Annette Messager is a leading French artist whose extensive body of work over four decades encompasses drawing, photography, needlework, sculpture and installation. For her first Australian survey exhibition, the artist presents works from 1972 to the present, including major installations with kinetic or moving elements.
Messager’s artworks are modest in their choice of materials. Clothing, badges, stuffed toys, yarn and synthetic hair all feature prominently, reworked by the artist to unsettling effect. Images are culled from popular magazines and newspapers, drawn by hand or photographed, while particular words are repeated over and over, like a litany.
Messager has spoken of her longstanding interest in ‘outsider’ art, including the work of amateur artists and children’s art. Equally significant are the historically overlooked practices, materials and techniques of women artists, which she has explored over decades.
Since her debut in the Paris art scene in 1971–72, Messager has created an eccentric menagerie of creatures. Animal, human, monstrous or something in-between, her creations suggest the complexity of life as well as the mythologies, superstitions and vanities that underpin it – the shadowy ‘other’ within us all.
From her earliest works exploring concepts of the feminine, to works of the 1980s that explore hybrid beings or ‘chimeras’, to later works featuring dismembered soft toys, unravelled woollen sweaters and hand-stitched limbs and organs, the body remains central while identity is destabilised.
Motion / emotion reflects the dual aspects of the artist’s practice. Motion is central to Messager’s recent works which sometimes incorporate mechanical elements and lights in their realisation. Some pieces employ ordinary household fans that blow objects upwards or round and round, as though animated with life’s force; others house more complex mechanisms that inflate and deflate various components.
Several installations, featuring objects suspended by thread, rely on the movement of visitors and airflow to activate their gentle swaying motion. In the major installation Penetration (1992–94), lights hang between fabric body parts – lungs, digestive tract, reproductive organs – and soft pink foetuses, casting dramatic shadows across the gallery wall.
Probing the body from outside and within, Messager’s works reveal a keen interest in humanity and its fragile, emotional core. Nowhere is this more evident than in the dramatic room scale installation Casino (2005), featuring a billowing sea of red silk that rises and falls like breath.
Originally commissioned for the 2005 Venice Biennale, and reconfigured for the MCA Australia, this work is inspired by the adventures of the wooden marionette Pinocchio in his quest to become a human boy. Disembodied puppet heads bob up and down above the silk, which suggests the blood associated with birth, whilst below it lie the limbs and organs the marionette so desires.
Annette Messager: motion/emotion Museum of Contemporary Art, 140 George Street, The Rocks (Sydney) Exhibition continues to 26 October 2014 Free entry For more information, visit: www.mca.com.au for details.
Image: Annette Messager, Casino (2005), red pongee silk, string, rubber, found objects, optical fibres, fluorescent tubes, fans, software – courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris and New York © Annette Messager