Annette Messager: motion/emotion

Annette Messager, Casino, 2005, red pongee silk, string, rubber, found objects, optical fibres, fluorescent tubes, fans, software, Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © Annette Messager Photograph: Alex Davies

This post first appeared on Open Journal on August 11, 2014. Image supplied by MCA.

Annette Messager is one of France’s most celebrated artists. With a career that spans four decades, her art is diverse, dramatic and has been shown the world over.  This year, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia plays host to motion / emotion, the first retrospective survey of Messager’s work in Australia – which is showing until 26 October.

Open Journal spoke with MCA curator Rachel Kent to gain a better understanding of the artist and an insight into the themes, stories and motivations behind some of the exhibition’s featured works.

How would you describe motion / emotion?

Annette Messager: motion / emotion is large-scale survey of works by the renowned French artist Annette Messager, encompassing over forty years of her art across drawing, photography, needlework, sculpture, installation, and kinetic works. The human body is central to Annette Messager’s art.

The exhibition title motion / emotion captures the twin aspects of the artist’s practice – her use of moving elements (motors, fans) that animate her objects with life’s force, making them swing back and forth, spin round and round, bob up and down; and her careful excavation of the body’s vulnerable, emotional interior.

Motion / emotion is Annette Messager’s first retrospective exhibition in Australia. How did you approach curating it?

I have been a great admirer of this marvellous artist’s work for many years and wanted to share this interest with other Australians, both within, but also beyond, the art world.

Annette Messager also has a long history of engagement with Australia, having participated in a Sydney Biennale in the 1980s, for example. Her work has also been collected through the National Gallery of Australia.

Building on this history, I wanted to give a wider, more comprehensive representation of her practice across four decades, showing the evolution of the work and its complexity through time.

What themes does it explore?

The exhibition explores a range of themes that run through Messager’s practice, and are largely sited around the body – and, extending this, the experience of love and pain, of what it is to be ‘human’.

Works from the 1970s explore the body in relation to gender, for example, through feminine stereotypes; while in the 1980s Messager moved beyond gendered representation through the creation of hybrid forms, combining male and female parts.

Over time, she has fragmented the body, breaking it down into an accumulation of parts, and in her more recent works, she has opened the body right up, removing the organs and viscera hidden within, to explore its hidden depths.

What did you enjoy most about curating motion / emotion?

There are so many things I have  enjoyed about curating this exhibition, principle among them, the opportunity to work closely with the artist on all aspects, and to have extended discussions with her over time about her practice: to learn ever so much more about her ideas and motivations than when I began the project. I always think that curating, like art making, is a process of discovery – curiosity is the key and I have been terribly fortunate in that regard.

Messager’s practice is diverse, spanning drawing, installation, sculpture, photography, painting and beyond. How is this represented in the exhibition?

Messeger is certainly a prolific artist who works across diverse media, something that is represented in the exhibition through the variety of her works from the early 1970s to the present.

She has a remarkable ability to work with scale – from very small to very large indeed; and to work with the materials at hand – things found within the home or the shop, that can be accessed readily, that do not signify ‘high art’ as would, for example, ‘permanent’ and heavy materials such as bronze or marble.

Do you have any personal favourite or standout works?

I honestly think I love every piece in the exhibition, but one that stands out is a series of seventeen wooden boxes, containing dresses and small votive objects, entitled Story of Dresses (1990).

Much of Messeger’s work has a dark, even sinister edge to it – however there is a great tenderness to this work too, with its aged dresses – some small and childlike, others for a grown woman – and the idea that each dress tells its story, or marks a particular moment in the wearer’s life. There is a memento mori quality to the work, and of course it makes oblique reference to the idea of the Catholic reliquary, or repository for sacred objects associated with the saints.

Messager’s career spans from the 1970s to now – how does the exhibition explore different stages of her work and her journey as an artist?

The earliest work in the exhibition is from 1972, the Voluntary Tortures, and originally formed album no. 18 in Messager’s series of fifty-six ‘album collections’ of the early ‘70s. So works in the exhibition start from that early period and goes through to a wide range of more recent works, including new works she has made for Sydney.

Messager’s work often seems to have a dark or dramatic element to them. Do the works on show capture this?

Yes, her work treads a very fine line between the sinister and the playful. Many people respond to the gothic quality in the works in the exhibition, in their revelation of the dark or the tragic in life. Counterbalancing this is a sense of lightness and play – what she herself describes as the tragi-comedy of life.

A good example is her Untitled work of 2011/12 that features several hundred small black-wrapped shapes, spread out across the galley floor like a village. Three inflatable globes of the world sit towards the back of the assemblage: they try to inflate, over and over, but never achieve full roundness of form.

I look at the work and think it captures some of the darkness of the present times – of the dreadful human conflict and environmental destruction in today’s world. There are though small lights on revolving bases dotted through the work, creating a dramatic shadow play and introducing brightness, quite literally, to counteract the work’s somber mood.

Motion / emotion features some of Messager’s most recognised works, including the large-scale kinetic installation Casino, which is a highlight of the survey. Can you tell us a little about it?   

Casino was commissioned for the French pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2005, and was awarded the Golden Lion that year. It’s one of Annette Messager’s most impressive kinetic installations and comprises a vast sea of red billowing silk, above which disembodied puppet heads bob up and down. Beneath the silk are indistinct objects and lights, creating an eerie glow.

This work is inspired by the story of Pinocchio, the wooden marionette who wants to become a human boy; the objects hidden below the silk – shapes that resemble limbs, organs – are like all the things he needs and desires in order to fulfill his quest.

Annette Messager explains that she liked this story for several reasons. First, she says that Pinocchio himself is like an artist – he doesn’t want to go to school, to follow rules, to be made to conform. His father figure, the wood carver Geppetto, was also originally a sculptor who had to turn to making wooden toys to earn a living. So, in many ways, the story of Pinocchio is also a story about the life and struggles of an artist. 

What do you think visitors to motion / emotion will most enjoy?

I think there are so many things to enjoy about the exhibition, but one thing that stands out is that you don’t need an education in art, or a detailed knowledge of her practice, to appreciate the works at first encounter.

The works speak directly to viewers through their everyday materials and recognisable forms; and through the use of mobile or kinetic elements, they suggest life itself in their movement.

Rachel Kent will be giving a free Curator’s Insights tour of Annette Messager’s exhibition on Saturday 23 August at 1.30pm.