Some people remember their childhoods well. They remember what it felt like to play and pretend. Others don't. Their childish personas have vanished behind clouds of amnesia. Still others, some of whom are artists, continue to play and pretend all their lives. The French artist Annette Messager is still playing hard, as is clear from a visit to the Hayward Gallery's retrospective, The Messengers, the first major show of her work in England. When looking at Messager's art, I have always felt a strong pull back to my own early life, to the reveries, fears, cruel and kind thoughts, magical feelings and fantasies that were part of play - not organised play or sport, but unhindered free play.
We all lived in that fertile, labile world once, and in Messager it returns to us with force. I am not saying that her work is unsophisticated or that many artistic influences are not present in it, or that her pieces are in any sense infantile; rather, that the impact they have on the viewer is connected to the universality of play.
In Playing and Reality, DW Winnicott wrote: "It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self." Winnicott's conception of a "self" is not rigid or even whole. He argues that the search for a me happens in "an unintegrated state of the personality", or during what he calls a "desultory formless functioning". In other words, when we play freely, there is a loose and unstructured quality in us that allows for exploration and discovery.
This truth, I think, goes to the core of Messager's art, which is born of play towards identity, or rather identities, a play that is never finished. Nobody becomes a self alone. It happens only in relation to others, and within a specific culture and language. Messager's work is also born of a resistance to her specific language and culture. Throughout her career, she has usurped given cultural vocabularies and scrambled them to create new meanings, a process of articulation, disarticulation and re-articulation. The meaning of articulation, in these artworks, is both verbal and anatomical - to articulate, to join segments together, in words and bodies, and also to disarticulate, to take them apart. (One of her works is titled articulated-disarticulated. Neither her wordplay nor her purpose is buried.)
It is possible to argue that everything Messager has made is forged out of an intense dialogue with received ideas, familiar narratives, myths and rituals. She does this, in part, through language, but also through her choice of materials and their manipulation. For example, she has frequently used knitting, embroidery, fabrics, stockings, veils, fishnets - all connected to femininity - in contexts where the association is both retained and subverted, sometimes with caustic precision. A simple but chilling example can be found in My Collection of Proverbs (1974). On to simple squares of linen, the artist embroidered old French sayings, each of them about women: Quand la fille naît, même les murs pleurent (When a girl is born, even the walls weep). Centuries of misogyny are given expression in needlework, "woman's work" now elevated to "art".
Messager was born in Berck-sur-Mer, in northern France, in 1943. Her father was an architect passionately interested in visual art, and both her parents encouraged their gifted daughter. In the early 1960s, she moved to Paris, where she still lives and works. The Hayward show covers almost four decades of her art, reflecting the evolution of a woman whose work, broadly speaking, has become both larger in scale and more dramatic as she has aged. In the art of the 70s, the viewer will find Annette Messager: Collector, Artist, Handywoman, Practical Woman, Trickster, Tinkerer and Peddler. "I didn't have any titles, so I gave myself some," she is quoted as saying in the catalogue. "In so doing I became an important, clearly defined person. I found my identity through the wide variety of these characters."
Roles of becoming, becoming roles, playing a role and fictive selves are central to this first decade. The collector gathers words and things. She tries out various signatures in Collection to Find My Best Signature and in the faces of How My Friends Would Do My Portrait. She collects photographs, sewn objects, notes in her albums. She cuts out marriage announcements with photos from newspapers and pastes her own name over the bride's, leaving the images untouched. The Practical Woman sews, knits and hangs fabric on the wall. The drawings of the Trickster depict her "terrifying" sadomasochistic adventures. This is a period of trying out and trying on various personas through multiple fictional biographies, a time of identifications and classifications in the third person, a view of her selves as if seen from the outside. That's Annette Messager, and that, and that, and that.
In these years, the feminist message inherent in the movement towards an "I" is overt. The usual female categories have to be reshuffled, rearranged, renamed, made ambiguous and sometimes inverted. In The Close-ups, she shows a series of photographs of men's crotches. (Women look at men, too.) In Man-Woman, we see a photograph of a woman's naked body with a penis and testicles drawn on to it, a carnival-like borrowing of phallic power that empowers / plays with / jokes about art - look, all I have to do is draw one! By the 1980s, the third person has given way to the first person possessive pronoun, which is used in the titles of a number of her series: My Trophies, My Illuminated Letters, My Little Effigies, My Wishes.
