Inspired by Louise Bourgeois: An Interview with Douglas Cushing

This summer, Landmarks hosted a contest in conjunction with Listening with Landmarks, our digital initiative in which Austin music notables curate playlists in response to works from our collection.  For the contest, we invited the community to submit their own playlists for a chance to have them featured on our website and social media channels. The winner was Douglas Cushing, an art history Ph.D candidate at UT Austin, who created a playlist inspired by Louise Bourgeois’ Eyes. We recently spoke with Douglas about the inspiration behind his music selections and his research as a Ph.D candidate. 

  • What was your process for choosing songs for the playlist?

Being a Gen-Xer who grew up on post-punk and 90s alternative, I chose songs thematically from among some of my favorite musicians and bands. In terms of theme, I was thinking about desire, display, domesticity, eyes, faces and masks, spiders, Surrealism (art with dreamlike qualities anchored in reality), and Feminist art (art that highlights the societal and political differences women experience within their lives). Eyes and bodies had a special place for Bourgeois and the Surrealists alike, so I chose numerous songs that explore obvious aspect of the sculpture. The double edge of desire and abjection run through much of the artist’s work, so I selected songs that spoke to that subject too. Masks and faces are related to body and identity, so they seemed key to me. 

  • Do you have a favorite song on the playlist?

Choosing a single favorite is hard. I’ll break the rules and choose two. “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” by Montreal, has an anxious, repetitious intensity that anchors part of the playlist for me. The song references George Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil (Story of the Eye), which seemed perfect to me. Bataille led as group of dissidents and outcasts from André Breton’s Surrealist circle beginning in the late 1920s. This points to Bourgeois’s insider/outsider relation to Surrealism. 

For a second song, I choose P.J. Harvey’s “Meet Ze Monsta.” Less directly thematic, there is a quality of feminine agency, power, desire, and self-possession that resonates for me with Bourgeois and her work. There is a sense of tenebrous mystery in both, for me, too. 

  • How would you explain your doctoral research to people not familiar with the arts?

I look at a so-called little magazine called transition, published between the two world wars. “Little” in this case refers to circulation size. These periodicals were usually concerned with literature, politics, and art. They are the great grandparents of the modern zine. Transition is singular for its being published in France but for Anglophone audiences, its being the first vehicle to offer Americans a sustained view of Surrealism. I am interested in the sorts of spaces that the magazine fostered for visual art, becoming, for instance, a mobile gallery or museum that could reach even someone in the boonies, with no access to big city institutions. Little magazines are, for me, ideas in motion. And I’m interested in a generation of artists, writers, and editors who sought to change the world and failed; what lessons might contemporary artist-activists learn from the defeat of the avant-garde by institutions, bourgeois ethics, capitalist transformation of Surrealism into an apolitical style to be worn as a mask? 

  • If you had to create a playlist for your own research, what are some songs that would be on it?

Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Helter Sketler”

While I like the original, Siouxsie Sioux’s punk-goth sensibility fits the tumult of the interwar period for me. For me, Romanticism, Dadaism, Punk are of a kind.

Mission of Burma, “Max Ernst” 

His work appeared in the first and last issue of transition, and being from MA, I am partial to some Boston bands.

Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams” 

Jolas was fascinated by dreams as wellsprings of the irrational, and the lyrics of travel and searching fit him too.

The Fall, “Hip Priest” 

Mark E. Smith’s sensibility of revolt is something of a lingering avant-garde attitude, and Jolas followed Arthur Rimbaud’s and Novalis’s idea that the poet/artist is a sort of priest or seer.

You can check out Douglas’ playlist here:

Douglas Cushing holds a B.A. from RISD and an M.A. in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. His doctoral research investigates the interwar little magazine transition (1927–1938) and the avant-garde art that the magazine reproduced.