Annette Messager

at the Art Institute, through

May 27

By Fred Camper

Annette Messager, a French artist of international repute whose first solo Chicago exhibit now occupies several rooms at the Art Institute, makes self-contradictory works that transgress the established boundaries between object and photograph, reality and representation, high art and mass culture, art and life. Hers is an uncannily obsessive art–she knits garments for dead birds; she writes the same words again and again on the wall. It’s also frequently creepy. Photographs of body parts hanging from strings suggest a whole body, but each photo seems to have come from a different person; photos of body parts combined with toy animals make one wonder which is more “real.” Photographs, she has said, are like taxidermized animals: both of them represent arrested motion and past life. The collector in her wants to preserve each animal, each photo, in its precise place; but the artist brings them all to a new life, in installations the viewer must walk around or through. Conflicting impulses are at play throughout her work: for example, between the aggressive artist who wants to own and remake objects and the artist who accepts the imperfections of things as they are. Most of her objects simultaneously suggest the life they record as well as stasis, death.

Each installation occupies half or all of one room, mounted in the center or hanging from the ceiling; those mounted on a wall typically round a corner and continue on the next wall. My Little Effigies (1988), 22 plush toys filling two walls of a darkened room, seems both a religious shrine from a religion not yet founded and a play on the issue of representation. Around the neck of each toy hangs a small framed photograph of some body part: a knee, a nipple, a foot, a nose. Below each toy a single French word is written on the wall in colored pencil–“promise,” “rumor,” “forget”–then repeated again and again in a narrowing triangle. Which is more real? The toy or the simulacrum of a human body? In Messager’s hopelessly fragmented vision of identity, humans are themselves fragments with no more presence than the kitsch objects they grew up hugging.

My Little Effigies also fragments the viewer’s gaze, divided not only among its 22 parts but among each part’s different elements: the toy, the photograph, and the text. The text itself often produces a divided effect: the words evoke emotions, occasionally even connecting with another element (“forget” is written beneath a toy elephant), but as the triangle gets smaller the text too is fragmented–“erreur” becomes “er/re/u/r” on the last four lines–and thereby robbed of its associations. At the same time, these triangles of text beneath each toy’s legs and Messager’s wavy handwriting suggest a different triangle: pubic hair.

One might think from this description that Messager’s works are eclectic compendiums of postmodern ideas; but what makes them succeed is their mysterious cohesion. For one thing, Messager crosses boundaries with a certain consistency: if toy animals can adorn themselves with giant photos of human body parts, then it makes sense for the words beneath their legs to be pubic mounds. Messager’s work unifies mismatched elements with an almost creepy alchemy. Just as text becomes body, photographed body parts become a kind of text–though written in a language we cannot completely decipher. All of which is part of Messager’s intention: she recently told an interviewer, “Art is like a secret, an epigraph….We must try not to show too much….I have always believed that somehow the less we reveal the more the other desires to see.”

These works reveal almost nothing. Nameless Ones (1993) presents us with 23 taxidermized forest animals, each on a metal pole rising from a clay base. The room is dark, almost funereal; the only light comes from three bare light bulbs. The poles are arranged so that the viewer can walk through them: one is surrounded by these poles and birds and squirrels, entering a somber, almost frightening world. But Messager has covered the birds’ heads with the cute heads of toy animals, setting up a curious contrast: the bird’s fierce-looking pointed feet and precisely delineated black feathers might lead the eye to a fuzzy, two-colored elephant’s head. The Dürer-like precision of nature is joined with a cartoon, but though the toy heads and animal bodies seem to come from different worlds, neither is presented as dominant. These double corpses–of toys and animals–are a bit ridiculous, yet Messager also monumentalizes them with the poles, giving them a power akin to that of African fetish objects (in 1989 Messager exhibited My Little Effigies amid African sculpture).