This shift in perspective from outside to inside allows for a deeper register of play with stories, signs and characters, not exclusively identified as me, but rather as mine. I do not mean to overdo this change in position, or to imply that it ends the restlessness of the work because now there is a fixed subject or singular artistic self. I don't believe this. Rather, I think that in the 80s Messager's gaze turned towards other mysteries, and she began to draw from older pictorial traditions, the cryptic image and sign replacing the collector's boxes and categories. Every series holds multiple references. In Clues, I feel as though I am looking at ideograms that contain messages: a razor blade, an eye, a knife, a mouth. Writing and picture merge. The "chimaeras" take the shapes of things that nevertheless feel like hieroglyphs. A pair of scissors contains a distorted face; a key holds another. It is as if the viewer is being offered a dream vocabulary. The bodies in these works are usually in pieces - eyes, ears, hands, feet, noses, buttocks - but these are hallucinatory, surrealist disarticulations, rather than ghoulish or violent ones.
Messager also mines the very old, popular world of the votive image. Historically, vast numbers of these representations were of body parts, especially of hands and feet, which people brought to churches in hope or thanks for a divine cure. The votive is not only low art; from early on, it carried a subversive quality. In 533, the synod of Orleans formally objected to the practice, maybe because it had pagan origins, and in 587 the council of Auxerre forbade it. These wooden or terracotta body parts were often suspended from the ceiling in churches, a crowd of loose limbs that dangled over the heads of the faithful. In ex-voto paintings, an inscription usually accompanies the image. I saw many of these small pictures by amateur artists in Mexico. I especially recall one of a boat tossed by huge waves. Beneath it were words of gratitude to the Virgin for having saved the believer from drowning. In Messager's My Wishes (1990), framed photographs of body parts, male and female, along with coloured handwritten texts, hang together from strings - a direct translation of the ex-voto tradition. These "wishes" also continue her theme of blurring the sexes, here in a jumble of disparate corporeal bits and pieces.
The multiple allusions to sanctity, miracles and wishes both mask and remind us of mortality, the deaths we hope to ward off, delay, hide from or forget. A funereal feeling, a tone of mourning and memorial, runs through many of these pieces, most poignantly in her Story of Dresses, where the garments are displayed like fabric bodies in their cases / coffins, often with a sign or label. One says: trouble. But by claiming the fetish, the effigy, the ex-voto and the child's toy as her own, by embracing these as building blocks, as the "letters" of her visual vocabulary, Messager also acknowledges the eternal potency that these representations, symbols and rites have over us. We know that art is not alive, and yet it has a strength that acts on us subliminally as well as consciously.
In his book The Power of Images, David Freedberg addresses the aura that haunts us when we look at representations, but which, he argues, sophisticated, educated people have been taught to suppress or ignore. "We too feel a 'vague awe' at the creative skills of the artist; we too fear the power of the images he makes and their uncanny abilities both to elevate us and to disturb us. They put us in touch with truths about ourselves that can only be described as magical, or they deceive us as if by witchcraft." Messager takes the viewer into worlds that are variably enchanted and demonic, beautiful and sinister, or all of these at once, and she does so with increasing intensity and confidence as the years go by.
In the 90s, the toy stuffed animal enters Messager's work as a character, a newer version of the taxidermy birds (literally stuffed animals) she used in her early series The Boarders (1971-72), in which she created an aviary of creatures on moving vehicles, and then strapped to metal tables - works that mingle poignancy, tenderness, as well as hints of sadism, of the sort children indulge in when they release their anger and frustration on to dolls. The taxidermy birds and animals take their place with the children's toys in works such as Fables and Tales (1991-92), which includes tall stacks of books that squeeze piles of the soft creatures, while perched on top of the volumes are the once living animals, wearing masks or blindfolds.
Animals are the speaking beings of fables and fairy tales that most of us began reading when we were very young, stories that lured us with their magic and their cruelty. I shall never forget my horrified fascination when, at the end of one version of Cinderella, birds flew down and picked the eyes out of the heads of the stepsisters. Messager populates her work with these soft characters and stuffed corpses to great effect. They are ambiguous beings who refer to the narratives we already know, as well as the hidden stories we cannot fully divine but only guess at.
