of the hall. All through the winter of 2003/4, visitors basked in its orange light and saw themselves reflected in the mirrored ceiling the artist installed high up near the roof. "It had its own life. There was a sense of personal and collective experience: they're not opposites. The work sailed off into the realm of the public, but it's like when a big ship goes adrift – where will it end up? The Weather Project entered popular culture, and there were some who wrapped it all up in to some kind of new age, universalistic ritual – this I didn't like."

Eliasson thinks earlier projects linked the work with the gallery in a way his did not. "My project brought the city spilling in, and there was a collapse in the contract of how you are supposed to behave in a museum. Public space is becoming ever more controlled, while the Turbine Hall is more relaxed. Museums want objects, but reality changes that. With these projects, the museum itself begins to produce reality."

Eliasson welcomes this development, with some reservations. "Projects like these mostly happen in close agreement with market-driven thinking, which leads to little diversity. Everything comes at a price. But as a space, this is old and quirky, and it still shifts with every commission. There are plenty more projects in front of us. I am happy to have set the standard." AS

2004 Bruce Nauman: Raw Materials

On his first site visit after having been invited to undertake the fifth Turbine Hall commission, Nauman remembers that "a number of large Henry Moore pieces were arranged on the floor beyond the bridge. My first thought was to fly the sculptures around the space using the two gantry cranes below the roof structure."

Some proposals inevitably go beyond the feasible, and the American artist rejected this initial, startling idea. Nauman once made a sculpture called Henry Moore Bound to Fail, and has also remarked that we never know when the grand old man of British modernism might come in handy again. In the end, he returned to his own work and decided to limit himself entirely to sound.

Raw Materials directed our walk down the ramp and through the hall via a succession of human voices (including the artist's), revisiting 22 of the texts and soundtracks of earlier works. The piece was inspired by the gallery's incessant hum (the buzz from that electrical substation again). "The deep variable sound was persistent throughout the space, and eventually it occurred to me that the texts and voices, sung or spoken, that I have used over the years could be incorporated. The large number of people and the various ways to enter and leave the space – meeting, talking, eating lunch, making a public space private – all contributed to the idea of using these sounds to redefine and direct the experience. I don't know why I didn't use some of the non-verbal sounds as well.

"It has taken some time after this installation to use this [way of working] with large spaces again. Sometimes it requires a long period to digest this kind of risk." AS

2005 Rachel Whiteread: Embankment

Whiteread says Embankment liberated a new playfulness in her work. Certainly, hers was a remarkably introspective and personal sculpture for this space. Tottering icebergs, crumbling Carrara marble quarries, the sprawl of a Bernini fountain: these were some of the associations provoked by her thousands of white boxes, arranged to tower over visitors.

Whiteread had recently visited the Arctic. "I really wanted to use the whiteness of the landscape and to bring that inside. Where we were, no one had trodden before, and lichen was the only thing that was growing. We had to be together all the time, and it was very claustrophobic. Here, I wanted to make something really gargantuan and breathtaking."

Yet its use of boxes began in grief. "The starting point was my mother's house: she had died a year before and we were clearing it out. There was one box I had used for Christmas decorations when I was a child. From this came the casting of 14,000 more. All my work has an emotional starting point, but I wanted it to be completely recyclable. Afterwards, we recycled it all on site."

She directed the installers by walkie-talkie. "I made a maquette. You need to be prepared. I'm very much a hands-on artist, and it's difficult to work in there because it's so public. [But] it was very freeing, being able to build massive areas and then go to the bridge and take it all down again. It was like playing with giant building blocks. I had a letter the other day from an 83- year-old woman about it." She had meant to write at the time, to say how much she admired it.

Whiteread admits to being sceptical of some of the other commissions. "I don't think all the artists have responded well: it's been about 50:50. You can deal with it in a very theatrical way, as Eliasson did – that was like being at Glastonbury. Some of the others that have been more participatory I've struggled with." JJ

2006 Carsten Höller: Test Site

Höller had visitors queueing and screaming and slithering down his spiralling slides. It was fun, though there were those who wondered whether it was really art. But art, Höller tells me, is changing its character, like it or not. In the 1970s, projects such as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty were of minority interest. In London, Höller says, "every newspaper wrote about Test Site, and every taxi driver knew about the slides. British popular culture embraces something like this in a way other countries don't."

So the Turbine Hall became a playground. Höller doesn't believe that the hunger for spectacle signals the death of art: it's just a logical consequence of what came before. "It is a very tricky, strange development," he says. He was overwhelmed by the public's response and concerned by the uniformity of much of the coverage. "I was trying to make a serious architectural contribution – and to ask, why don't we use slides everywhere? I was also dealing with the space, all those grids and straight lines. Putting the slides there was an artistic, even poetic intervention. The spirals relate to natural growth and form. No one mentioned this. I wanted to make the people part of the work, but you didn't have to use the slides. Standing and watching could be like looking at a painting by [Hieronymous] Bosch."

