Annette Messager

18 April 1991 - 25 May 1991
Opening Reception 18 April 1991 6pm

East and West Galleries:

Making up stories/Faire des histoires

Mercer Union and Cold City Gallery, centres for contemporary art, collaboratively present a survey exhibition of Annette Messager’s work from 1972 to present. Annette Messager is an international artist whose work, history, methodology and concerns are pertinent to Canadian art and artists.

Messager’s ironic humour unrelentingly dissects popular culture, especially its representations of female identity, intimate relationships, sexuality and desire. Her use of ironic titles, macabre images and incongruous juxtapositions counters media melodrama and denies romantic idealization.

A resident of France, Messager has had solo exhibitions at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, P.S. 1 in New York, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Musee de Grenoble, as well as in most of the major cities in Europe. Her work was included in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s recent Individualités exhibition of contemporary French artists and will be featured in the upcoming 1991 Sao Paolo Biennial.


Annette Messager: making up stories

published by Mercer Union, a centre for contemporary art & Cold City Gallery, 1991

She initially names herself Annette Messager Collector and Annette Messager Artist. As Collector she gathers objects, images and words: found objects such as postcards, feathers and dead birds, images that she draws, photographs or appropriates from popular culture, single words for naming, and texts including aphorisms, proverbs, household hints and journal entries. With a passion for order reminiscent of Diderot, she systematically classifies, labels and catalogues these words, images and objects. As Annette Messager Artist she then fabricates two and three dimensional assemblages.

She gathers dead birds. She calls them her boarders or possibly her pensioners. They live with her, share her home. She cares for them. She writes intimately about them, describes their language, creates an arcane alphabet from feathers, a private code. She constructs La promenade des pensionnaires (1972) to afford her boarders the flaneurs’ promenade, but also La punition des pensionnaires (1972) to punish them. She swaddles them in knitted garments, arranges and displays their tattered dessicated bodies in a tidy grid. The title of this arrangement, Le repos des pensionnaires, suggests that the little bodies are asleep, quiet, restful, at peace. They are also most certainly dead. Yet even in death they are objects of an obsessive absorption. Like museum relics. Or fetish objects. Of course birds symbolize love and transcendence, both sacred and profane. We know about the phoenix, that mythical bird which rises from the smouldering ashes of death or desire. This utter invention tells the tale of phallic potency resurrected after the ‘little death ‘ of sexual climax. And in Greek mythology sparrows are the messengers of the gods. But these pensionnaires are common pests, sparrows that nest in drain pipes and chimney pots, and they are dead. How are we to understand this “taxidermy of desire”?(1) Has Messager brought these sparrows back to lifelikeness in art so that we may examine desire–desire nailed down, named and situated within the technologies and economies of sexuality that supersedes and monitor both ‘big’ and ‘little’ deaths–and enjoy the profanity in playing with death?

Gender, sexuality and power are inextricably bound and, we have learned, central to meaning in our time. Some proponents of social change believe that critical analysis of this nexus is crucial and urgent because it can open the field of discussion and eventually disclose ways of understanding and resisting oppression and suffering. Michel Foucault suggests that:

formulated and prohibited, expressed [dite] and forbidden [interdite], sexuality is a recourse which no modern system of power can do without… the interdiction, the refusal, the prohibition, far from being essential forms of power, are only its limits, power in its frustrated or extreme forms. The relations of power are, above all,productive power in the West is what displays itself the most, and thus what hides itself the best: what we have called ‘ political life” since the 19thcentury is the manner in which power presents its image… Power is neither there, nor is that how it functions.

The relations of power are perhaps among the best hidden things in the social body.(2)

Messager’s taxidermies of desire invite reflection upon “the best hidden things in the social body,” and further, her work overall can be seen to engage four central concerns in Foucault’s project: “to investigate what might be most hidden in the relations of power; to anchor them in the economic infrastructures; to trace them not only in their governmental forms but also in the infra-governmental or para-governmental ones; to discover them in material play.” (3)

Annette Messager was born in 1943 and began her art work in Paris during the turbulent period surrounding the May 1968 student demonstrations. In Paris, as well as elsewhere, political events signaled massive social discontent. The absence of a revolutionary proletariat together with the French Communist Party ‘s willingness to make expedient compromises with de Gaulle assured the failure of the Paris general strike and student revolt. Western systems of thought inscribing the human subject, institutions and power relations within a material or a seamlessly teleological history were called into question, as were prescriptive utopian models and reified political doctrines.

