This is your place to delve into Annette Messager: motion/emotion with curatorial text, installation images and a 360 Panorama of Messager’s work Pénétration.
Reflect deeply on your experience with the Messager exhibition catalogue by Rachel Kent available from the MCA Store with many other Messager related items.
Annette Messager is a leading French artist whose extensive body of work over four decades encompasses drawing, photography, needlework, sculpture and installation. For her first Australian survey exhibition, the artist presents works from 1972 to the present, including major installations with kinetic or moving elements. Messager’s artworks are modest in their choice of materials. Clothing, badges, stuffed toys, yarn and synthetic hair all feature prominently, reworked by the artist to unsettling effect. Images are culled from popular magazines and newspapers, drawn by hand or photographed, while particular words are repeated over and over, like a litany.
Messager has spoken of her longstanding interest in ‘outsider’ art, including the work of amateur artists and children’s art. Equally significant are the historically overlooked practices, materials and techniques of women artists, which she has explored over decades. Since her debut in the Paris art scene in 1971–72, Messager has created an eccentric menagerie of creatures. Animal, human, monstrous or something in-between, her creations suggest the complexity of life as well as the mythologies, superstitions and vanities that underpin it – the shadowy ‘other’ within us all. From her earliest works exploring concepts of the feminine, to works of the 1980s that explore hybrid beings or ‘chimeras’, to later works featuring dismembered soft toys, unravelled woollen sweaters and hand-stitched limbs and organs, the body remains central while identity is destabilised.
For me, the fantastic is in daily life; real life is more extraordinary than all of the imagination.
Motion / emotion reflects the dual aspects of the artist’s practice. Motion is central to Messager’s recent works which sometimes incorporate mechanical elements and lights in their realisation. Some pieces employ ordinary household fans that blow objects upwards or round and round, as though animated with life’s force; others house more complex mechanisms that inflate and deflate various components. Several installations, featuring objects suspended by thread, rely on the movement of visitors and airflow to activate their gentle swaying motion. In the major installation Penetration (1992–94), lights hang between fabric body parts – lungs, digestive tract, reproductive organs – and soft pink foetuses, casting dramatic shadows across the gallery wall.
Probing the body from outside and within, Messager’s works reveal a keen interest in humanity and its fragile, emotional core. Nowhere is this more evident than in the dramatic room scale installation Casino (2005), featuring a billowing sea of red silk that rises and falls like breath. Originally commissioned for the 2005 Venice Biennale, and reconfigured for the MCA Australia, this work is inspired by the adventures of the wooden marionette Pinocchio in his quest to become a human boy. Disembodied puppet heads bob up and down above the silk, which suggests the blood associated with birth, whilst below it lie the limbs and organs the marionette so desires.
Annette Messager was born in 1943 in Berck-sur-Mer, France. She lives and works in Paris.
Rachel Kent, Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Want to know what it feels like to be in amongst Messager’s work Penetration?
Panorama Photography by Ed Hurst, Spiffing Pics.
The vast installation Pénétration (Penetration) visualises a process of disembowelment, extracting organs from within the body and suspending them one by one by long woollen threads from the gallery ceiling. Stitched by the artist from pink, red and blue fabric, the organs include recognisable caricatures of the heart, kidneys, digestive tract and phallus, together forming a dense ‘forest of organs’. Three pink foetuses of varying size imagine the process of growth before birth. Messager describes her work as ‘a fantasy inside our body, very strange and at the same time disquieting’ unlike the sanitised images in storybooks. Three light bulbs are suspended between the organs; they sway gently with the passage of visitors around it, causing large shadows to waver across the gallery walls and heightening the work’s drama. Movement is central to Messager’s works, some of which use fans or motors to suggest the power and vitality of life.
The earliest work in this exhibition, Les Tortures Volontaires (Voluntary Tortures) is part of a wider series of ‘album-collections’ by Annette Messager from the early 1970s. She returned to this work in 2013, rediscovering the original photographs in her studio and presenting them in a large cruciform shape. Comprising eighty-one images from women’s fashion and beauty magazines, cropped and rephotographed by the artist, it documents the many willing ‘tortures’ that women put themselves through in pursuit of beauty. If you look closely you will also see several men: this playful insertion suggests that it is not only women who are ‘vain’ or bodily oriented.
Messager’s album-collections of the 1970s reflect her interest in the roles and representation of women in French society. Not intended as a direct portrait, they nevertheless often figured the artist hidden within their imagery. She reflects today: ‘I tried to find the identity of woman, but by medium. I looked everywhere – newspapers, magazines – and all the collections came from this… It was about young women in the 1970s, like a diary but not of me directly.’
Symbolising the artistic process, hands and fingers appear in a range of Messager’s works including her ‘glove’ works of the 1990s. These soft sculptures build upon other works by the artist using clothing as a stand-in for the human body; representing the fingers are colourful pencils sharpened into claw-like points. The works are funny, she says, but also a bit like armour: ‘pointy and dangerous’. Messager recalls that when she was a young girl, she would try to make drawings using multiple pencils wedged between her fingers to entertain herself; it was good fun, she remembers, but not that easy to do. Finding an empty glove lying in the streets of Paris many years later, she was struck by its odd, slightly surreal shape. Minus the hand it was knitted for, to envelop and protect, the glove was formless yet also evocative of a human presence.
The ex voto or religious offering is present in Annette Messager’s artworks from the outset of her career through the present. It is foregrounded in the photographic installation Mes voeux (My vows) which features small black-and-white photographs of hands, eyes, mouths, noses, and feet in a triangular configuration, suspended by threads of string. These bodily fragments recall the eerie wax ex votos of clustered limbs and torsos that Messager encountered as a young woman in southern European churches, and reflect her wider interest in religious iconography and spectacle. The title Mes voeux – and the word ‘vows’ – suggests a communion or pact with the Church, as well as a secret promise made to oneself.
The word dépouille has multiple meanings in French, ranging from a corpse to a body devoid of organs. It can be used as either an adjective or a verb, and in relation to animals, suggests a skin or hide. It forms the title of this major work from 1997 comprising unstitched babies clothing and children’s toys, emptied of their stuffing and pinned to the gallery wall like a row of flattened carcasses. Speaking about her installation Messager has expressed surprise at how the children’s suits and toys resembled Rorschach shapes, when opened up and pinned to the wall. They also recall the paintings of Francis Bacon (1909-1992), an artist greatly admired by Messager, with his raw, graphic treatment of the human form and crucifixion imagery.
Blackness dominates Messager’s most recent works which are fashioned from materials including black netting, rubber and cinefoil, a lightweight pliable material used in theatre lighting. Sans legend (Untitled) comprises an apocalyptic sea of foil wrapped objects, punctuated by three inflatable globes of the planet which try to rise upwards then sink down again. Inhabited by the shadow projections of a walking man, woman and emaciated dog – homages to the renowned Swiss sculptor Giacometti (1901-66) – it depicts a darkened landscape in which time is running out, as symbolised by a large clock projection that keeps real time.
In the present era of human conflict and widespread environmental destruction, there is a glimmer of hope in the work, evidenced by lights on revolving bases that cast their glow against the incoming darkness. Painted in soft pinks and greens, the globes heave and fall while time marches by. The ventilators that inflate them creak and sigh, a sound unexpected but very pleasing to the artist. She comments: ‘You discover new things, possibilities, when you make a new work’.
Les Lignes de la main (Lines of the Hand) comprises nine overdrawn photographs of open palms, with hand-written words that flow down the gallery wall below. According to Messager the work proposes ‘an offering to the hand or the image’, its narrow rows of text written by many hands – not just her own – in different colours and writing styles. The photographs are tilted outwards from the wall, so that the finger tips appear to connect with its surface and point directly to the words beneath them. The angled presentation of the photographs, with hands opened outwards towards the viewer, also suggests a pose of revelation rather than concealment.
It is sometimes said that the lines upon a person’s hand may tell a story or reveal their future. Here, the lines become a physical extension of the hand, with each word – protection, illusion, encounter, promise, tolerance, expectation, fear, doubt and solitude – repeated like a litany.
On 24 July Annette Messager talked about her practice with Rachel Kent in front of an audience at the MCA.
And in a first for the MCA, we live streamed the event.
If you’d like to see a 40 minute extended version of the interview, click here