Monday, 11 May 2009

Annette Messager at the Hayward

Through the magic of facebook I was indirectly recommended to go see the Annette Messager retrospective at the Hayward, the art component of the beautifully ugly brutalist animal that is the Southbank Centre.

Being only an armchair enthusiast and not a lecture-hall-seat devotee to art history I was unfamiliar with her work. So a quick peek at the Timeout rundown (art authority that it is) enlightened me on the fact that she is an artist concerned with gender politics who executes work with a sense of play, as in child's play. Great! I thought, I did a bit of gender studies at uni, I can tackle this! But I was also intrigued with this 'play' aspect. Could this exhibition be fun too?

Messager's work involves a wide variety of materials and media, from drawing to my favourite of contemporary art, the wacky installation. And in line with what our friends at Timeout said, there is a clear preoccupuation with gender issues. Messager uses craftsy, domestic materials like wool and plastic shopping bags to allude to gender roles but also uses stuffed toys and feminine clothing to play up 'softness'. These 'feminine' media are employed in quite morbid or violent constructions. In these works it's easy to make the connection between the experience of being a woman and the associated societal injustices and marginalisation of the women's world view. References are often made to the female body and how it is viewed as object and landscape. This is all interesting in itself and but what makes this different from feminist art I've seen is the apparent childlike whimsy and tongue-in-cheek approach.

It's too hard for me to cover most or even a significant minority of her work in great detail. That gets boring very quickly, especially when I'm writing this for 'fun'. I recommend you go down and have look for yourself. It's a great exhibition that's well curated so you're not left hanging at all.

What I will do is write about a couple of works which grabbed my attention for longer than the required 30-60 seconds of furrowed brow I usually give.

The Horrifying Adventures of Annette the Trickster

Tucked into a corner in the first room, this piece is more introverted than the giant winged Chimeras on the opposite wall. It consists of a dozen or so framed photographs of pen sketches, each sketch depicting acts of violence and torture by evil looking men against a nude bonded woman. Why is this woman being tortured? Is she being punished? Is she innocent or guilty? The scenes of torture and bondage and the word "trickster" brought about associations of the Salem witch trials where certain women, often those who lived alone or secluded lives with other women were scapegoated for their gender role deviation and blamed for the poor villagers' misfortune. Here Messager draws parallels with those atrocities and the experience of being a woman artist in 70s France.

Although the subject matter is dark, the sketches are done in pen on grid paper, a medium not uncommon inside the classroom. In fact, the informal drawing style and uncomplicated compositions of each sketch make them appear as though they were drawn at the back of some boring class on a Friday afternoon. With such a pulpy, comic book title to the work, Messager includes in that element of childhood (or adolescent) play that is present in all her work.

Story of Dresses

Here Messager places young girls' dresses in wooden boxes with glass lids. They are attached to the wall with the glass facing the viewer allowing us to see each dress. On each dress is a series of pictures of otherworldly objects or fantastical places. The combination of childhood dresses and these images conjure up memories of that special type of wonder one experiences as a child. The colourful dresses relate this wonder to childhood appearance and by extension, childhood identity. By having these dresses and pictures kept in coffin-like boxes and arranged coldly against the wall as if by an entomologist, Messager presents the death of childhood as cultural artifact, to be contemplated by the chin-stroking adults of the gallery. One can see the irony in having childhood 'critically engaged' in this way.

Fables and Tales

3 stacks of fiction books with 2 stacks of stuffed toys in between, on each stack of books is a single stuffed real animal. Here Messager equates stories with stuffed animals (tales, tails, geddit?). After contemplating how uncomfortable it would be to be stacked like that I wondered why children's stories always involve anthropomorphic animals? Would the often moralistic tales of childhood be less palatable to children's tastes if they involved everyday human people? Is it a reflection of parents' concern to teach children about rights and wrong while also sheltering them from the harsh realities which play out everyday by having these stories acted out by animals and thus maintaining some buffer from the real world? *breathes in heavily* well? maybe. The 3 stuffed (as in taxidermy stuffed) animals led me to speculate what stories with speaking animals would be like if they were real. What if a free range chicken did start shouting that the sky is falling? Presented this way would we still search for the moral of the story or just start a program of anti-psychotic drugs for this crazy chicken?


The final work in the show, A-D consists of a dozen or so soft animal toys of indeterminate species subjected to motorised pulleys, pulling and yanking their limbs in a sad spectacle of futility against hardship. Saddest, and funniest, of them all is the cow/bear looking thing, sad already with half its stuffing missing, being dragged by the neck, tracing a square on the gallery floor for eternity. According to the description on the gallery wall, this pieces was a reaction to the mad cow disease saga in the UK but really, it reveals the absurdity of life, suffering and our earnest efforts to survive.

In other news there's a new post at Empty Swimming Pool.

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