Annette Messager (*1943 in Berck, France) studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris from 1962 to 1966, but broke off her education before graduating. In 2005 she received the Golden Lion for the best national exhibit at the 51st Venice Biennial. Her work has been shown in numerous solo shows, most recently, for instance, at the Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg (2012), the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2008), and the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2007). She also took part in the Paris Biennial (1977), the documenta 6 (1977), the Documenta11 (2002), the Sydney Biennial (1979, 1984, and 1990), the Venice Biennial (1980, 2003, and 2005) and the Biennale d'art contemporain de Lyon (2000). The artist lives and works in Malakoff, near Paris.

Searching for Identity

“What does it mean to be a woman or a female artist?” (Annette Messager)

Faces smoothed with creams, masks, and massage rollers. Bodies streamlined with electro-stimulation or thermal treatments. For her series Les Tortures Volontaires (1972) Annette Messager collected pictures from newspapers and magazines of sometimes frightening, sometimes absurd or even comical images—pictures of “tortures worthy of Dante’s Inferno”—and assembled them in one of her Albums-Collections. “A real collection of all possible kinds of expensive tortures … I cringe when I see all of these women martyring themselves.” An uninterrupted, timely work about the multiple procedures that mainly women subject themselves to in order to look “more beautiful,” more desirable, and an impressive example of Messager’s frequently oppressive research into female behavioral patterns.

Since the early 1970s the French artist’s work has critically confronted woman’s role, beginning with her own role as a woman. To a gallery exhibition in Paris in 1971 she contributed for the first time a lifeless sparrow wearing a handmade cape—the start of her series Pensionnaires in which she first turned to the practice of taxidermy, combining it with feminine-connoted domestic materials, such as wool. In 1974 she delicately embroidered handkerchiefs with misogynist sayings, such as “When a girl is born, the walls weep”—a strong contrast to the strategies of Conceptual Art and Minimal Art that were predominant at the time. “I’m interested in the denigrated arts. In those days, I was regarded as a less valuable artist, as a member of a minority. I wanted to emphasize this obvious fact in my work.”

Messager plays with clichés of femininity; her attack on socially proclaimed, unchanging models of gender led the artist to make a now often quoted statement in the mid-1970s: “For a few years there have been several Annette Messagers: Annette Messager the collector, Annette Messager the practical woman, Annette Messager the trickster, Annette Messager the artist. Since I don’t have a title, I’ve given myself one and have become an ‘important,’ well-defined personality. These multiple Annette Messagers allow me to simultaneously present very different forms of work, since after all, one incorporates very different and contradictory personalities within one. I have deliberately addressed areas that have previously been regarded as uninteresting: sewing; knowing how to please others; cooking, etc. … The conditions of my life demand that I be gentle, reserved, docile; I’ve respected the game in order to make it plain that I had no other choice besides pretending to be charming.”
Subsequently, the artist divided up her two-room apartment: she used her bedroom only for Annette Messager, the collector, and “like every collector, appropriated the lives of others, as if the collector has no life of her own.” She considered the living room as the studio for Annette Messager, the active artist; in Ma Meilleure Signature she practiced writing a variety of different signatures, and the boundaries between reality and fiction in her work began to blur.

On her search for an authentic female and artistic identity, Messager undertook occasionally disturbing, even provocative examinations of the human body in the early 1980s. In Mes Voeux (1988–91), for instance, she took hundreds of revealing photographs of mouths, ears, feet, noses, genitalia, hands, or breasts, hung them from strings and tied them into an assemblage of great poetry and weightlessness. They recall votive images, and at the same time, express how the artist is drawn to what she calls the “rigmarole of Catholicism.”
In her installation Mes Petites Effigies (1988/89) Messager tied black-and-white photographs of body fragments around the necks of disheveled stuffed animals. Like taxidermy animals, stuffed animals are also leitmotifs in the artist’s oeuvre. She dissects, disembowels, and fragments them: “The stuffed animals are my muses … creatures that are able to trigger strong feelings. Not only in children. I subject them to vivisection, in order to see their innermost parts.” In her large installation, 2 Clans 2 Familles (1998), she set up families of fuzzy-plastic creatures, “two enemy clans.” “The stuffed parts are represented by fur coats, while the plastic bags symbolize the arms, and although they are made out of these kinds of plastic bags, the colors make seem much more cheerful than the hanging fur. Much more lifelike.”
Installations with organs ultimately get deep under the skin, penetrating the human body: in Pénétration (1993/94), for example, soft internal organs made of colorful fabric hung on strings from the ceiling—both enchanting and disturbing at the same time.

With its mix of very diverse materials and media, Messager’s highly personal visual world is as playful as it is profound, as poetic as it is oppressive. Her study of emotional, highly charged themes—on photographs in Les Enfants aux Yeux Rayés (1972) she scratched out the eyes of the children in the pictures, using heavy ballpoint pen strokes—shocked the general art audience.
“All in all, my work is based on a familiarity with materials that are familiar to everyone, but at the same time create a sense of unease, because strange things are conjured up out of them,” Messager once said about her creative methods. In a current interview, she added, “A lot of people say, 'Your work, oh it's so fun.' And others say, 'It's so dark, it's about death'. But it is both: it is funny and cruel at the same time. Life is like that.“

July 1, 2013 Stefanie Gommel

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