“Annette Messager didn’t believe in the Princess and the Pea, in Cinderella and her prince. She didn’t feel sorry for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She never spent hours on end staring into a mirror, asking it if she was the fairest of them all.” These are the words of Chiara Parisi, curator of the “Messaggera” exhibition, of which the famous French artist is today the protagonist at Villa Medici in Rome. Reclaiming female identity is the key theme in the poetics of Messager who, for over forty years, has rendered the image of the free woman, founded on her intrinsic ability to create and be creative.
Since the 1970s, her work has been a political act: a universe of small things, made up of everyday gestures and materials, often related to a feminine and intimate world: “I tried to have a more open approach to materials that have allowed me not to consider them rigidly and make typically female activities take part in my art. It was certainly in contrast with the prevailing taste of the time that preferred a masculine-type art, true painting, sculpture, etc., but rather than a strategy, it involved an instinctive reaction. I felt that resisting these small everyday details of femininity in high-brow art was already in itself a critical affirmation.”
In fact, besides painting, sculpture and photography, the practices of writing and embroidery can also be found in her work: “Everything comes from God except woman”, “When a girl is born, even the walls cry” are just some proverbs Messager has embroidered onto fabric; seemingly genteel handwriting that reveals the violence and prejudice historically set aside for women. Her art is “hiding through showing”, allowing things to surface beyond appearances; a game of subversion, even disassociation. Her anthropomorphic figures, assemblages of materials of all kinds, narrate this well: puppets that, at first glance, seem docile, but upon closer inspection are deformed, mutilated, disturbing. A subtle practice where even aesthetic canons are reversed and where, paradoxically, ugly can become beautiful and repulsive can be attractive, because inner and emotional reality—the one that makes us create—can in no way correspond to stereotypes deriving from social conventions. Thus Messager’s work becomes poetry, metaphor, the possibility to access an inner dimension where stability does not exist, only motion and transformation.
Beatrice Zamponi: The exhibition opens with two geometric forms: the triangle and the cross. They look like the alpha and omega of your vocabulary. What do they mean?
Annette Messager: The cross alludes to the Pope who is right on the other side of the river with respect to Villa Medici, while the triangle represents, in a certain sense, sameness seen from all angles. But I really don’t like explaining my work too much. Even I, lots of times, can’t give it a clear meaning; as Duchamp once said, I leave it up to the viewer to create his own story, starting from the elements I put at his disposal.
Beatrice Zamponi: Further ahead, we see light sculptures, built with a net that bunches up here and there or unfolds, creating words.
Annette Messager: Maybe, I really wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t capable, so I have fun playing with the words I love. Desire, for example, is perhaps the most beautiful and important of all, because without desire there isn’t life; without desire, you wouldn’t even get out of bed in the morning.
Beatrice Zamponi: In the work Péché 2, a series of index fingers point to small squares that recreate censured scenes of women, made difficult to recognize by painting marks. The work seems to narrate the feeling of guilt in a Catholic society and the theme of sin. Would you explain better?
Annette Messager: In Catholic culture, only God has the right to point. When I was small, I constantly pointed my finger at people and things, just like every kid. My mother told me it wasn’t nice. I began from this hypocrisy.
Beatrice Zamponi: In your work, you often use a black glove with coloured pencils stuck into the tips of the fingers. A sort of playful but disturbing paw with sharp nails. And, more in general, many animal figures appear. Are these creatures our alter ego?
Annette Messager: I really love birds that move freely above us, but at the same time are threatening, like in Hitchcock’s film The Birds, where they plot against humans. In the work Eux et nous, nous et eux, for example, I wanted to create a bird gallery; they seem likeable, and they wear stuffed animal masks. But actually, they aren’t pleasant at all. They loom over the mirrors, so by looking at them you feel like you’re a part of the work. That’s why it’s called Loro e noi, noi e loro. Once I found a dead sparrow on the ground and I began wondering about their life: how long they live, how you can tell the difference between a male and female bird, etc. I thought that my neighbours, those who lived next to me, were like the small sparrow I knew nothing about. So that’s why I decided to embroider a small coat and warm that tiny body I had found.
Beatrice Zamponi: In the work Le Tutù échevelé, a ballerina tutu and a wig dance wildly, thanks to a jet of air from a fan. The work evokes awkward yet dynamic and vital femininity.
Annette Messager: The work welcomes us, but the tutu is black and the messy hair moves all around – it’s gentle, but not necessarily. For me, long hair is a symbol of freedom, an answer to the religions that always want it to be short, to wars during which women’s hair is often cut.
Beatrice Zamponi: The famous statue of Mercury located on the palace patio also wields a scalp, a symbol of Villa Medici: what is the relationship between Hermes and the thick hair blowing in the wind?
Annette Messager: Mercury is a messenger in this case, a somewhat feminized one, with that small rear end of his… I said to myself: his gesture is delicate, he welcomes visitors, so I wanted him to dance with my hair.
Beatrice Zamponi: Pinocchio had to be in a solo show of yours. The famous puppet was the protagonist of the work Casino, which, in 2005, won you the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Once again, it becomes the most complete metaphor for human beings.
Annette Messager: Pinocchio is a prankster, he’s mean, he’s a rebel, he’s a hero and an anti-hero. He’s the dark side but also the marvellous one of man. His path to becoming a human is like an initiation that very much resembles an artist’s life.
Beatrice Zamponi: In the work L’Histoire des traversins, large tube-shaped cushions made with striped fabric are gnarled like tangled bowels. In the twists and turns of this colossal eviscerated body we see shadows: black figures and faces with long noses that call to mind the ancient Venetian mask of the plague doctor.
Annette Messager: The traversins don’t exist in Italy. You don’t use them. They are cylinder-shaped cushions, soft and phallic looking. In the work they evoke the pillow fights of children, but also the uniforms of prisoners. Then there are small hidden elements whose function we know nothing about. Even I can’t say too much about them… Except that I love Venetian masks. Venice isn’t a happy city. It calls to mind the plague and death. But also the Commedia dell’arte.
Beatrice Zamponi: Once, women who reacted against authoritarian and sexist dynamics were generically described as hysterical. Hysteria, a typically female pathology, finds its etymology in the word hystera, which in Greek means uterus. In view of this, what do the many small uteruses adorning the wallpaper in the room that was once Balthus’s studio mean?
Annette Messager: That even today, women are scary; the belly that changes during pregnancy, or even giving birth, are transformations men don’t experience and, therefore, deeply fear. That’s why on the walls the uteruses are like vases holding flowers, but aggressive flowers, maybe even poisonous or carnivorous ones.
© all rights reserved
until 23 April 2017
Annette Messager: Messaggera
Villa Medici, Rome
Curator: Chiara Parisi