Annette Messager

Annette Messager: The Messengers
The Hayward, London
March 4 – May 25, 2009

“I only wanted to use materials that you would be likely to find in a home, an attic: a ball of wool, coloured pencils, fabric, as if there were a kind of sequestration in the desire to be an artist,” explains the French artist Annette Messager of the materials that have defined her practice. This sizable retrospective covers four decades of work, some more unsettling than others, to reveal the diversity of “domestic” materials Messager employs. The most engaging works on display, both recent and early, are simply mesmerising.

The bulk of work involves large-scale installations. Inflated-Deflated, for example, covers the floor of a room with organs and limbs. The entire installation moves, as the title suggests, with the aid of fans that mobilise the fabric. Here, and throughout the exhibition, is evidence of a strange choice of textile materials that seems uninterested in the beauty of natural fibres and the details of textile construction. While this takes away little from the overall impact of the installation, I wonder if the slightly careless choice of fabric is a way to protect the conceptual agenda of the work, or simply my differing tastes?

Casino comprises part of the installation awarded the Lion d’Or at the Venice Biennale in 2005. Here a red sea of cloth billows from a door, in waves controlled by fans in a fifteen-minute cycle. Two landscapes are contained beneath, both illuminated from the interior at altering times. One is an urban landscape of miniature houses (akin to Rachel Whiteread’s illuminated dollhouses exhibited at the Hayward as part of Psycho Buildings in 2008), the second suggests the organic forms of underwater life. The exhibition brochure confirms that Casino is inspired by the story of Pinocchio’s experience inside a whale shark. But it also reminds me of Messager’s Sous Vent (Wind Back) installed at Couvent des Cordeliers in Paris in 2004, but benefits from this site, which creates a far more claustrophobic experience as here the cloth tumbles directly towards the viewer. The one distracting addition is a somewhat clichéd shadow of a clock projected into the doorway where the cloth first emerges.

Motors replace fans to animate segmented bodies in Articulated-Disarticulated with puppet-like shapes that toy with the viewer’s imagination. The work was made in the wake of Britain’s mad cow disease outbreak in 2001-2, partially explaining the cloth cow carcass that drags slowly along the perimeter of the installation. But copulation is also rife. At least, I think it is: thrusts and rhythms are apparent in body parts suspended from harnesses high in the sky, as well as the shapes that have fallen carcass-like to the ground. The success of this work lies in the suggestions it makes but refuses to confirm, leaving me quietly pondering if the graphic associations I see are apparent to anyone else.

The dynamic potential of cloth that Messager uses is rare to see off the fashion catwalk, where we expect the body to animate cloth. But in amongst the big rooms and moving parts, the real treat of the exhibition is Le Repos des Pensionnaires, a collection of found and fabricated sparrows dressed in knitted garments. Not as macabre as it first sounds, the collection evokes a commanding magic and beauty. Simultaneously, there is the suggestion that children and childhood are both loving and cruel, innocent and disarmingly violent. Here this potential for violence and curiosity has been laid bare in the beauty of a memorial made through the eyes of a child.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2009: 59)