In France, and throughout the Western world, the inefficacy of the May 1968 social uprisings demanded new social and cultural critiques. Critical thinkers in many fields challenged accepted revolutionary ideologies. The events of May 1968 provoked an anti Marxist reaction among Parisian intellectuals and a new era in French political thought, cultural theory and artistic praxis. The theories of Sartre, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, who had previously been accepted as key radical thinkers, were called into question. From the mounting critiques new discourses developed, among them several strains of feminist thought. The most apostate of these discourses argued that oppression cannot be ascribed to a single sociopolitical system; that power is dispersed and enacted through complex networks and technologies of social control; and that particular questions about children, women, race and sexuality, about language, law, medicine, minority marginalization, the environment, and so on, as well as economics, must figure in substantive theories of social change.(4)

In this context the role and praxis of France’s intelligentsia were revised. Discursive investigations arising out of feminist, postcolonial and gay cultures, for example, refuted representations of humanity based on a notion of a universal subject in a single totalizing history. The historical role of the enfranchised white male intellectual as an authoritative representative capable of discerning and articulating a single comprehensive universal Truth was refused. Abandoning their old prophetic function, at least initially, new postmodern thinkers in that milieu such as Althusser, Lyotard, Deleuze, Debord and Foucault eschewed polemics in favour of investigation. Within French feminists Duras, Kristeva, Irigaray and Cixous, among others, developed defiant practices and dis courses that refuted the veracity of male versions of female subjectivity. Instead of developing prescriptive statements of Truth, the most challenging and compelling of these new discourses raise questions.

Annette Messager studied traditional fine art in Paris in the 1960s and by the end of that decade she had broken with high art conven tions. She rejected conventional modernisms and, moreover, in her invention of investigative practices she undertook a critical rethinking of the avant garde project of Surrealism. Perhaps the most fundamental conjunction between Messager and the Surrealists is the recognition that the refiguring of desire has revolutionary potential. Messager nonetheless breaks with Surrealism by refusing the position of cipher and by resisting the production of desire through the female. She insists on a multivalency of pleasures which delimits the inscription of desire along lines of gender. Where Surrealism redoubles the desubjectification and fetishization of the female as a vehicle for the creative desiring male subject, Messager’s work opens desire to possibilities beyond the gendered and purely sexualized matrices ubiquitously ascribed, inscribed, described, prescribed and circumscribed by mandatory heterosexuality.(5) Like the Surrealists, Messager dismembers the body, refers to ritual and the unconscious, and invokes de Sade’s obsessiveness as well as his recognition of reason as a form of violence, but she does so as a female subject, as the author of her work, thus positing her own pleasures and desires.

Some viewers nonetheless have found Messager’s work “mean,” perhaps because her strategies of resistance repeatedly decentralize the phallus. Since the early 1980s Messager’s work has included a signature motif: the accretion of small black and white photos framed under glass. These photographs display all sorts of body parts: male and female, big and little, lovely and unlovely, eroticised and disdained, including little penises. Penises in repose are but one among many body parts refigured in Chimeres (1982-84), decentralized, miniaturized and affixed to the wall in Mes ouvrages (1987-91), repeated in massed conglomerations suspended on common household twine in Mes voeux (1988-89), pinned onto soiled toy animals that are nailed to the wall in Mes petites effigies (1988-91) and onto dresses in Histoire des robes(1990-91). These little penises are situated among big toes, belly buttons, knees, buttocks, breasts, noses, etcetera. The social construct we call desire is profoundly disturbed by the proposition of an indeterminate field of male and female body parts fetishized equivalently. Messager’s wanton manipulation of the symbolic offers a dispersed and indefinite economy of the body wherein the phallus ceases to centrally organize meaning.

In her explorations of cultural strategies of dominance and oppression, Messager identifies the construction of gender, sexuality and desire as central. I read her work as an ongoing inconclusive series of messages, reports on a discursive inquiry, an inquiry endeavoured from not one but several subject positions. Messager gives names to these fluctuating, apparently contrary perspectives: she is alternately and at once Collector, Practical Woman, Trickster, Pedlar, and Artist. Like the multitude of information and surveillance systems at work in our time, Annette Messager Collector gathers evidence of desire. Annette Messager Practical Woman manages this information and Annette Messager Trickster manipulates it, while Annette Messager Pedlar, with obvious pleasure in the mischief, hawks chimeras, trophies and effigies that disrupt the conventional iconography and topography of desire.

