whitehot | April 2009, Annette Messager @ the Hayward
Annette Messager: The Messengers
First, you come to early work which uses a cascade of similar objects to unravel a conundrum. Looking at work like The Horrifying Adventures of Annette Messager Trickster, you understand that Messager is trying out various strategies to reclaim something, coming to know it on terms that she has devised, not the terms that it has asserted (a similar investigation is proposed by Happiness Illustrated). Her earnest questioning permeates the work and makes it an exploration with a vested interest. How gendered, physical, restrictive power is expressed on female bodies is not a surprising choice, (but too bad that a heightened awareness of what is at stake probably gets pushed aside in favour of prurient interest) but the approach is intriguing. It is in the way that following a documentary might be intriguing, when, for example, it depicts an anthropological dig under the guidance of a motivated lead character who wants to find their object so much, you are seduced into wanting it with them. These drawings of women in various states of duress—tied down or beaten up, with all the sexual and sado-masochistic frisson that comes along with these depictions, want to piece misogyny together. They want to make it cohere, as a single text, a discreet machine. Often in the memory, as in the material life of images, we have glimpses, echoes, shrapnel that doesn’t quite cohere enough to constitute the bullet or the machine that fired it. This piece says that if you know how to put it together you might figure out how to reverse engineer it, break it down and take it apart.
It is the same with the crotch shots of men in black and white photographs of The Close-ups. They attempt to turn the tables one of the oldest forms of misogyny: the image which reduces women to merely sexualized parts. However, this work runs headlong into the cultures that always already render phallocentrism impervious to critique in this obvious, confrontational way. So when you focus on the actual, embodied phallus you lose your way in trying to locate the mechanism that produces gendered inequality. Still, it reveals Messager as self aware— aware of the stakes that come into play by being who she is, and doing what she does (as she has admitted elsewhere). It does not give her a way out, or a way forward, which may be why this work reads as youthful, so cocksure of its approach, it forgets it’s meant to pose questions.
You see a smarter, more canny Messager later on. Her design/visual acuity shows to great effect in My Vows. Vows reads from a distance like a hanging image garden, and you are suddenly on grounds where all the fruit is ripe and tempting and easily plucked. You see that the work uses the early pastiche-to-create-the-whole strategy but with far more sophisticated individual elements. Through the obviousness of display materials she alerts us to the artifice but still seduces with the product. It is a beautiful orchard, and another body lies in it not pulled apart so much as inquisitively caressed. Mouths, navels, breasts, ears and hands, heads and pubes, don’t ever quite cohere into one body, but are discrete anchor points for a roving fascination. You can appreciate how lightly the work treads in its movement between artifice and evocation.
Another version of Annette Messager is the one who, rather than trying to reclaim her childhood, operates from within it, even when displaying sophisticated design. When she takes up monochromatic drawings and photographs interrupted with colourful drawings, the work is clever, but with a naiveté at its core. In Trophies, fantasy scenes of moon phases, mermaids, and birds with romantic lives comprise elements of faerie worlds seem to exist on the borders of images of the body. They are lovely and convincing fabulations, making your hands and feet, ears and eyes sites where invisible kingdoms of chance are at play. This is the sort of sight children can take on, imagining so convincingly, they swear they see what you cannot.
Then there is the other side of this coin: Her inflatable objects (Inflated-Deflated) sally forth from quiescence to wakeful menace. They read as having that which makes the unfamiliar potentially horrible—that it will wake up and do whatever it has in mind to do—and you may not be able to prevent it. You make the mistake of seeing focused air as breath and breath as life. Respiration is such a strong indication of life that you might momentarily give them volition, imagine that they can move when disconnected from the inflating apparatus, just when you’re not looking. Despite the fact that the shapes are organs or organelles are fashioned to resemble those that reside in the human body they stand out like the creatures that inhabit science textbooks and science fiction movies. They sometimes inhabit the space under your bed. And then you see the crux of this Messager’s work: the play with volition. What if the monster got up from where it was and started walking and you had no idea where it was going or when it would go off? The monsters that come in the night take up volition and, through fear, steal yours.
Those early attempts at coming to terms with a practice or idea morph into menageries in her later work. Casino makes a subtle bridge between the Messager who wants to play at breeding genetic mutations and the one who wants to steal your breath. In Casino the birthing room at the rear of the piece undulates in a mesmerizing, but alien way—just fabric and air you want to say, just fabric and air. Still, you wonder what its orifice will produce. When the wind wafts through and exposes glimpses of the strange creatures under the tarpaulin you are again intrigued and having been primed for their dormancy to quickly disappear, you wait expectantly. These creatures are the ones you expected and feared, and you know they move faster than you. Then they light up like low-tech UFOs who want to stay right on the edge of perception, right where they won’t be captured and dissected. However, you may be let down by the insipid lighting tricks and the descent of masks which just seem unnecessary, they make of the piece a spectacle and less an investigation, more light than heat.
Whereas in Them and Us, Us and Them puppets appear as collections of makeshift lifeforms, suturing together the playful and listless toy with a form of nature that is all tooth and claw. These menageries come to you from the perverse professor’s laboratory, the victims of cross breeding, victimized again by being frozen, made taxidermied objects in this new petrified zoo. Then in Disarticulated-Articulated you see the rest of the fantasies enacted. Many of the creatures are just pieces, intermittently animated gobs of limbs. One puppet body is dragged around the floor by its neck. A couple simulate sexual penetration, again with nods towards the S & M subculture by way of the puppets’ costumes and illicit positions.
The fuse to the bomb is volition. We throttle the animal by the neck and it makes a great deal of difference whether we drag it around like a child would drag her toy bear behind her absentmindedly, or we hook it up to take our pleasure in watching it go. Both may be comical and sad—comical perhaps, because it’s so sad. The monstrous comes into being with the breath and can’t be so without it. You will want to watch these spaces; you will want to reclaim one of them at the end. You will wonder where your childhood went. How it got swallowed up so utterly, how it became so lacking of an imaginative gaze now and you will wonder. But then Messager rolls the childlike up with killer instincts, scratched-out eyes, sharpened utensils and combustible desire, throws it and us in a room, slams the door, puts her body against it and waits until it goes boom.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief