New York

Annette Messager

In a month when valentines seem ubiquitous, Annette Messager presented a visceral antidote to those cheesy emblems of false feeling with her heart-shaped installation Dépendence/lndépendence, 1995–97. Entering through the heart’s shadowy edges, one brushed past hundreds of objects strung on single strands of bright yarn: cloth effigies; items packed into fishnet or plastic bags; framed photographs of body parts and children’s grimacing faces; soft-sculpture limbs, bodily organs, and amorphous shapes; wigs; doll clothes; stockings; mirrors; numbered placards; and other talismans.

Damp with so much sentiment, the installation suggested a body’s humid interior, or in Messager’s words, “an enormous rain of yarn . . . a rain of objects.” In many of her peculiar relics, gloom was inseparable from tender irony: black satin batwings cradled corpses of real birds; stuffed musical notes and a treble clef sagged in a net bag like rotten fruit; a tiny clipping showed François Mitterand’s mistress and their daughter, icons of grief, at his funeral; and a pink fetus hung up high like a mute seraph. While much of the installation was shrouded in darkness, sudden pools of light illuminated taxidermized animals, their stiff, small bodies caught in nets: a cat with a pathetically curled paw looked up in blue-eyed surprise, while a fox emerged from a tent of mosquito netting like a freshly awakened princess.

An especially shadowy and dense area near the rear of the space was occupied by a forest of hanging soft-sculpture words for emotions or kinds of behavior, such as “jealousy,” “contempt,” “anger,” “doubt,” “confidence,” “envy,” “hesitation,” and “prudence.” The words were “sewn and hung,” the artist explains, “as if to spell them out and remember them better,” and their meanings registered only after one had attended to their surfaces, which were dappled with flowers and stars, butterflies and lamé. In making words synonymous with objects, Messager evoked the writing of Sade and Genet—in which obscene words are so fetishized they become the very objects to which they refer—while the proximity of the hanging words to photographs of isolated body parts underlined her insistence on the sentimental as a path to transgression.

Blurring the verbal and the visual yet again, Messager remarks of Jean Genet’s work, “I’d love to have that visual, novelistic writing, at once beautiful and raw” Dépendence/Indépendence, in fact, recalls the palette of Genet’s prose: his bluebirds bleeding dark blood, his roses, shit, and tinsel. Her palette also reflects the blues and reds—woven into a filigree of passion and death—in Max Ophuls’ opulent film Lola Montès (1955), which she cites as an influence. The darker elements in her constellations, especially the pendulous, scapular-like net bags, could also be said to function like the leading in medieval church windows, the stuffed internal organs and other objects so many bits of colored glass meant to stir emotions and memories. Messager rejects what she calls the “passivity” of Catholic prayer, saying that instead she solicits the spectator’s active engagement, but her work, like Genet’s, could hardly exist without the active elements of Catholic worship—its emphasis on bodily mortification and the veneration of relics. Passivity also shapes her work more than she perhaps cares to recognize: Dépendence/Indépendence is an interior drama—the very image of solitude.

“I think that I play more and more desperately,” remarks Messager. Redolent of sorrow and decay, Dépendence/Indépendence was, as much as anything else, a figure for the body’s perishability. Many of the fragments it contained, however, seemed to blossom as much as to disintegrate into forms that could be undersea flowers, coral, shells, and strange fish, suggesting a fantastic landscape of beloved bodies and objects subtly metamorphosing at the edges of memory.

Kristin M. Jones