Annette Messager
France, 1943
The 1970s was a key period for the emergence of feminism. A sense of freedom swept through developed countries in the West, and women demanding equality and a place in the public sphere started to become more visible and assert their presence in all fields, including art. The French artist Annette Messager, who embarked on her career amidst the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris, belongs to this generation. As these tumultuous events unfolded, she sought to create new languages with which to define an identity independent of patriarchal discourse. A rejection of the ‘fine materials’ of traditional art was one expression of this new way of thinking, speaking and acting. Messager’s choice of everyday objects, reused materials (textiles and plastics), familiar elements of the domestic landscape, reflected a shift of focus from grand discourses to real life—to individual existence and the needs, desires, concerns and feelings it entails. In the late 1960s she started creating collections of objects: stuffed animals, pieces of fabric, nets, stuffed birds, clippings, photographs, texts and sentences that she would arrange and classify. Over time these ‘small things’ became the foundation of her personal language, which revolves around a dialogue between reality and fantasy. Messager has used a series of ironically titled categories or serials to express diverse aspects of her practice: ‘Annette Messager Artist’, ‘Annette Messager Collector’, ‘Annette Messager Practical Woman’, ‘Annette Messager Pedlar’, ‘Annette Messager Trickster’, etc. In her trickster mode she uses her own body as a support for makeovers and transformations based on photo manipulation to address the many cruelties women inflict on themselves as they strive to conform to the canons of youth and beauty imposed by society. At times the artist’s language is extremely clear and direct; in other cases it turns dark and complex. This is what happens with the small objects that appear in her work; these insignificant cast-offs—commonplace items from our surroundings—form connections and come to reflect the dreadfulness that can lie behind our behaviours, dreams and fears. The seemingly insignificant photograph of a child with its eyes scratched out, the legless body of a doll, stuffed birds with their heads ripped off or wrapped in pieces of wool—these objects become painful, piteous, disturbing, like a fairytale that stirs up a strong sense of unease. Messager embraces craft and handiwork, activities traditionally associated with women, but she uses these techniques in a radically different fashion that imbues them with meaning and eloquence. And she does this in a way that makes the viewer assume responsibility for interpreting the frictions embodied in her work. Her work has been showcased in major exhibitions throughout her long career. In 2005 she represented France at the Venice Biennale with a Pinocchio-inspired installation that transformed the French Pavilion into a large casino, a work for which she was awarded the Golden Lion.
Alicia Murría