New York

Annette Messager

Josh Baer Gallery

In The Uses of Enchantment, 1975, Bruno Bettelheim asserts that, for a child, the psychological function of fantasy and especially fairy tales is to gain “understanding . . . not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams—ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures.” Annette Messager’s recent exhibition, “Les Piques” (The pikes) fulfills this function by combining references to daily events and realities with submerged fantasies, hallucinations, and horrors.

In a series of four tableaux spread across two galleries, Messager employed thin metal rods either to impale or to support objects against the wall. The largest of these tableaux, which gave the exhibition its title, consisted of 183 rods spread across 50 feet on two adjoining walls. In their implicit violence, these objects represent a continuation of one of Messager’s dominant themes—the brutality of patriarchal society toward women—which she has explored since the ’70s in works such as Les Tortures Volontaires (Voluntary tortures, 1972). At the same time, Les Piques, 1992–93, presents a significant reversal of this theme in its allusion not to repression but to anarchic rebellion, to the masses of sansculottes brandishing the impaled heads of aristocrats through the streets of Paris during the Reign of Terror.

Les Piques is in some ways a contemporary diorama, whose hallucinatory story is populated by characters that combine a twisted childishness with an apprehension of violence. The various objects that comprise the tableaux include parts that seem to belong to stuffed animals and grotesquely shaped dolls, which are impaled by the pikes—as are distinct body parts, an abundance of phallic shapes, and cruciforms. These objects are the effluence of bits of dreams, forms from half-remembered stories, manifestations of what one imagines in the dark.

Messager presents a phantasmagoric pastiche of images. Interspersed with the objects throughout the tableaux were colored-pencil drawings under glass in simple black frames. On the left side were drawings of maps of Bosnia and the Middle East, tanks in the desert, and an image of rape. These gave way to images of open-mouthed corpses and dreamers, who were recognizable upon closer inspection as the homeless who populate the streets of our cities. On the right side, the drawings lost any explicit figurative content and recalled Jackson Pollock’s “Psychoanalytic Drawings.” Nothing was represented as whole here, and this confirms the loss of identitiy and the increasing partiality that characterizes our time. Messager seems to be saying that while we have not lost the ability to fantasize, to spin out tales that make aspects of the unconscious apparent, Bettelheim’s faith in the unifying or curative nature of this process is no longer tenable.

Though Messager’s work clearly has a strong narrative movement, it defies any linear structure. Instead, the fairy tale it constructs partakes of a sympathetic magic, in which there is no intrinsic separation between the object and its representation, and in which both can be only partial. Messager has embraced a schizophrenic identity, describing herself over the years variously as a collector, artist, practical woman, trickster, and peddler. Her fables challenge Bettelheim’s assertion by providing a penetrating snapshot of the pressures driving our collective unconscious, but without any possibility of resolution.

Andrew Perchuk