Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A New Feminism: Annette Messager, Artist/Messenger

"I asked myself, Who am I? I am nothing. So I asked what people said about women. I appropriated the identity of others.”
-Annette Messager

As promised, here's a follow-up on Annette Messager, one of my favorite contemporary artists, who I mentioned briefly in my last post. Messager is best known for her installation art, which incorporates an array of media from photography, prints and drawings to knitting, embroidery, found objects and even taxidermy. Stepping onto the Parisian art scene in the early 1970s, Messager has produced prolific amounts of installation art over the years, becoming, along with her partner, Christian Boltanski, a force to be reckoned with within the contemporary art sphere. Her oeuvre deals with the themes of corporeal fragmentation, sexuality, physicality, femininity, childhood, abuse, innocence and sin, utilizing the motifs of fragmentation and repetition to express her views on particular psychological, cultural and sociological phenomena. In her installation pieces, a distinct and sometimes macabre nostalgia meets a resolute sense of femininity and a questioning of roles within society.

From Ma Collection de Proverbes, 1974

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

Les enfants aux yeux rayés, 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.

Untitled, 1993

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.

Les Piques, 1992-3

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.

From the series Articulés-Désarticulés, 2002

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

Messager herself peering through one of her installation pieces at the Hayward Gallery in London

Using the simple materials and images of daily life steeped in a tongue-in-cheek satire, Messager attempts, through her art, to free women from the rigid roles assigned to them by a male-dominated society—and to free objects themselves from the roles assigned to them by human beings. She imbues her art with a heavy symbolism, using everyday objects to connote deeper psychological implications and affirming through each work that any item—be it a stuffed toy or a mere word—can be transformed through a new perspective or an innovative utilization into an object of powerful expression.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Can I Borrow Your Mixtape? #2

Monument Odessa, 1991

"We are all so complicated, and then we die. We are a subject one day, with our vanities, our loves, our worries, and then one day, abruptly, we become nothing but an object, an absolutely disgusting pile of shit. We pass very quickly from one stage to the next. It's very bizarre. It will happen to all of us, and fairly soon too. We become an object you can handle like a stone, but a stone that was someone."
-Christian Boltanski

New year, new mixtape-- plus one of French contemporary artist Christian Boltanski's haunting "missing children" photography installations. I was lucky enough to see Boltanski's installation pieces in the basement galleries of the Musée d'Art Moderne-- which included one room completely lined in slightly-blurred newspaper-quality photographs of anonymous missing children, one room nearly filled with stacked articles of clothing, and one filled with weathered phone books and Yellow Pages from each and every nation--during my stay in Paris. Boltanski handles the concepts of loss, death, memory and nostalgia with a eerily delicate transcendence. His work is definitely worth looking into-- as well as that of his partner, Annette Messager (more on her to come)!

Some of what I've been listening to lately:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Poet of the Mundane: Eggleston at LACMA

I went to see the William Eggleston: Democratic Camera exhibit at LACMA's new(-ish) wing on a moody, stormy day in late December (during the torrential downpour that caused mudslides and floods from the PCH to the valley). Eggleston, who I mentioned in my earlier "Can I Borrow Your Mixtape" entry, captures a nostalgic and suggestive sense of Americana in his simple, highly saturated color prints. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, he discovered the process of dye-transfer printing (now his characteristic method) while teaching photography at Harvard in the early 1970s. Since then he has become an undisputed pioneer of American color photography, credited with the legitimization of the medium as a serious art form-- his images of ordinary objects are made utterly poignant through his use of intense hues and provocative composition. His iconic photographs have been used on countless album covers, including those of Spoon, Big Star, Joanna Newsom, Primal Scream, Jimmy Eat World, Silver Jews and others-- which only serves to demonstrate his deep connection to and influence on popular culture. We can also surmise his influence on the fashion world-- Marc Jacobs used Eggleston himself, along with Charlotte Rampling, in an advertisement for his haute couture line, while the print ad for Jacobs' Daisy perfume is all-too-reminiscent of a certain Eggleston photograph, Untitled (1975).

Red Ceiling or Greenwood, Mississippi (1973) : you can really see the effects of the dye-transfer process in this photo-- Eggleston himself said of this work, "The Red Ceiling is so powerful, that in fact I've never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction. When you look at the dye it is like red blood that's wet on the wall.... A little red is usually enough, but to work with an entire red surface was a challenge."

Two Girls on the Sofa (1974)

Memphis, Tennessee (1971-74)

Untitled (from "Los Alamos," 1965-1968)

Untitled (from "Los Alamos," 1965-1968)

Huntsville, Alabama (c.1970)

Untitled (1975)

...and an ad for Marc Jacobs' fragrance Daisy. Spy the resemblance?

Eggleston himself, with Charlotte Rampling, in a 2007 Marc Jacobs print ad

The retrospective features an extensive array of Eggleston's work, from his early black-and-white photographs of the early 1960's to his startlingly vivid dye-transfer work of the 70's and 80's to his rarely-seen video work Stranded in Canton.