Why We’re Attracted to Fixing Things
Both in Eternally Yours and elsewhere, many of the more interesting artworks featuring repairs refuse to obscure the changes and work that went into them. Louise Bourgeois, who was recently the subject of a major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London, concentrated in her later years on twisted cloth figures whose seams were still visible. Often the seams were thick and bumpy like scars. “I have always been fascinated by the magic power of the needle,” she once said. said. “The needle is used to repair the damage. It is a request for forgiveness.” In the case of Bourgeois, the damage mentioned goes back to his youth: an unfaithful father, a mother who died when her daughter was only 20 years old. The language of reparation is so often linked to the idea of emotional or psychic damage, and the acts of care that could protect someone from this pain. British feminist scholar Jacqueline Rose writes in her book Mothers of an impossible motherly task: an expectation that a mother must “fix the world and make it safe”. In this she echoes the American poet Adrienne Rich, who writes in her 1976 essay Working Conditions: The Common World of Women about women engaged in “the business of protecting the world, preserving the world, repairing the world” – embarking on “the invisible weave of a frayed and threadbare family life”.
As appreciation grows for the ways in which women’s coded domestic tasks have been upended by successive generations of artists, repair emerges as a specific concern. Zoe Leonard’s Strange Fruit (1992-1997) also uses apparent dots. Created as an extended form of mourning during the AIDS crisis, Leonard’s work consisted of hundreds of fruit skins. After the flesh was eaten, the skin was wired and sewn together in a Frankenstinian approximation of a whole. Over time, the skin shrivelled and hardened. Even stitches couldn’t completely restore what was gone. Leonard came across couture as a medium, having been taught by friend and fellow artist David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 of AIDS-related complications. “This repair can’t fix real wounds, but it did give me something. Maybe just time, or the pace of sewing,” she added. reflected later. It was an act of memory, an approximation of a resurrection. “They are like memory; these skins are no longer the fruit itself, but a form that recalls the original. You pay homage to what remains.“
There is an honesty in the work of artists like Leonard, Bourgeois and Edwards. Repair is attractive for many reasons. It helps us think about how to take care of the things we own. It makes us aware of what we are wasting and what we need to hold on to. Hopefully this requires us to be more thoughtful. But there’s also something invigorating about these works that recognize that repair doesn’t need to be cared for, and that wounds don’t always heal without a trace. Such works ask us to approach reparation as an act that does more than restore what came before. It invites us to look closer and see the alterations, the points where the needle has pierced the surface and brought together something new.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.