While in her eighties, Bourgeois produced a series of enclosed installation works she referred to as Cells. Many are small enclosures into which the viewer is prompted to peer inward at arrangements of symbolic objects; others are small rooms into which the viewer is invited to enter. In the cell pieces, Bourgeois uses earlier sculptural forms, found objects as well as personal items that carried strong personal emotional charge for the artist.
The cells enclose psychological and intellectual states, primarily feelings of fear and pain. Bourgeois stated that the Cells represent “different types of pain; physical, emotional and psychological, mental and intellectual… Each Cell deals with a fear. Fear is pain… Each Cell deals with the pleasure of the voyeur, the thrill of looking and being looked at.”
The “Cell” series explores the relations between microcosm and macrocosm. Cells have many definitions, from a small biological component of our body’s system to the cages, pens, convents, and rooms used to confine prisoners, animals, nuns, and artists. Cells have the connotation of being prolific units, like families, that belong to a larger system.
Bourgeois’s cells serve in these and other capacities. Some are framed by wooden doors and some by metal cages. Most of the structures have openings or mirrors suspended from the ceiling that invite the viewer to observe, perhaps to spy upon, the inhabitants. These works have many layers of activity; others, such as Cell (1993), are minimal containers. The metal is rusted, the windows broken and dusty. Unlike some, this dwelling isn’t fully inhabited. The grouping of a small, less finished sphere between two larger polished marble spheres could represent a family. These forms also recall the round marble eyes that stare out from Bourgeois’s other works. The cage door opens just enough to let the baby, if it could move, squeeze through. Observation mirrors, positioned over the “family” and the viewer, are the artist’s “eyes”; if we look into them, we enter the cage.
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.