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It was a particular pleasure to revisit many of Annette Messager’s early works in the retrospective, ‘Annette Messager: The Messengers’, at the Mori Art Museum. This touring exhibition opened at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in June 2007 and travelled to Finland and Korea before arriving in Tokyo in August 2008. Although the scale of the Pompidou exhibition had to be modified for the Mori Art Museum, this version of the retrospective offered a very well balanced survey of Messager’s work since the 1970s.
It is striking how many of Messager’s early works resonate with contemporary artistic concerns, including the current fixation on archives, voyeurism and the child. In this exhibition, several of her early works are presented in a closed room that can only be accessed by peering through holes cut into the walls. Piled on the floor in The Secret Room of the Collector is an archive of boxes, albums, framed pictures and papers that Messager developed during the early 1970s. The Marriage of Miss Annette Messager (1971) is the first amongst the fifty-six albums of magazines and newspaper cuttings that she made between 1970 and 1973. This one hundred and eight page book contains photographs of brides cut from newspaper wedding announcements, but in the captions Messager substitutes her own name for the women’s names to transform herself into every bride.
Messager describes herself as a trickster and a tinkerer. She plays deftly with words, objects and images—collecting, twisting and stitching them into all sorts of shapes. ‘My name’s Messager but I have no message’ is one of her better known expressions. Even in her text based works, the meaning remains open, fluid and multi-layered. My Collection of Proverbs (1974) is also represented in this closed room of the exhibition, and is based on a series of proverbs about women that Messager collected from around the world: ‘Water for the beasts, wine for men, and the rod for women’; ‘The world has been destroyed by women and wolves’; ‘A woman should be feared like thunder’. The proverbs are embroidered in red, blue and green thread on one hundred and twenty white cloth rectangles where they allude to women’s private histories, handiwork, patience and endurance.
Some of Messager’s most personal and political works from the 1970s are assembled on the walls surrounding this extraordinary archive. In some cases, these works have become more controversial in recent years than they were when they were made. When Children with their Eyes Scratched Out (1971-72) was exhibited in 2000 in the exhibition, ‘Presumed Innocent: Contemporary Art and Childhood’ at CAPC Bordeaux, a group of protesters demanded that several works, including this one, be destroyed. This work features a series of photographs of babies and children, gleaned from newspapers and magazines, with their eyes obscured by deep, violent pen marks. The children’s identities are erased to allow them to become the object of Messager’s fantasy mother-child relationship. When installed with Messager’s My Child’s Drawings (1971-72), a series of her own drawings, in a naïve style, that record the imagined child’s impressions of its mother as she goes about her daily chores, these works speak to tensions between the desire for motherhood, love and a sense of self.
Since the 1980s, much of Messager’s work has been dominated by two mediums associated with halting the flow of time: photography and taxidermy. Her photographs from the 1980s are well-represented in this exhibition which includes her large photographs of hands, feet and eyes painted with gothic landscapes, My Trophies (1986-88), and her much reproduced installation of tiny black and white photographs of body parts, that are suspended from the wall with strings and grouped en masse, My Wishes (1989). The camera’s power to freeze a lived moment and return it dead and lifeless is mirrored by Messager’s interest in taxidermy. Stuffed toy animals may be cruelly slit open, eviscerated and turned inside out as in Ensemble (1998) and Remains (Family II) (2000), or stitched onto the bodies of real stuffed animals in Them and Us, Us and Them (2000), like plush Frankenstein’s monsters.
Key landmarks of Messager’s career punctuate this exhibition. Her collection of tiny stuffed birds, The Boarders (1971-72), has gained status as a ‘seminal’ work and is accordingly placed right at the beginning. Rows of birds wearing baby pink, blue, yellow and white hand-knitted clothes lie lifeless in a display case. The maternal gesture of dressing the little creatures warmly is disconcerting, as the knitting appears to bind as much as protect their fragile bodies. Other birds are fitted with mechanisms, or sit on little carts operated by springs and small keys that anticipate Messager’s later installations of automated puppets. The first of those installations, Articulated/Disarticulated (2001-02), was originally made for ‘Documenta 11’ in 2002, and is reinstalled in this exhibition. Inspired by the slaughter of cattle during the outbreak of mad cow disease, Articulated/Disarticulated questions the manipulation of animal life for human gain. These soft dismembered body parts flying through the air or being dragged across the floor on pullies and strings highlight Messager’s unsettling knack for combining the whimsical with the grotesque.
Another room of the Mori Museum is dedicated to one part of Messager’s three room installation, Casino, which won the Golden Lion at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. This installation draws on the story of Pinocchio to explore themes of life, creation, death, chance, loss and alienation. The section installed in the Mori Museum represents Pinocchio’s rescue of Gepetto from the inside of the whale, and features an enormous blood-red silk that billows like a turbulent ocean above glowing sea creatures, organs and other ambiguous forms. Despite including only one component of Casino, overall this exhibition did not feel like a partial or scaled down version of the touring retrospective. Indeed, part of the pleasure of seeing this exhibition at the Mori Museum came from this distinctive context. From the museum coffee shop dessert that reconstructs Messager’s Remains (Family II) out of crepes and fruit, to the group of Japanese toddlers dressed as jack-o’-lanterns who unexpectedly paraded beneath the suspended stuffed animals in Them and Us, Us and Them on Halloween, the Mori Art Museum offered a unique experience of this survey exhibition.