While it is becoming a bigger challenge for each new artist who takes it on, Höller is adamant the series should continue. Other countries now mount similar projects, but "this is the first one. And you can't pretend this is just an ordinary space. It's one of the few spaces in the world that has this fantastic possibility. There is no way back." AS

2007 Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth

When Salcedo was designing Shibboleth, a long crack running the length of the hall, she imagined it would be quiet and elusive in impact. "I thought it was an extremely humble piece. I saw it as an angry piece, but basically defined by a radical absence. I imagined it was going to be overlooked by visitors." So she was startled by both the blanket media coverage and the intensity of the public response, ranging from fascination to dismissal, as people came to gawp at (and even fall into) Tate Modern's hole.

It started with politics. "I am a third-world person [she is Colombian], and came as such to this modernist, industrial space that has become one of the main – if not the main – cultural centres in Europe. Many questions were raised: questions about the relationship non-Europeans have with European modernity, and with European culture in general. I had to bring to that public space the obliterated history of defeated peoples."

Excavating the floor with a team of engineers was not difficult. "I had been making anti-architecture for several years, so the scale was not an issue. I am not a solo singer. For the past 13 years, I have been working with architects and engineers." The more difficult part was the response from press and public: "There were all kinds of interpretations – some quite insightful, others full of cynicism. Most articles remain obsessed by the supposed dangers of the piece. I think that was the easiest way out of thinking about the issues it addressed."

Is the Turbine Hall a place where serious ideas can be raised, or does its reputation for spectacle get in the way of true engagement? "I believe the accidents that took place were the result of a lack of attention," Salcedo says. "Art is about experience, and that experience will reveal itself only when the viewer silently contemplates the piece. Neither I nor Shibboleth can be blamed for that terrible lack." JJ

2008 Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster: TH.2058

Set 50 years into the future, Gonzalez-Foerster's wry take on art and the apocalypse filled the Turbine Hall with the patter of a biblical deluge, super-sized sculptures seemingly swollen with rain, metal bunks strewn with disaster literature and a big-screen montage of end-of-the-world film clips.

Walking around the hall now, she says that "working with the scale of the space is like the difference between a short and a feature film". Her blown-up copies of works such as Louise Bourgeois's spider were realised by a props team from Pinewood Studios. Gonzalez-Foerster remembers: "The hall looked like a giant puppet theatre. There were so many cables holding the sculptures. I discovered a new group of people: riggers!"

What happened when the plastic curtains that marked the entrance were finally parted by her cast of imaginary refugees, the public? "After one month, almost all the books had disappeared," she says. Nearly 1,000 of them, by Jorge Luis Borges, JG Ballard and others, had to be replaced. It was the many photographs posted on Flickr that proved the high point. "This was a big editing moment, connecting different fields of culture. For a lot of visitors, it became their own montage." The critics, she feels, tended to pass over the references. "They wrote a lot about the beds. Why the beds? For me, they're only part of it, like the chairs in a cinema."

Already, TH.2058 has inspired two new works. In its final week, the installation served as the set for Gonzalez-Foerster's film Noreturn, in which a group of children get locked inside a museum; the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas put TH.2058 in his latest novel, Dublinesca. This was one of the best things, she says, "that something dealing with fiction [has gone] back to fiction". Skye Sherwin

2009 Miroslav Balka: How It Is

Balka took his title from a terse, late work by Samuel Beckett and analysed each of the earlier projects in order to develop his own. "What other artists have done is part of the deal. It's good that some of the branches of possibility are cut off. In a way, my project was a dialogue with Olafur Eliasson's. I created a sort of negative situation to his. London is open and international: I wanted to create its opposite. You have to deal with spectacularisation, but I wanted to show and not show, " he says. "It's a serious task."

He didn't spend much time observing the way people engaged with his big steel box and its impenetrably dark, felt-lined interior. "I just wanted the last day to be over. I had anxiety dreams that someone would switch on the light." How It Is will now be recycled. The artist jokes: "I had an idea to send it to the desert in New Mexico, to stand in the sun with nothing but snakes and stones around it."

Balka's next project will involve showing his own work alongside that of northern Renaissance painters, including Hans Baldung and Matthias Grünewald. "After How It Is, I wanted to return to a relationship with humility. I like the word humility. I don't know if something like this will happen again in my life."

What's fascinating about the series, Balka says, is the growing conversation between artists. "Ai Weiwei is a great choice for the next commission [in October this year], because he doesn't come from the western, essentially European tradition – which even Bruce Nauman and Doris Salcedo belong to. It's time for the Chinese tiger to jump over the bridge of the Turbine Hall." AS

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