Eyes, open wide, closed shut; nipples, at the end of a breast or isolated in their circular form; mouths, baring teeth or smiling seductively. Body parts jump out of Annette Messager’s work, My Vows, with a life of their own, independent of the bodies, the diverse people they came from, in what is best described as a cross between photography and sculpture. Here we see one of Messager’s key artistic principles put into practice: fragmentation as a vehicle for her main theme, humanity in its entirety. Sensuality and sexualisation in the pudenda and pointed tongues of women; age in the balding head of a man; absurdity in an isolated elbow or knee. Psychological depth is represented by the many eyes, staring wide open or tightly shut, as though to deny the world around them. This photo montage is packed into a dense circle, some overlapping others, further supporting this as a vision of humanity: the circle is the world; the body parts are the multitudes of the humans who live in it.
However, this work is not as simple as a mere embrace of the diversity of the human race; the density and layering also creates a sense of jostling identities, constantly rearranged in different patterns, unable to be organised into a single stable system. In another version, the photos are arranged in an organic spiral, a shape which can go on endlessly, hinting at the never-ending and constant growth of a live mass such as this. We must also consider the question of possession, for by gazing at these body parts they are commoditised and become objects of ownership. However, it is an uncomfortable proprietorship, as although the breasts, lips, tongues and genitals may arouse erotic notions, the bent elbows, truncated legs, nostrils and identified whorls of hair cause less identifiable emotions: something akin to detachment, repellence.
This tendency to catalogue fragments is highly characteristic of Messager’s art. She frequently synthesises many different objects to create disturbing new wholes, as in her most famous work,The Messengers: dead birds are stuffed into knitted sweaters, some of their heads replaced with those of stuffed animals. Taxidermies are also the subject of her 1993 work Untitled, in which the grotesqueness of the dead animals is softened under mosquito netting. In both works Messager explores themes of physical abuse, children and fairy tales, symbols, effigies, disguise and distortion, with a strong undertone of unreality. In many ways these two works parody the woman artist, and women’s work (such as knitting or childcare), referring obliquely to measures she took to become visible as a female artist in the 1970s when that world was predominantly male.
Such a defensive strategy was even more significant for her as she is married to Christian Boltanski, one of France’s most famous contemporary artists. She is arguably one of the most important female artists of the twentieth century, with an uncompromising artistic vision which questions what femininity is, within the broader category of humanity itself. In 2005 she represented France at the Venice Biennale, where she won the Golden Lion Award for her work Casino; in 2007 she had a solo exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou and another at the Hayward Gallery in 2009. Her work is held on permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
This article was originally written for The Culture Trip in 2012 under the title Annette Messager: Fragmented Bodies, Divided Identities