Messager initially gained widespread recognition within the art world for her series Ma Collection de Proverbes (1974), a minimalistic sequence of misogynistic sentences which she hand-embroidered on white cotton handkerchiefs and individually framed. The most notorious of the Proverbes, reading “Je pense, donc je suce,” (I think, therefore I give head) garnered a great deal of critical attention, both negative and positive.
(Apologies for the terrible quality of the above photograph.. it was the only one I could find)
Much of her art adheres to a strong feminine identity, investigating in depth what it means to be a woman—and the myths and stigmas that surround that role. In Mes Jalousies (1972) for example, she presents a series of photographic portraits of young, beautiful women upon which she has scribbled in black ink—creating wrinkles, crows’ feet and blemishes on their faces, causing them to appear cross-eyed, blacking out individual teeth.
Mes Jalousies, 1972
In another highly controversial piece, Les enfants aux yeux rayés (1972), she comments on the constant pressure placed upon the modern woman by society to procreate, presenting a group of newspaper photographs of anonymous young children with their eyes scratched out in pen.
The way in which Messager utilizes the medium of photography throughout her oeuvre is incredibly unique—in most cases, she creates a dualism between the photographs themselves and the larger installation piece that often contains them. In Mes Voeux (1988-91), for example, she compiles hundreds of small close-up black-and-white photographs of different parts of the human body—ears, mouths, noses, breasts, genitals, feet, limbs and hands—to form a large circle. The photographs, each in separate frames, hang from individual pieces of thread, partially overlapping and obscuring one another in their construction of a large circle. The body parts in the photographs range from male to female, old to young, attractive to unsightly, ordinary to titillating.
Messager combines these disparate physiological identities to form a whole, placing them in arbitrary relation to one another and creating a variety of conceptual, psychological and sexual associations through their placement. She turns the viewer’s ordinary association with each body part on its head, questioning the connotations and stigmas we ordinarily draw from such images when we view them alone—and, above all, she fragments the human body, asking us to consider each fragment on its own—a theme which appears repeatedly throughout her work.
In the series My Trophies (1987), Messager combines photography with drawing and painting in a series of large-scale, black-and-white photographs of body parts over which she has sketched and painted whimsical symbols in pastel, acrylic paint and charcoal. According to Messager, the drawings were inspired by French author Madeleine de Scudéry’s “maps of tenderness,” a group of maps of imaginary cities bearing the names of Tenderness, Constant Friendship and Inequality. Messager scrawls delicate renderings of dreamlike landscapes across the enlarged photographs, indicating both cultural references and aspects of her own personal life while imbuing the body parts with symbolic meaning.
From My Trophies, 1987
In this diptych, part of the My Trophies series, Messager pays homage to Surrealism with the drawings on the left foot (a pair of scissors, a key, a clothespin, several unidentifiable animals and patterns, all of which appear to be melting at the edges and strung together by a fragile black line) while alluding to her own childhood with the drawings on the right (a cluster of rowboats and sailboats floating on a flat bay, seabirds in the foreground).
In many of her installation pieces, Messager uses the motif of the veil or net to soften or in some way obscure what may be viewed as cruel or harsh within her work—and this lends a certain eeriness and mystery to those pieces. In Untitled (1993), she presents a group of taxidermied animals arranged in a circle around another, smaller animal, as though closing in on it or attacking it. A soft, transparent mosquito net is draped over the scene, disguising in part its peculiar connotations and creating the false appearance of a sheltered space. Upon closer inspection, though, we are met with the uncanny undertones of the piece. The transparent veil becomes at once a shrouding and revealing intermediary that serves to both envelop and expose the scene within. The viewer is separated by it from the animals’ gathering—be it friendly or hostile— and confronted by the illusory quality of appearance.
In Les Piques (1992-3), which was recently featured in this fall's exhibit “Elles” (2010) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (which I was lucky enough to attend several times), she uses women’s black stockings, stuffing them with unidentifiable soft objects, stretching them at odd angles over framed photographs and found objects, ripping them, and ultimately toying with their transparency, their sexual connotations and their function.
Of Les Piques, Messager relates, “I started using transparent things… I had bought fishnet stockings, but they had too much of a sexual connotation that I no longer desired. I wanted an opacity which conveyed terror, such as the masks that criminals pull over their faces, or policemen… It was at this point that I started looking for nets.” In this piece, we are forced to consider the stockings in a completely different environment than the one generally accept them in— they have been displaced from the comfortable space we generally associate them with—on women’s legs, or in department stores, and relocated within a confused, dreamlike and almost sinister venue. Here again, Messager questions the stereotypical “role” of the woman within society.
Messager's current work consists mainly of large-scale installation pieces, focusing on the theme of movement and expanding upon that of corporeal fragmentation. A few examples below, in which she tends towards the tactile with hints of the sinister.
Her 2007 installation in the entranceway of the Pompidou, La Ballade de Pinocchio à Beaubourg, featured large body parts crafted from red and black leather, bundled in black nets and hung from the ceiling beams.
La Ballade de Pinocchio à Beaubourg, Centre Pompidou, 2007