The day I tattooed a spider on my eye

Spiders in the back yard of Louise Bourgeois’ New York house

Those who know me well will know of my obsession with Louise Bourgeois’ spiders. Was it taking it a step too far to get my very own spider, in the form of vitreous floaters, ensuring a wriggling spider image forever engrained in my sight?!

It’s been quite the few weeks…

As we arrived at Addenbrookes hospital, it was 6:45am on May 12th. We’d been up since 4:55, ensuring my Mum was completely washed down in Hibiscrub, and she would be on the ward ready for surgery by 7am.

Following the signs to Ward A3, the NeuroScience department, we were stopped in our tracks by familiar artworks on the wall.

‘Even when you don’t know how’ ‘in the face of uncertainty’ ‘braver than you think you are’

We stopped for a quick sob. What powerful words, when faced with one of the biggest uncertain moments of your lives.

Credit: Nick Edwards

This work Making Visible was created by Hannah Jane Walker, as part of her residency with CUH Arts at Addenbrookes Hospital.

Biomedical research employees took part in writing workshops to explore their own work and personal motivations. The project enabled them to connect with colleagues from different research organisations on the campus and creatively reflect on the highs, lows and challenges of working in this sector.

Together, through Hannah’s work with them, they created a universal message of the values and emotions shared by all who work there – all of whom have their own relationship to improving human health and wellbeing.

And if that was their aim, what a huge, warm and significant effect it had. The impact on that early morning was huge, and every day since as I walk past (20, and counting…) the prints of these neon lights (the originals are at present shining out in a different building on the campus) stop me in my tracks and remind me to take a deep breath. Even when we don’t know how, in the face of uncertainty, I – and the rest of my family – have indeed found we are braver than we thought we were. 

Garden Spiders (Please note, this video was not made for professional purposes!)

The unexpected introduction of spiders into these precedings commenced with this impressive display in my parents garden, only serving to produce several confusing conversations, when I, on returning from a late stint in the hospital, saw what can only be described as ‘spiders legs’ in the vision of my right eye. ‘How are the spiders?’ was ambiguous for several days.

Maman (2000) Louise Bourgeois. Guggenheim Bilbao.

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), French-American Artist, is probably most famous for her enormous spiders named Maman. At over ten metres high, and first exhibited at the opening of the Tate Modern in 2000, they really are the leading figures in a whole series of spider sculptures she created in the nineties (and into the noughties). But in fact the arachnids first appeared in her work as early as 1947 (the year my Mum was born).

Louise Bourgeois – Untitled (1947)

Ode à Ma Mère (1995) is an illustrated book, comprising a collection of 9 drypoint spiders.

The text of the work is a poem Bourgeois wrote:


“The friend (the spider – why the spider?) because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as an araignée [spider]…’

Images from Louise Bourgeois Ode à Ma Mère 1995

Bourgeois’ family owned a tapestry restoration business. ‘I came from a family of repairers’, she once said. ‘The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.’

Spiders can also be seen as guardians – defence against mosquitoes – defence against evil. They can be frightening, and they can bite if they feel they, or their offspring are in danger.

Louise Bourgeois – Crouching Spider 2003 Châteaux La Coste

As my Mum lies in her HDU bed today, day 27 in hospital (7 days pre surgery, 20 post, so far), it is impossible not, on reading this poem in particular, to reflect on my relationship with my own mother. Never a single moment when she wasn’t there for us. Unfailing strength and support – whether it be a hug, a shoulder to cry on, financial issues, love issues, childcare or the need for a roof over our heads, the answer is always yes. Whatever the cost to herself.

Beautiful, patient, soothing, supportive, fair. Sharing her deep love of music with us all. Always up for a heated debate about religion or politics – yes, even at the Christmas dinner table! Smart, an incredible seamstress – and I really mean incredible! Loving, unendingly kind and generous.

Right now though – her three biggest wishes? Home, a cup of tea and a real toilet… 

It’s fair to say she is really struggling – 3 weeks lying in bed, unable to move, much of the time hands in boxing gloves to stop her removing the numerous tubes keeping her alive – but she hasn’t lost her spirit. Of all the words we have used to describe her ‘feisty’ is the one that comes up again and again. 

And me, and my spider?

Well it turned out that, in amongst the chaos, trauma and ride on the shittiest rollercoaster ride any of us have ever ridden, that I had torn the retina in my right eye…

How does one even do that? I have no idea.

But the spider’s legs seemed ominous and I booked an emergency optician’s appointment, followed immediately by a trip to the hospital. Alas, obviously nothing so convenient as the same one that Mum’s in.

I was taken aback when my consultant said ‘So I’ll be taking you off for laser surgery in just a minute’, and dismayed on entering the room when I realised I’d have to keep my eyes open during the surgery.

He explained that in order to stop further damage he would be lasering dots to form 3 small circles around the tear, which would fuse the jelly and retina back together.

And the spiders legs? They are here to stay and, despite my brain already learning to ignore them a lot of the time, presently jumping around, excitedly acknowledging that I’m writing about them.

Louise Bourgeois Crouching Spider (2003) Dia Beacon

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