Our Human Skin: On Rihanna, Louise Bourgeois, and vulnerability

“I can’t feel my body now/ I separate from here and now” are two lines from the song ‘Never Ending’ off of Rihanna’s new album “Anti,” which I have been listening to on repeat since it came out. ‘Never Ending’ is a subdued but steady track that holds its own—even in the second half of an album that rolls in and out of mellowed-out fugues to say something about love and power and fucked-up-ness (and fucking, wow, see ‘Yeah, I Said It’).

‘Never Ending’ is one of the most vulnerable songs on the album; it’s repetitive and quietly nervous, it never gets loud or even assertive. Rihanna sings about feeling lost after a breakup, confused about how to move on, not recognizing herself. Structurally, lyrically, the song is stuck: She doesn’t eventually reach a resolution; she’s mired in it. “Everything is never ending,” she sings in the chorus.

It’s strange to see a mysterious scratch or bruise and not remember what happened, or to feel an anxiety about the night before that’s hard to place in the morning. Some of the facts: I was very drunk the night before, and he was not. I remember wanting to just go to sleep. Other short memories: I am wearing a tank top and shorts, white street lights cut into the dark bedroom through the blinds, we get into bed, I begin to doze off, his body is over mine.

It felt like someone else had used my body when I wasn’t there. I spent the better part of a year feeling horrible about this. I still did all the things I needed to do, for the most part; I went to work, went out with friends. But I kept my distance from men for a while and I kept turning it over in my mind. It was like chewing on something disgusting but you can’t spit it out for some reason, and you’re trying to go about your day and talk to people like normal.

Processing grief and shitty situations (and realizing that the shitty situation was not your fault) calls for a lot of introspection. Lately I’ve been experimenting with agency, and trying to figure out when I need to be hard or when I need to be soft. And always trying to pay more attention to my body, how it feels in different ways. Even if I’m getting fucked up or otherwise trying, for a little while, to get out of my own head, I appreciate that choice as my own choice. That’s my power.

At the end of an essay about Louise Bourgeois’ late sculptures (a series of very-hand-sewn cloth “soft and stuffed” bodies and some of her more architectural works), the art historian Linda Nochlin feels some camaraderie in Bourgeois’ work: She says that as a student, wife, and mother at the same time, she tried “to cope with these two aspects of experience—soft and hard—as best I could. It was difficult, but not always so—at times, the struggle itself was exhilarating and energizing.”

I usually encounter Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Spring’ at the BMA almost by accident. The dark, 5-foot-tall thin bronze sculpture sits almost hidden away at the top of the stairs in the Contemporary Wing, and it’s always backlit by that cool glass wall on the wing’s southwest side. This cast, from 1984 (the original is dated 1948-1949), is somewhat figural in its shape and stature, its chunky, bulbous and elongated shapes which quietly meld together at a certain distance. It’s something I passed by too many times without noticing. The lighting situation also obscures its precious details, which, when you get up close to it, are sort of roughly hewn and earnest. It’s also tucked into a small corner there, flanked by two poured-concrete walls. As much as it entices the desire to touch, it also repels. I am not sure if I’m allowed to walk all the way around the sculpture, so I don’t.

‘Spring’ is kind of a character, and its placement here in the museum makes it feel even more like a study of the balance between hard and soft. Linda Nochlin was not writing about this body of work, but so much of Bourgeois’ work had to do with the body and discomfort and sexuality. About those soft sculptures, again, Nochlin writes: “These sculptures, before they make us chuckle, make us uncomfortable in our skin, our human skin, which, these works remind us, is only a temporary covering, after all, and a highly vulnerable one.”

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