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