PRINT September 1990


MULTIPLICITY IS THE CREDO of post-Modern civilization. Plurality or ambiguity has entertainment value. If the center does not hold, if the final efforts of a philosophical/ideological commitment have lost credibility, then the chameleonlike transformation or—to put it more cynically—the celebration of noncommitment may appear as the ultimate stability in instability. In any case, that would seem to be the best way to describe the current mind-set of Western culture. The era of utopian vision now belongs to history, and any reassertion of utopian values must now smack of romanticism.

Yet upon taking a closer look, we may find that under these conditions certain attitudes come to the fore—attitudes that were already known years ago but that, nevertheless, being visually disparate and therefore diffuse, fell victim to the continual realignment of trends. Thus it was not until February 1989 that the French artist Annette Messager was touted as a sensational discovery by Le Monde, France’s leading daily newspaper, even though she had been exhibiting for more than a decade in various group and one-person shows. And it was only in 1989 that the first truly comprehensive retrospective of the work of this Paris-based artist was presented.

The subtitle of the encomium in Le Monde sounds like a programmatic discovery. “Une et multiple” (One and multiple) was the both terse and decisive wording that summed up the explosive energy of an underrated oeuvre. Messager’s artistic challenge is rooted in the reflections, aggressions, and visions of the 1960s in Europe, especially Conceptualism. The ’70s spoke of “safeguarding the traces,” though we may find this no longer a truly accurate definition of an all-too-diffuse multiplicity of expression, running the gamut from amyth-filled mania for collecting nature to a cool, intellectual manipulation of image-story-simulation. Today, nevertheless, such diverse names as Jochen Gerz, Dorothee von Windheim, Christian Boltanski, Nikolaus Lang, and their countless epigones, may point to a spoor in Messager’s work, a trail that might serve as the point of departure for the criticism and analysis of it.

Situation Description—Looking Back
1970. Annette Messager, the young woman in Paris. Two small rooms (Paris is expensive) to cope with daily life. The lure of disorder is programmed into every person. Spatial chaos disrupts mental and intellectual orientation. What’s to be done? Subdivide your rooms! Subdivide your life! In case of doubt, each dictates the other. You automatically wonder: “What am I?” “What do I want?” And Messager has never dodged those questions. No matter how banal this quiz game, which is telecast throughout the world, the banality becomes complex the instant a person deviates from his or her normal “place.”

This launches the description of the oeuvre. This launches the reflections on the role of the producer of the oeuvre. This launches the questions of “why?” and “how?” The concept has announced its urgency; the rules must now be found.

From the beginning, Messager makes decisions in accordance with the spatial, that is, material, givens, since no artistic decision can be based on any other criteria. The individual—a concept presupposing the possibility of unity—is split. Two rooms, two identities: Messager, the collector in room no. 1, and—experimentally—Messager, the artist in room no. 2.

Annette Messager: At that time, I had a little apartment consisting of a bedroom and a dining room. I had separated their functions: “studio work” took place in the dining room, chamber work in the chamber, of course. In the bedroom, I was Annette Messager the collector, and in the dining room, Annette Messager the artist.

Bernard Marcadé: So from the very outset, you inscribed your work under the sign of a double intimacy. Are you deliberately playing a kind of double game?

AM: No, not deliberately. Very simply, in my bedroom I put the periodicals, illustrated magazines, photo equipment, whereas in the room that I nicknamed the “studio,” there were dirtier, more manageable objects.1

Because, as she says, a friend was unable to deal with this “arrangement,” Messager decided after one sleepless night that if he didn’t understand, then perhaps what she was up to was in fact interesting. Soon living a double life became positively essential. Her spirit of protest induced her to make up her mind, and from then on she deployed a conscious strategy for something that—in hindsight and triggered by something other than her own sight—is a social reality all the same: the loss of any unity, the establishment of multiplicity, dismemberment, a shift of view, compulsory roles, loss of identity, obfuscation, change of focus. . . .

Now she began the formalization of the difficult to understand, the coordination of the disparate, the comic game involving tragic levels of consciousness, the tragic processing of comic insights. Annette Messager, the one and the multiple, got to work.

The results could be seen in “Annette Messager: comédie tragédie 1971–1989,” Messager’s “fantôme de rétrospective” at the Musée de Grenoble. It is hard to determine, within the terms of an existential inquiry, where comédie turns into tragédie, or vice versa. It is equally hard to indicate at which points the artist—who from the start describes her work as deliberately formalized role-playing—is a comedienne or a tragedienne. In any case, what Messager, the player, presents on her chosen formal terrain goes way beyond the roles that she herself has named:

Annette Messager Collectionneuse (collector)
Annette Messager Artiste (artist)
Annette Messager Femme pratique (practical woman)
Annette Messager Truqueuse (trickster)
Annette Messager Colporteuse (hawker)

What unites them is the female: Messager has always been the woman per se.

