Annette Messager was born in the French provinces to a family of atheists who took a particular pleasure in the local Catholic church. Her father favoured the architecture, while Annette liked the stained glass windows. This biographical tidbit takes on significance when one considers the nature of Messager’s work, which draws freely on the iconography of religion, albeit with unholy intentions.
The most obvious borrowing is the Ex-voto – an offering to God, the Madonna or one of the saints in fulfilment of a vow. A small effigy of a part of the body displayed in the church is a way of saying thanks for a cure brought about by prayer.
These offerings are omnipresent in Messager’s retrospective, motion/emotion, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. They are not made in a spirit of piety, but something more akin to mischief. There is a teasing, humorous side to most of Messager’s sculptural installations, which circle around topics such as belief, sex, childhood, and the miseries and glories of the human body. In My Vows (1989), tiny photos of body parts are hung in a cluster, with the discrete but insistent presence of genitals, mouths and eyes hinting at an erotic agenda rather than a spiritual one. Is it permissible to petition God and the saints for a successful seduction?
My Vows is one of two works sourced from the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, along with the room-sized installation, Penetration (1993-94). Messager has enjoyed a sporadic relationship with this country since 1984, when her work was included in the 5th Biennale of Sydney, Private Symbol/Social Metaphor, and later at Artspace. In the decades that followed she has become one of France’s best-known contemporary artists. At the 2005 Venice Biennale she was awarded the Golden Lion for her installation, Casino, which is included in the MCA show.
One could interpret Messager’s work in many different ways. She owes a debt to Surrealism, to the ‘peep show’ aesthetic of Marcel Duchamp’s last piece, and to Outsider Art. There is nothing secretive about any of these influences. Her work has distinct feminist overtones but also a Gothic sensibility. While certain aspects suggest the Old Testament, it is also full of comic book horror. Robert Crumb has recently proven these themes are not necessarily incompatible.
Much of this exhibition has an amateurish, handmade feel but it encourages psychoanalytical and philosophical theorising. It has all the desirable ambiguities of successful contemporary art: drawing on both high and low cultural forms; creating a popular spectacle that hints at depths of meaning.
If this sounds too artfully contrived for comfort, the saving grace is an irrepressible sense of fun. It feels as if Messager is enjoying herself, not creating a product for the market – a charge that might be applied even to artists such as Anish Kapoor.
The first item in the show sets the tone for what follows. In Voluntary Tortures (1972-2013) Messager has collected small images of beauty treatments from magazines and arranged them on the wall in a cruciform pattern. The feminist angle is obvious, with women martyring themselves in pursuit of an ideal. Techniques previously used on the victims of witch-hunts are now embraced by fashion victims. Yet there is also the sheer comedy of an anthology of cumbersome devices once considered to be the cutting edge of cosmetics.
Another overtly feminist work is My Collection of Proverbs (1974-2012), a series of nasty little misogynist comments immortalised as folk wisdom. “Women have long skirts and short minds,” reads one of these pithy statements. “Love your wife like your soul and beat her like your overcoat,” says another. Messager has embroidered these proverbs on pieces of cloth, as if in readiness to be hung over the mantelpiece. The humour may seem heavy-handed but curator, Rachel Kent, tells us: “most people took the proverbs at face value, only understanding their implied irony several decades later.”
In typically French style, one of the chief pleasures of Messager’s work is the frisson of transgression. In countries where Catholicism is a powerful force there are those who have made an art-form from systematically breaking the rules. The list stretches from the Marquis de Sade to Georges Bataille and Pierre Klossowski. Messager is not as extreme as these famous deviants, making works that are playful rather than pornographic.
Chimeras (1982-84) begins with the merely formal transgression of combining photography and painting. She moves on to cartoonish images of batwings; a screaming face; scissors with teeth; and a flying phallus with one big eye – phantoms to frighten children.
Skins (AKA. Les Dépouilles) (1997) is more sinister, using cute costumes that small children might wear to a party. These outfits have been eviscerated and hung on the wall like animal carcasses. As clothing is always viewed as a second skin, we can’t help imagining the children along with the costumes. What Messager is really violating is the sentimental cliché about the innocence of childhood.
As with the Proverbs, she shows her dislike of conventional thinking, which inculcates lazy mental habits, allowing prejudice to pass as common sense. Unlike Senator Brandis, she doesn’t seem to believe that people have the right to be bigots.
The perfect person to write about Messager’s work would be Marina Warner, whose books explore very similar territory. A volume such as No Go the Bogeyman (1998), which looks at the fantasy figures we make up in order to scare ourselves could be a textbook for Messager’s gallery of imps and monsters. There is a similar feminist perspective, and a desire to understand our deep-rooted need to exorcise everyday fears.
Messager’s melodramatic style requires a high degree of theatricality. This is best demonstrated in the central installation – Casino, which consists of a room with bright red fabric stretched across the floor. The fabric appears to emanate from a doorway at the back. It comes billowing into the room, propelled by gusts of air sent surging under the floor covering. Concealed lights flash on and off, providing glimpses of ambiguous objects beneath the red cloth. As this is happening, mask-like badges on strings are lowered from the ceiling. The piece is full of noise and action, while the saturated red made me think of Dario Argento’s classic horror movie, Suspiria (1977).
The work is based on Messager’s reading of the tale of Pinocchio, while the title refers to a place of exotic forbidden excitement, as she remembered her childhood impressions of the local casino. It implies that the adventure of “becoming human” is a kind of gamble. None of this will be obvious to anyone who enters the space without having read the wall label. The presentation would have been assisted by more sympathetic lighting that plunged the room into darkness rather than shadow.
The same holds true of Penetration, a room in which the organs of the body, re-created as stuffed fabric toys, are dangled from the ceiling. The shadows are crucial to the impact, but the MCA’s lighting is mediocre.
Casino and several other large installations employ mechanical devices that use air to inflate soft forms or to rotate components. These mechanisms are as crude in their way as Messager’s sewing. She is not interested in creating slick, seamless illusions; she wants something raw and immediate. Her images may be confronting or unsettling, but they are only a means to an end. These dream-like creations seek to tap into that part of the viewer’s psyche that is concerned with primal emotions, not the refinements of taste and judgement.
One of the functions of visual art is to bring us in touch with those currents of thought and feeling in which reason is in combat with imagination. This has given rise to a tradition of fantastic art, dominated by figures such as Bosch and Goya. Although Messager works within that same tradition, she has the sceptical intelligence of a woman born in the era of psychoanalysis, not witches and demons; an age that reveres the body rather than the soul. If her work retains an intensely Gothic dimension it only proves that one doesn’t have to believe in the supernatural to be alert to its fascination.
Annette Messager: motion/emotion
Museum of Contemporary Art, until 26 October
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 6th September, 2014