Annette Messager

“One says a love movie, one says a love story; one should be able to say a love painter.” This wonderful observation of Annette Messager’s is already quite old, but it takes on new life when applied to the artist’s recent work. It is, in fact, love, the words of love and the body of love—or perhaps love of the body—that today are at the heart of Messager’s art. Such is one of the conclusions made explicit in the artist’s recent exhibitions, especially at this very important showing of her work.

While the “Chimères” (Chimeras), shown by the artist at the beginning of 1984, revealed a rather unsettling aspect of the nocturnal world—monsters constructed out of fragments of photographs depicting human bodies, and connected by vast drawn spider webs—the “Ouvrages” (Works) gathered in Dijon designated a world no less nocturnal, but clearly more tender, even if anxiety is a part of it. For the most part these works combine photographs in a somber black and white showing pieces of bodies—mouths, noses, faces, hands, and genitals—and tirelessly repeated words written directly on the walls of the exhibition spaces with colored pencils. At times, the photographs are hung at a slight incline; fine spider webs are drawn on a group of photographs and serve to unite them. The words that are used are all taken from the vocabulary of love, which is conjugated into all its possible tones and modes: temptation, jealousy, affection, fear, consolation, affliction, calm, return, meeting, protection, pleasure, desire, etc. In the large piece entitled Les lignes de la main (The lines of the hand, 1988), the photographs serve additionally as a ground for miniature drawings depicting dramatic scenes, such as a couple of dancers inscribed within a heart shape, or tiny landscapes—corny images of conventional happiness.

Some of the pieces make use of elements other than photography, but they also use the same vocabulary of love. Mes petites effigies (My little effigies, 1988) is made of children’s toys—such as miniature dolls and pacifiers—hung directly on the wall, with a verbal commentary that belies their innocuous, innocent character. Similarly, in Ouvrages de broderie (Embroidery works, 1988), a craft technique ordinarily used for conventional decorative purposes is modified through the use of words such as “menace,” “fear,” “error,” or “fault.”

Recalling the religious practice of the ex-voto, as well as the fantasmagoria of love in a world of sometimes anguished fragmentation, this impressive group of works continually echo each other, creating a truly autonomous world in which desire reigns. Desire is designated as endless, as troublingly omnipotent, and as obsessive, but is never seen existing in a state of positive simplicity, purely joyous and vibrant. It is darker or deeper, taking part in the basic ambiguity that always ties desire to pleasure; not only to life and light, but also to failure or even to death.

Daniel Soutiff

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.