During the 1970s Messager produced a plethora of multipart works, framed in tableaux, gathered in albums, or published as sketchbooks, in which she combined conventional mediums—photography, drawing, painting—with knitting or needlework, thereby slipping into centuries-old traditional female roles. She searched for her identity there by doing things a woman simply has to do, by thinking the way a woman must think—imagining what could or should happen according to male, and female, notions about women. The strategies thus employed were based on provocatively trite building blocks. In Ma collection de proverbes (My collection of proverbs, 1974) the woman/artist uses colorful threads to embroider proverbs into cloth: Tout vient de Dieu, sauf la femme (Everything comes from God, except woman); Les femmes sont instruites par la nature, les hommes par les livres (Women are taught by nature, men by books); Si la femme était bonne, Dieu aussi en aurait eu une (If woman were good, God would have had one too), etc. Every maxim is framed. Content and style are multiplied: Ma collection consists of 180 parts. Sweet and simple, they lure the spectator/ reader into the trap of his own arrogant assumption that he is above such lapidary truisms and their seemingly innocuous form.

Taking another step, in works like Les effroyables aventures d’Annette Messager truqueuse (The horrible adventures of Annette Messager trickster, 1975), and Mes clichés (My clichés, 1976–77), we encounter some of the collected (mis)adventures of women, the kind that women daydream about, or that men wish for. And always in that commonplace sketch form that recalls both voyeuristic porno pulp and the familiar drawings in trial records. Illustrated tales of violence—tragedy in clichés of strangulation, rape, bondage, submission.

Boundless Utopia—Looking Forward
Cult and fetish have become one in a period when neither can claim anything like commitment. The ritual evocation of human identity, which was valid in previous cultures, collides with the phantasmagoria of a dream world in the age of media and advertising. Presuming that human identity, like any other once-valid totality, can now be perceived only in fragments, the artist launches into her quest for traces of wholeness. She appropriates notions, fictions, clichés of something that was once accepted as a sign of integrity, reality, truth. Gradually, the repertoire on which she relies proves to be boundless.

The basis of Messager’s work, in all its forms, is the urgent investigation of the interface between visual manifestation, presumed identity, traumatic conception, and the truthful knowledge of what might be defined as—human—identity. Despite present skepticism about Theodor Adorno’s theories, one of his core ideas remains valid, namely that the “reality” or “truthfulness” of an artwork can be achieved only on a subjective basis. Messager’s inquiries into the nature of human identity, carried on from the perspective of the woman/artist, are in this respect exemplary.

The cynic will at this point demur, declaring the arbitrariness of any assertion of an empirical dimension to experience. But the basis of Messager’s artistic approach is fundamentally different. We must speak about utopia in relation to Messager, in the recognized dilemma of igniting, through the strategy of forced role-playing, the energies that at least keep identity, reality, knowledge, etc. alive as a vision without guaranteeing the tangibility of that vision.

Such complex and melancholic reflections run through the multiple forms of Messager’s oeuvre of the last two decades, revealing themselves with a spiritual élan and an emotionally explosive moral intelligence. Le bonheur illustré (Illustrated happiness, 1975–76), for example, offers a multiplication (180) of stereotypical images of happiness, from postcard idylls at the beach to fields of poppies and rushing clear water bursting over rocks, rendered carefully (academically even) in colored pencil and framed in wood. Cliché of motif meets cliché of medium, the result a seductively beautiful, mordantly provocative defiance of the contemporary Western search for happiness.

Contrasting yet comparable to this is a more recent work, Les lignes de la main (The lines of the hand, 1989), an ensemble of black and white photographs of human palms in black frames, which have been installed high on the wall and tilting forward. The width of the photographs determines the width of the floor-length columns of text written directly on the wall under each one in colored pencil.

These texts, composed of one word—bonheur (happiness), peine (grief), retour (return), angoisse (anguish), etc.—recapitulate in contemporary form the vocabulary of love developed by the ill-named précieuses in 17th-century France in response to the coarseness and lack of subtlety of male language. Their meaning here is ambiguous. While, on the one hand, the words provide a gloss to the enigmatic lines drawn with a palmist’s art on each open hand, they suggest meaning rather than define it. The lines themselves have a story to tell, for drawing close we see that they do not provide the conventional guide to character we expect from palmistry. Rather, one palm’s lines form a cobweb, another’s an idyllic illustration of a mill over a roaring mountain brook, a third, a photomontage of small snowmen. The effect is disconcerting, as if the entire mise-en-scène, seen from a distance, were composed of the relics of some long-lost yet still resonant culture.