The collected images taken from popular culture — from magazine advertisements and articles, from post cards and serial comic books — are compiled into albums, each with a theme, like an encyclopaedia. In some albums she adds her own drawings or hand written text. Or she draws over the appropriated images. Other albums with diaristic text and accompanying illustrations resemble scientific journals or laboratory logs. In mimicry of comprehensive authoritative texts, Messager constructs fifty-six of these numbered and titled album collections between 1972 and 1974. Their titles include: Le mariage de Mlle Annette Messager, Mes travaux d’aiguille, Mon livre de cuisine, Les hommes que j’aime, Mon medical pratique, Mes propositions de bonheur, Ma collection de chateaux, Ma vie pratique, La mode, Les qualifications donnees aux femmes, Ma vie illustree, Pour mon visage, Mon guide des fleurs, des plantes, des fruits, Les femmes que j’admire, Ma meilleure signature. These systematically codified encyclopaedic projects form bodies of knowledge, compendiums of interests, activities, ideas, observations, inquiries as well as a history of sorts. The infinitesimal detail disclosed – might seem a bit embarrassing, like a telling of intimate secrets, or horrifically fascinating like the obsessively detailed retelling of tortures or the discourse of the confessional. Contemporary systems of social control require this sort of confession, admission, self-examination and explanation of one self, the revelation of one’s guilt.(6) By providing intimate disclosures of her several selves, Messager invites an intersubjective relationship between the author, who insists on her presence in the work and who identifies herself as an insatiable voyeur of desire, and the spectator who, within the gallery convention, is the desiring voyeur.

Album collection number 18, Les tortures volontaires(1972), contains images from advertisements for women’s beauty aids and treatments. The photographic images without their accompanying texts, while obviously promoting the desire to attain some idealized standard of beauty, simultaneously depict types of torture specific to women. This slide, this glissement between beauty and torture, makes these images at once grotesque and compelling, the source of horror and humour. In them we see female bodies masked, bound, covered, compressed, stretched, battered, confined or submerged. The female faces presented in conjunction with these exposed, manipulated, apparently docile, often supine and redolent female bodies evince blissful submission, if not ecstasy. Herein might be found one meaning, the most obvious meaning, of the title.

Yet Charcot’s constructed photographic studies of women in ‘hysteric’ postures come to mind and with them the reflection of our distrust, our questioning of the authenticity of photography, especially in advertising. Charcot’s photographs collectively titled Attitudes Passionelles, ironically echoing the ‘passionate attitudes’ of the saints, reveal much about attitudes toward female behaviour and female eroticism — the excitement, the titillation of, and the concurrent taboo against, female desire. Charcot tells us that ‘hysteria’ is caused by the guilt of female desire and his prognosis is that extreme cases might result in death. The ‘hysterics’ he photographed were confined ‘for their own protection’ and posed to support his thesis. They reveal ‘immodest’ breasts, contorted limbs, supine torsos–female bodies disfigured by muscles stretched in grimaces of pain or alternately in beatific postures, blissfully immobile, as if transported by the ecstasy of approaching death. The images in Les tortures volontaires present another version of the female body, this body subsumed in commodity culture: decorated, adorned, pampered, fetishized. Conventionally restricted by economies based on gender, excluded from the public sphere and limited to manipulations of those pleasures available to their physicality, women in commodity culture turn to sensual decoration of, and exalted pleasure in, their bodies. In doing so, women resist social and economic oppression by finding pleasure within the circumscriptions of mandatory heterosexuality, including the prescribed dynamics of commodity consumption.(7) Playing with, and momentarily inverting, the codes of pleasure, the delimitation of female desire invoked by Les tortures volontaires effects a form of defiance, a resistance which is in itself a source of pleasure. Keeping in mind that the most ‘profound’ and prevalent idea in our culture is the death of a beautiful woman, and Bernini’s Sainte Teresa with her eyes ecstatically rolled back in the anticipation of mortal transcendence, and Charcot and Freud and Lacan and a millenium of prohibitions about female desire, can we revise the meaning of these images? With our eyes closed or covered to exclude the scopic and emphasize sensuality, can we imagine these voluntary tortures as manipulated self-directed pleasures? Are they not somehow connected to Messager’s pleasure in playing with the conflation of death and desire evident in La promenade des pensionnaires, La punition des pensionnaires and Le repos des pensionnaires?