Variations on the mask theme come and go, along with their multiple associations and underground narratives that summon carnivals, masquerades, robbers, S&M games and torture victims. The adorable toy merges with the dangerous effigy, the celebratory with mourning. Spikes and spear forms appear with their allusions to ceremony, ritual and revolution. And coloured pencils enter Messager's stage, pencils reminiscent of daggers, needles, porcupine quills or teeth, depending on how they are used. These piercing forms contrast dramatically with the plump and vulnerable fur and flesh of the animals, or the faceless humanoid forms Messager calls replicants in a homage to the movie Blade Runner. The artist's tools metamorphose into weapons: aggressive, defensive and protective. But these pencils, like many of her objects, are also visually witty, almost comic, an ingredient in Messager's personal and self-reflexive art adventure. Her instruments for drawing and writing become metaphors for both armour and attack, and yet they remain pencils.
"What we are driving at is this: that with each performance we are playing a serious game, that the whole point of our effort resides in the quality of seriousness," Antonin Artaud wrote in an essay on the Alfred Jarry theatre. Messager's work has developed into a form of theatre, a spectacle of playing in earnest, of the deadly serious game, which has nevertheless kept its relationship with the pretend. Multifarious, sometimes kinetic elements are assembled to create paradoxes and ambiguities, as well as to combine menace with fun. In a late work, Casino, first shown at the Venice biennale in 2005, Messager borrows Collodi's familiar children's story Pinocchio and his mendacious little hero with the mobile nose in a visual narrative that employs an alphabet the viewer has come to know - bolsters, birds, beaks, suspended masks and nets. The nets in Casino remind us of the puppet's miserable sojourn in the circus after he is turned into a donkey, but they (and all the recurring nets in her work) also function as a visual pun on the artist herself - Annette / a net - one she has pointed out in several interviews.
In some way, Pinocchio serves as the perfect myth for this artist and the story of her art, in which she is both puppet and puppet master. The naughty wooden trickster, who just wants to have fun and who is magically transformed from one thing into another over the course of his journey, recapitulates Messager's deepest theme - the vulnerable, mutable, plural being whose grand theatre plays with words and pictures towards a self-ness. A friend quotes Messager in the catalogue as having once said, "My own me is mine." By walking through this exhibition, that me will become yours, too.
• Annette Messager: The Messengers is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1, from 4 March to 25 May. To book: 0871 663 2500; www.southbankcentre.co.uk
Here comes the bride... and she’s only half as wide!
Dedicated dieter Annette Walton Swinburn shrank from 23st to just over 12st so she could fit into her old wedding dress and renew her vows.
In 1992 she was 13st and a size 16 when she married David.
A love of crisps and takeaways saw her balloon to a size 28 by 2014.
But in a bid to wear the same gown to renew her vows she drastically overhauled her eating regime.
Davina McCall shows off her killer abs and a hint of underboob in sizzling bikini shot as she says bye to France
She ended up losing so much weight that the dress had to be taken in because she had shrunk to a size 14.
Annette, 49, said: “David and I were so content, for years I didn’t think about my weight. As I got bigger I accepted I would need a larger dress. Now I’m so glad I chose to get healthy instead.
“I honestly felt better on my second wedding day than I did on the first.”
Recalling her first nuptials, Annette said: “I felt beautiful in my size 16 dress and wore my blue Manchester City shorts underneath. We’re both fans.”
She and furniture driver David, 52, agreed back then that they would re-enact their big day when their silver anniversary came around.
Annette, team leader in a health centre audiology department, told how the weight crept on as she and David settled into happily married life.
She said: “I’d skip breakfast, snack on three packets of crisps at work, have a ready meal for lunch, chocolate and pop in the afternoon, followed by a takeaway.
“Fish and chips, Chinese, curry – we loved them all. David said he loved me for who I was, not for how I looked,
and I accepted I was getting bigger by the year.”
As the 25th anniversary loomed, Annette’s sister-in-law Linda Murphy insisted they join Slimming World.
Annette ditched junk food for a fruit breakfast, salad lunch and steak, jacket potatoes and veg for dinner. She lost 6lb in the first week alone.
“I was surprised at how easy – and enjoyable – it was,” she admitted.
As the weight melted away she started walking more, signed up to a three-mile Race For Life – and literally became half the woman she once was. Annette said of wedding No2: “I felt amazing to be in better shape at nearly 50 than in my 20s.”
She doesn’t rule out renewing her vows in another 25 years, adding: “If we do, I’ll definitely wear the same dress.”
- To find your nearest Slimming World group, visit slimmingworld.co.uk
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