Between these two poles of cheery seduction (Le bonheur illustré) and sublime formalization (Les lignes de la main) we waver, and any attempts at conceptually defining the myriad details presented to us must flounder. The representation of happiness Messager achieves may be exposed ad hoc as a cliché, and therefore abjured. But for the naive viewer, it is perhaps the epitome of what art should achieve—beautiful pictures to cover up the drabness of everyday life. Yet must we really choose? Does not Messager’s effulgent vision, with its hundreds of properly drawn/copied illustrations, represent the tragic truth about the final loss of any universally valid notion of happiness? Or, instead, might not Messager’s self-prescribed meticulous (or maniacal) appropriation of hundreds of clichés constitute the final useful attempt to charge happiness, a valid human demand, with utopian, visionary energy? Such questions grow more complex if we look toward Les lignes de la main, with its alteration between the cheerful and the ominous. Disconcerted, even afraid, the viewer can use all available intuitive, emotional, psychological, even psychic energies to push toward knowledge, all the while, from Messager’s point of view, realizing the futility of such an attempt.

Material Matters
Comedy and tragedy are the focal points in an ellipsis determined by the artistic field, which is as important for Messager as the content of her visions. At the Bonn Kunstverein the texts for such pieces as Les lignes de la main were written on the wall by museum employees. The obvious physical effort involved touched the viewer’s mental state. The constant reiteration of words added a further physical dimension to Messager’s intellectual conception, which, in its explosive topicality, recalls the mythical dimension of prehistoric mural drawings. Drawing has, in fact, been of major significance to Messager throughout her career. Working on the wall, long a process open to manifold readings, Messager unites the rebellious stance of the avant-garde vis-à-vis the aura and/or commodity value of the art object with the evocative protests of graffiti culture as well as the religious conjuring of the artists at Lascaux and elsewhere. Venerating the physical—the human image, the body part—she expresses the mental, spiritual , and sensual spaces of the body.

Another facet of this constellation of concerns is revealed in the works belonging to the vast and complex series “Mes voeux” (My vows, 1988–89). All the works bearing this title point to a realm of popular religion: voeux, meaning “vows,” also designates the votive tablets put up in chapels, especially in places of pilgrimage. Suffering believers use them to send their appeals for help and their gratitude for answered prayers to the celestial beings—Mary and the saints of their choice. At places like Lourdes, whole rooms are filled to bursting with such ex-voto plaques.

Messager does not imitate their shape, medium, or usual imagery. Instead, for example, in Mes voeux, 1988, we have a massive sphere (circa 13 feet by 58 1/2 inches) composed of framed black and white photographs of body parts, each hung by a string from the wall. The effect from a distance is of a shooting star, seeming to plummet from the heavens. Looking closer we notice the divergence in chosen imagery from that common to the usual ex-voto. As Sigrid Metken notes in her catalogue essay on Messager, “Ex-voto profanes” (Profane ex-votos), “She never represents organs like the lungs, the trachea or the intestines. But one finds in her work the representation of the sexual organs generally absent from ex-voto offerings (besides the representation of wax breasts or testicles). Nipples, virile members of different sizes, mounds of Venus, pubic hair (enriched by ‘offerings’ of real hair. . .) provoke such an erotic impression that one might, at first glance, consider these ensembles as hymns to sexual pleasure.”2

Other pieces in the series are more complex, including among their images of noses, smiling mouths, and limp penises, framed texts, written as usual in colored pencil, that provide an insistent one-word commentary on the photos themselves: fatigue, jalousie (jealousy), rupture, the role of chance, the possibility of tendresse (tenderness). As for the hair, which makes a somewhat shocking appearance in several works called Mes voeux (avec nos cheveux) (My vows [with our hair], all 1989), our queasiness blends with the cultural memory of many “framings” of human vestiges: holy relics as well as amulets, medallions containing the hair of beloved people dead or alive, and so forth. Thus, we once again witness the encounter of intellectual, emotional, and physical energies, for which the artist finds a stringent yet always evocative form.

Existential issues fuse with the immanently artistic ones. The role-playing, the penetration of current reality with fragmented, clichéd images, is charged with memories of the traumatic, yet evocatively utopian experiences that human beings at different times and in different cultures have always endured. On the most personal level, Messager combines these memories of once-valid possibilities —Mes petites effigies (My little effigies, 1988); Mes trophées (My trophies, 1986–88), Mes ouvrages (My works, 1987), etc., etc.—with their present-day possibilities of expression. Her work as a whole offers itself as a comprehensive, extremely rigorous coordinate grid system of form and content, in which the vision of human identity—ecstatic and insecure—glows. Messager asks that we see by that light, which dares to acknowledge the current threat of disintegration, simulation, illusion, yet over and over risks its expression.

Annelie Pohlen is director of the Bonn Kunstverein.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.



1. Annette Messager: comédie tragedie 1971–1989, exhibition catalogue, Grenoble: Musée de Grenoble, 1989, p. 109. Original in French.

2. Ibid., p. 91.