In its book form, the collection Les tortures volontaires is hand held for solitary viewing; like other books and fashion magazines, its pages can be turned at leisure. In intimate collusion the pages disclose a series of ritual acts performed on naked female bodies. Repeatedly the images invite the gaze to explore soft female flesh. Like at a peep show window only the gaze is invited, not the touch; the gaze is directed, circumscribed; and the female body is offered in parts: breast, chin, thigh, the inner surface of the arm above the elbow, hair and scalp, buttocks, abdomen, neck, beatific face. An index of erogenous regions, accompanied by manufactured interventions, offers a scopic exploration that maps regions of pleasure situated in the female body, a body required to give and experience only those pleasures circumscribed within the encyclopaedia of mandatory heterosexuality, a body prohibited from experiencing sexual desire.

In the exhibition Annette Messager: faire des histoires/making up stories the work Les tortures volontaires is reformulated. It appears as an accretion of eighty-five small black and white photo images framed behind glass and informally arranged without grid or axis on a wall, together with a white box which contains a workbook covered with ordinary brown paper. The title, Les tortures volontaires, the album number and the author’s name, Annette Messager Collectionneuse, are handwritten on the book’s cover. A few loose pages protruding from the workbook identify it as the source of the framed photo images mounted on the wall. We are denied entry to the book which is confined like a precious document within the box, but the monochromatic reproductions of advertising images displayed on the wall redouble its content. They offer the female body as an object with erotic potential; however, access to the apparent source of pleasure is still denied. And these images again presume a voyeur who seeks that which, though implied, is absent from view and is also always forbidden–namely female sexual desire, jouissance. Is seeking that which is forbidden another form of voluntary torture? Or, might the intended bondage be manipulated or reinvented as a source of pleasure and a means of resistance?

Speaking about S/M games explored in gay culture and about the need for an art of life, Michel Foucault claims:

Sexuality is a part of our behaviour. It’s a part of our world freedom. Sexuality is something we ourselves create–it is our own creation, and much more than the discovery of a secret side of our desire. We have to understand that with our desires, through our desires, go new forms of relationships, new forms of love, new forms of creation. Sex is not a fatality; it’s a possibility for creative life…. Not only do we have to defend ourselves, but we have to affirm ourselves, not only affirm ourselves as an identity but as a creative force…. We have to create culture. We have to realize cultural creations …. I think it’s a kind of creation, a creative enterprise, which has as one of its features what I call the desexualization of pleasure. The idea that bodily pleasure should always come from sexual pleasure, and the idea that sexual pleasure is the root of all our possible pleasure–I think that’s something quite wrong.(8)

Cosmetic commodities purport to reduce the pain of female desire as it is ubiquitously formulated and expressed, as one of the few desires women are allowed: the desire to be sexually possessed, as an object is desired and possessed. Of course sexual desire and subjecthood are prohibited for the female seeking sexual pleasure. She must concede, at least momentarily, to objectification. Yet, as Foucault implies in his reference to the consentuality of gay S/M games and as Messager continuously suggests, possession is seldom total or continuous, even in sex. Some measure of autonomy most often exists, if only the momentary ability to resist. Might pleasure be found in that moment of resistance?

Early works such as the pensionnaires series and Les tortures volontaires initiate Annette Messager’s collection and examination of evidence from popular culture about the social body in bondage. The collection albums compile evidence, encasing it in an idiosyncratic ‘body of knowledge’ which in turn constitutes a knowledge of the social body–a social body oppressed by hidden powers that restrict it to those pleasures and desires inscribed within the encyclopaedia of mandatory heterosexuality. Messager’s recent projects explore surveillance, confinement and punishment as means whereby power is both hidden and displayed.

Myriad economic, governmental and para-govermental systems exist to formulate and enforce social interdictions: patriarchal orders in the church, in homes and schools, in medical practice, the judiciary and law as well as in legislated functions such as welfare service and family service agencies, taxation, law enforcement, business regulation, and so forth. Surveillance by such agencies has become so common and so accepted that we are hardly conscious of its operations and indeed often assume it is in our interest. Governments require census, financial and employment reports. Modern banking machines instantly track income, spending and movement. Law enforcement agencies regularly survey bodies or remnants of bodies to determine personal histories: disease, dental and surgical histories, eating habits, injuries received, medications administered . Physiological as well as psychological ‘profiles’ are ‘rationally deduced’ from ’empirical evidence.’ Messager’s robes series evokes such surveillance systems, as well as the privileged status of instrumental reason.

