Both on Eternally Yours and elsewhere, many of the most interesting artworks featuring renovations refuse to hide 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, devoted her last years to twisted fabric figures whose seams are still visible. Often, the stitches are thick and bumpy like scars. “I have always been fascinated by the magical power of the needle,” he once said. “The needle is used to repair the damage. It is a claim to forgiveness.” In the case of Bourgeois, the damage mentioned in her youth goes back to her youth: an unfaithful father, a mother who died when her daughter was only 20. and the actions of care that can protect one from that disease. British feminist scholar Jacqueline Rose wrote in her book Mothers of an impossible maternal task: an expectation that a mother must “fix the world and make it safe”. Here she emulates the US poet Adrienne Rich, who wrote in her 1976 essay Conditions for Work: The Common World of Women about women performing the “activity of world-protection, world-preservation, world-repair” – embarking on “the invisible weaving” of a chaotic and messy family life.”
As appreciation grows of the ways in which female-coded domestic tasks have been turned on their heads by successive generations of artists, repair emerges as a particular preoccupation. Zoe Leonard’s Strange Fruit (1992-7) also uses visible stitches. Created as an extended form of mourning during the Aids crisis, Leonard’s work is composed from hundreds of fruit peels. After the flesh is eaten, the skin is wired and stitched into a Frankensteinian approximation of a whole. Over time, the skin softens and hardens. Even stitches cannot completely restore what was lost. Leonard began sewing as a medium, taught by his friend and fellow artist David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 of AIDS-related complications. “This mending cannot possibly mend any real wounds, but it provides something for me. Maybe it’s just time, or the rhythm of sewing,” she later reflected. It is an act of remembrance, an approximation of a resurrection. “They are like memories; these peels are no longer the fruit itself, but a form reminiscent of the original. You pay homage to what remains.“
There is honesty in the work of artists like Leonard, Bourgeois, and Edwards. Fixing is appealing for many reasons. It helps us think about how to take care of the things we own. It reminds us what we waste, and what we should hold on to. Hopefully, it asks us to be more thoughtful. But there’s something also empowering about those works that recognize that repair doesn’t have to be smooth, and that wounds don’t always heal without a trace. Such tasks ask us to engage in repair as an act that does not simply restore what was before. It invites us to lean closer and look at the changes, the points where the needle has pierced the surface and incorporated something new.
Eternally Yours is at Somerset House, London until September 25
If you want to comment on this story or anything else you’ve seen on BBC Culture, go to our Facebook page or message us Twitter.
And if you liked this story, Sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A curated selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.