The divided self

Annette Messager subverts the stereotype of women as nurturing creatures

In the late 1960s the American fine art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term “anxious object” to describe works that deliberately seemed to undermine their own status as art – such as Andy Warhol’s pictures of soup tins and Brillo boxes. Ambiguity by its nature unsettles, which explains its appeal both to the Romantics and the avant-garde. Freed from any functional use, objects become unstable – instead of anchoring us in the world, they disrupt our accepted ways of seeing.

The French artist Annette Messager uses this technique to disturbing ends. Born in 1943, she is little known in Britain, but in 2005 she became the first female artist to represent France at the Venice Biennale. Her installations use photo­graphy, drawing, knitting, embroidery and text, along with objects she has collected, to challenge fixed definitions of art and the culturally assigned roles of women. Her work deals with sexual and physical abuse, sin, obsession and fairy tales, by means of “female” materials and techniques such as sewing. Now, an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London – Messager’s first major retrospective in the UK – ranges through her work since the 1970s.

Fragments, particularly of the body, are used to explore small, obsessive, everyday rituals. Messager’s investigations revolve around the nature of identity, desire and cruelty. In The Borders (1971-72), rows of dead sparrows are dressed in doll-sized, hand-knitted pink and lemon jackets and lined up in a row in a glass case, like stuffed objects of Victorian taxidermy. Others have been tied on to little iron bars in a way that recalls the often sadistic behaviour of children’s play. Looking at the tiny, feathery corpses, I kept thinking of those last, terrible minutes of James Bulger’s life. That some of the birds have batteries and clockwork motors attached, presumably to make them jump, is even more disquieting.

Stuffed toys are another constant, but there is nothing very cuddly about them lying discarded in funereal piles on the gallery floor, or skewered on the ends of pikes like guillotined heads from the French Revolution. A disembowelled toy elephant, a flayed lion, a fluffy lime green paw and a pink ear are just some of the animals and disembodied parts nailed to the wall in a way that implies properties similar to those objects used in black magic or voodoo. Without wanting to get too psychoanalytical about it all, these “part objects” speak, as Melanie Klein might have done, of the lost mother and childhood rage.

Early on in her career, Messager played with issues of identity, creating two personalities to mirror the division in the activities carried out by her in her small Paris apartment: “Annette Messager the Collector” and “Annette Messager the Artist”. The Secret Room, a small sealed section of the gallery which, frustratingly, we cannot enter, is full of diary notes, images cut from magazines, misogynistic terms for women embroidered on to fabric, and black-and-white photos from the early 1970s showing barbaric forms of beauty treatment. Elsewhere there is a display of her “best” signatures, written over and over, in the manner of an adolescent schoolgirl practising her name in the back of a textbook.

Further on in the exhibition, My Vows (1989) includes a large number of small photographic close-ups of body parts – a pair of breasts, a penis, a mouth – all framed in black and hung unisex-style from bits of string in a circle, like those votive offerings found in Catholic churches. It is in this work, more than any of the others, that we can hear echoes of Messager’s partner, the great French artist Christian Boltanski.

This tendency to break up, catalogue and name is everywhere. Many of the works on show incorporate text. In Lines of the Hand (1988-90), photographs of decorated female hands have been placed above a column of writing done directly on the wall, in which a word has been repeated over and over like a prayer or mantra. It is very much a visual mirror to the writings of the French feminist thinkers Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, who attempt to construct a uniquely feminine form of speech, and of Julia Kristeva, who has written about the abject. Their presence lurks behind all Messager’s work.

Many of her recent pieces are more ambitious, as well as, at times, absurdly humorous. Inflated-Deflated (2006) is a kinetic display of intestines and other internal body organs that sigh and deflate in an erotic, writhing mass. In Articulated-Disarticulated (2001-2002), numerous heaving mannequins lie in a variety of positions while the carcass of a stuffed cow is pulled by a small motor around the edge of the installation – a reference to the mass slaughter during the mad cow epidemic. Yet these larger, more theatrical works are less successful. It is the domestic scale and sense of personal transgression in the smaller installations that continues to resonate after you leave the exhibition.

At her most powerful, Messager subverts stereotypes of the nurturing woman to hint at secret eroticism and abuse. Like some surreal femme fatale, she weaves webs of entrapment to create her own theatre of cruelty. Her justi­fication for this is unflinching: “Vulnerability is so much greater in the world than in any artwork that it is impossible today to create anything more obscene than reality.”

“Annette Messager: the Messengers” is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1, until 25 May. Details: www.haywardgallery.org

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hopep to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.