The five dresses in Histoire des robes operate metonymically: each dress seems to invite a personal narrative based on ’empirical evidence.’ These dresses, decorated with tiny framed texts or drawings or photographs, are arranged like sacred relics or museological displays. Taken together they constitute an histoire des robes which traces female life in standard measurements. Each is isolated, confined within a case. Each dress marks a prescribed threshold, a climax of sorts which precedes induction into the next set of prohibitions. The most obvious of these interdictions is evident in the nature of the dresses; they are exquisite sensual objects, sources of scopic pleasure. Thus they evoke one realm of management, namely requisite appearances. In order to appear to be valued and protected by patriarchy, females must concede to the object position wherein they provide scopic pleasure. They must be willing to be positioned and played with, like the pensionnaires. They must proceed, moreover, with grace and decorum a]ong an expressed path: from the utter innocence of the newborn to induction, at a baptism or a christening ceremony, into the guilt of lost innocence and the consequent lifelong presumption of necessary management. At first communion the young girl is inducted into requisite obeisance to the father, the word, the law, the canon; and she is concurrently introduced to punishment as it is prescribed by religious doctrines and inscribed in the Manichean world of children’s fairy tales. Then, at first confession she is initiated into systems of surveillance and into mandatory heterosexuality with its delineation of permitted desires and its definition of sexual sin, whereby she becomes accustomed to being confined, observed and punished. Next, the fetishized, adorned and adored body of the young adult female is hidden but revealed beneath a negligee. The young woman must be at once seductive and innocent, a femme-enfant. The virginal white bridal gown signals entry into the requirements of matrimony: the ‘practicalities’ of domestic service, childrearing and the semblance of sexual pleasure without desire. Finally, there is the burial shroud, the dress that preserves her value and decorum even in death. These inanimate objects embedded in mute coffin-like boxes utter an indeterminate, fragmented and silenced history which traces the hidden but systematic confinement and surveillance of female desire. The additions of drawings of monsters or tormented hearts, of photos of bones or women in bondage, and of handwritten incantations provide the story with its traditional conclusion: the unavoidable punishment, the inevitable fate for women guilty of sexual desire, a choice between madness and death.

Hand-tinted photographs of female figures in bondage, suspended by lengths of household twine, repeated and overlayed by an indexical finger, and arranged in a triangular format in Péché, likewise intercede in the conflation of female sexual desire, madness and death. The triangular form of Péché resonates with possible references: the completeness of the Holy Trinity, the omniscience and omnipotence of God the Father, the pyramidal hierarchy of the family, patriarchy and Western thought, the operative methods of ‘powers hidden in the social body.’ Reason is confounded by the treatment of these black and white photographs which have been altered and mysticized by the addition of lines, intensified by the overlay of technicolor tints, almost emptied of affect by proliferation. Do they depict the ecstasy of female sexual desire or pain and suffering? Is the suffering self-inflicted or is the bondage imposed? The uncoloured indexical fingers hanging like little penises, do they admonish, direct, notate or merely index the proliferation? Is not Péché, like Les pensionnaires or Les tortures volontaires, another way of playing with, transgressively interceding in, the conflation of fatality and sex?


1. Bernard Marcade, “Annette Messager or the taxidermy of Desire (Annette Messager interviewed by Bernard Macarde),” Annette Messager comédie tragédie 1971-1989(Musee de Grenoble: Grenoble, 1991)
2. Michel Foucault, “Power and Sex” (Interview by Bernard-Henri Levy), trans. David J. Parent, Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman (Routledge: New York and London, 1990),p.118
3.Ibid., p.119
4. Foucault, “Introduction,” op. cit., pp. ix-x
5. See Surrealism and Women, ed. Mary Ann Caws et. al. (The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 1991)
6. Foucault, “The Dangerous Individual,” trans. Alain Baudot and Jane Couchman, op. cit., pp. 126-7
7. See Naomi Schor, Reading In Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine(Methuen: New York, 1987)
8. Michel Foucault with Bob Gallagher and Alex Wilson, “Michel Foucault–An Interview: Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity,” The Advocate, Issue 400 (August 7, 1984), p.27