Born in 1943 in Berck in northern France, Messager, who now lives near Paris, is the product of a wide range of influences, described in the helpful catalog. Her architect father, an amateur painter, encouraged her to make art; he also took her to museums and churches. “I was awed by the images of the church,” Messager says, and as a child she was devout. She attended art school, took photographs, and experienced the May 1968 near-revolution as formative: “I wanted to work on the everyday, the ordinary, things from the street, from magazines. That was my ’68….In exhibitions, I saw strong and powerful painting, grandiose pictures, and I said to myself that perhaps there was something else. At the same time, I realized that the history of art was linked to a male history.” Her artistic influences include the surrealists and the Fluxus artists, Jean Dubuffet and the outsider art he collected, Ed Ruscha, Sol LeWitt, Gilbert and George, Gerhard Richter. She not only draws inspiration from mass culture but opposes the familiar distinction between high and low art: “I like being able to refer to Edward Lear and James Ensor without establishing a hierarchy, putting on the same plane William Blake and Walt Disney, comedy and tragedy, the sublime and the tacky.”

The earliest works in this show reveal another source of Messager’s art: feminism of the late 60s. Several pieces explicitly oppose male power. My Collection of Proverbs (1974) is a grid of 60 white fabric rectangles; on each is stitched a common misogynist saying (“A woman’s mouth is a nest of vipers”). Messager’s thread and fabric consciously refer to the “woman’s work” that other artists were beginning to make use of: her spewing back of male venom by means of sewing is a way of seizing power for herself, making herself the speaker.

The series photographs of Approaches (1972) also address the male: each group of four pictures shows the midsection of a man approaching the photographer on the street, until the last shows his crotch. Texts describe imagined interactions with the man (“She would tell him that he was right not to wear a jacket today”). The 83 photographs of Voluntary Tortures (1972) depict the beauty treatments some women actually subject themselves to. Each image shows a woman imprisoned: a face encased in white, bodies with all manner of wires attached, a breast being pulled by a suction device. Images of entrapment become metaphors for the social constraints placed on women–perhaps a source of the fragmentation in Messager’s art, as society encourages women to see themselves as body parts and to reformulate their appearance.

A key to Messager’s growth beyond these relatively polemical early works is her ability, even then, to assume other roles, other voices, another gender–what do the images in Approaches represent if not the male gaze? The 58 taxidermized birds in Boarders at Rest (1972) are laid out flat in a case, as if for display by a collector or museum–except that for each bird Messager has knitted a tiny woolen garment. These little jackets protect, embalm, dress up the corpse for burial; the roles usually ascribed respectively to women and men, the nurturer and the possessor, are here fused.

Most of Messager’s works confront the viewer with a kind of triple threat. First, her subject matter is provocative, invoking questions of power and ownership, possession and control, life and death. Second, the contradictions and formal shifts combine with her often enigmatic content to create a sense of fragmentation and mystery, a mystery the viewer is encouraged to unravel while knowing he cannot completely succeed. Third, her art is expansive: objects lead to writing on the walls; pieces stretch around corners and fill rooms. One cannot walk by this work, merely glancing at it; one must walk through it.

The most labyrinthine of Messager’s installations is Parade (1995). Strands of black yarn stretch from points on three walls across the open space between them, forming a loose net. Messager has attached various objects to the yarn: three ghostlike heads made out of stockings, a fabric doughnut with colored pencils sticking out of it, a taxidermized bird head atop a humanoid stuffed-toy body. Parade seems an unsolvable puzzle, with each object connected to every other: the piece is alive with metaphoric possibilities. Yet it’s also mostly empty: there’s more open space than yarn or objects. The strands of yarn and the nodes every few feet make explicit another dichotomy animating Messager’s art: the contrast between open space and fetishistic objects, between things and emptiness, presence and absence. The viewer alternates between the commanding nothingness of the empty spaces and entrapment by these enigmatic objects so powerful they almost seem to require worship–a dichotomy that finally articulates the difference between being and nonbeing, life and death.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Boarders at Rest (Detail)”.