Annette Messager, Mes Transports, 2012–13, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Annette Messager, Mes Transports, 2012–13, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Annette Messager

Annette Messager, Mes Transports, 2012–13, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Spread across the gallery floor in an archipelagic formation, Annette Messager’s installation of twenty-one sculptures arrayed on small padded dollies, Mes Transports, 2012–13, conjured the gory aftermath of a mysterious disaster. Reprising some of the artist’s signature motifs, including dead animals, human body parts, and children’s toys, this work evokes a scene of emergency triage with nightmarish casualties on makeshift gurneys. The strange amalgams of limbs, shoes, birds, dogs, and architectural wreckage—covered with the kind of matte black foil typically used to mask theatrical lights—appear hideously charred, evoking catastrophes ranging from the eruption of Vesuvius to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Making the grisly mise-en-scène more tolerable, scattered traces of offbeat humor, such as a bright-pink tongue sticking out of a disembodied blackened head or an enormous snail-dildo, confirm Messager’s peculiar talent for linking comedy and horror. The morbid humor of Mes Transports, which is chromatically and thematically bleaker than her recent installations featuring soft, colorful materials ranging from mass-produced stuffed animals and toys to handmade weavings and pillows, has roots in Messager’s early work. In particular, one of the blackened victims—a small bird placed on its back, feet suspended in rigor mortis—is a nod to the dead-sparrow arrangements of Messager’s first major series, Les Pensionnaires, 1971–72.

In many of the wheeled tableaux that make up Mes Transports, the intertwined limbs and random detritus are piled in chaotic heaps. More disturbing, however, are the assemblages in which Messager plays Dr. Frankenstein, carefully constructing alarming yet droll monsters. One particularly freakish example seems to describe the fate of an infant who was apparently still in utero when disaster struck. Laid out on a heather-gray blanket, a blackened plush-and-plastic baby doll rests partially inside a disembodied female pelvis. Bringing a measure of sci-fi absurdity to this horrific image, the doll’s preposterously hyperextended limbs, which have burst far beyond the imagined parameters of the perished mother’s body, suggest a bizarre crustacean-human hybrid. Amid a sea of similarly absurd and abject vignettes—a bent leg plunged into the neck cavity of a severed head; an adult set of upside-down, tutu-clad thighs sprouting bouquets of child-size arms and legs; a headless and footless couple in the sixty-nine position on a bed of small-scale architectonic rubble—a lone black cube appears like a beacon of geometric order and logic. Covered in the same foil as the rest of the sculptures, the form resembles a crinkly miniature Tony Smith sculpture on wheels. A jarring reference to Minimalist austerity and rationalism, the cube also suggests the black-box recorder used to determine the causes of aircraft accidents. The appeal to either an art-historical precedent or a real-world context implies a hypothetical answer key to the object’s interpretation, but provides no final explanation for the surrounding devastation.

Downstairs, in the gallery’s basement space, another room-filling installation illustrated the apocalypse from a different perspective. Similarly disjointed and also sheathed entirely in black foil, Continents noirs (Black Continents), 2010–12, consists of nineteen sculptural landscapes suspended from the ceiling. In the otherwise unlit room, three dangling lightbulbs attached to overhead motors swung rather vigorously above the viewer, illuminating sections of the diverse topographies of continental fragments—train tracks, pagodas, pyramids, tepees, high-rises, smokestacks—while creating a dizzying shadow play on the walls. Standing beneath the seemingly burned airborne landmasses and pendulum lights, one had the impression of being at the epicenter of a major explosion. The exiting viewer could then stroll back past the post-traumatic scene of maimed and reconstituted bodies upstairs with newfound empathy, if not yet complete comprehension.

Mara Hoberman