Annette Messager

Palacio de Velázquez

For the recent retrospective of her work organized by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Annette Messager had to reckon with the crushing size of the Palacio de Velázquez and the flood of natural light that enters its already bright, white spaces. The French artist’s response was to design a labyrinthine path for visitors to follow through the palace’s rooms, in which a selection of her work from the past thirty years was presented in nonchronological order. Viewers went through this maze in semidarkness: False ceilings darkened some areas; in other spaces, the natural light was sifted through individual works. One was sensitized by this presentation to the implicit violence pulsating just beneath the surface of her art. Often dressed in a childlike garb of threads, fabrics, and stuffed animals, her work’s apparent benignity seems to hide, deep down, a premeditated cruelty.

For Ensemble, 1998, the artist disemboweled a child’s brown stuffed animal, splitting it open from top to bottom as if she were a medical student performing a dissection, and secured the extremities of the splayed body to the wall with pieces of string tied to various nails. Sandwiched between this specimen and the wall is a fox skin, flattened out except for the head, baring its fangs at the top of the piece and sounding a note of drama. Together the two “skins” are laid out in a sort of arachnidian form and hung on the wall like a hunting trophy. In this way, the hung trophy, a traditional index of masculinity, is transformed into the studied display of an artwork made by a woman. Here, the world of childhood (signaled by the stuffed animal) is submitted to a surgical dissection, while the spiderweb—a recurrent image in Messager’s work, standing for, alternately, castration or protection—becomes a signifier of female strength and generative power.

In another piece, titled Les experiences (The experiences), 1998, Messager creates figures bordering on the monstrous out of an amalgam of diverse stuffed-toy parts. These are bodies that deviate from the biological or genetic norm, freaks of nature, like those that fascinated Bataille. Among other nightmarish creatures, we find a hybrid formed by rabbit’s feet glued to a black torso and topped off with the deformed, gray head of what might be a rat. Not without humor, Messager points to the undeniable sadistic dimension of childhood.

The name of the exhibition was “La procesión va por dentro” (The procession passes within), a solemn title for an artist who tosses so many ironic darts at the institution of family. From the raw, unsentimental version of childbirth seen in Accouchement (Childbirth), 1996, in which stuffed-animal “skins” laid out on the wall can be read as the macabre forms of a mother and child, to Deux clans, deux families (Two clans, two families), 1997-98, in which two “families” of wooden crosses (one set dressed up with plastic bags for heads and extremities, the other featuring crucified stuffed-toy animals) stand next to each other like mocking scarecrows, Messager spares nothing in treating her subjects—as she has done for more than thirty years.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Vincent Martin.