Writing and Illustration by Selin Genc.
A flock of taxidermy sparrows lie like sleeping little children, cosily tucked, wrapped in tiny sweaters. Misshapen plush toys are impaled on metal pikes, like decapitated heads from a make-believe revolution. The uncanny world of the French multimedia artist Annette Messager (1943- ) conjures a sacred realm, where she mixes naiveté with violence, playfulness with seriousness, and high with low culture. She produces heterogeneous identifications and refuses hierarchical relations by destabilising the boundaries between subject/object, animate/inanimate, and reality/imaginary, and inspires playful modes of communion and disruption.
Annette Messager, Sans titre (Untitled), 1993.
In an untitled 1993 installation, a pitched mosquito net sprawls out onto the gallery floor like dense mist. Under its cover, draped by the skirts, are creatures in a circular formation. The members of this in-group are all animals: a taxidermy falcon and duck; a plush toy bunny and squirrel; and some Frankenstenian amalgamations, such a toy cat’s head stitched onto the preserved body of a real one. Natural enemies are in a ceasefire during this communitas; anthropologists Victor Turner defines this term as the liminal collective psychic experience that forms a spirit of the community and brings all members (even if temporarily) onto an equal footing. The creaturely congregation is turned inwards and we, the onlookers, are excluded from their liminal space. Could this bestial ritual be a circle of solidarity in the wake of a traumatic event? By renouncing humans from their circle, the animals seem to excommunicate the domineering biped who has for too long subordinated nature. Messager’s ode to collectivity expresses a yearning for a community spirit, which simultaneously rejects subject-object relationships, as this division has pit culture against nature and has finally lead to ecological demise. Now humanity risks its own extinction too. In Lascaux, or the Birth of Art avant-garde writer Georges Bataille argues that the introduction of the tool, c. 500,000 years ago, was a traumatic event for humanity. When cavemen became homo faber, this propelled their separation from animals, and humanity found itself increasingly constrained by its own systems of values and meanings. According to Bataille, this trauma was reignited in modernity, when humanity found itself cornered in a dead-end of meanings and political directions. By imagining a world where our hierarchical categories no longer hold any currency, Messager’s tent shelters those rendered most vulnerable during this crisis.
Annette Messager, Trophée; petites fesses, 1986-1988
Let’s take a look at another work where Messager devises a chimeric and metamorphotic figure. In a charcoal drawing Trophée; petites fesses, amidst shadows, a round figure is illuminated. With a trick of the eye, or rather of the imagination, this figure equally appears to be the backside of a nude woman and the face of an animal— the seal of the human ego is broken and opened onto the heterogeneous world. In talking of animal mimicry, sociologist Roger Caillois discusses the tendency for organisms to become ‘no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others’ when they imitate an environment or another creature. As in Messager’s woman-cum-bear (or bear-cum-woman), subject-object relations are destabilised between two supposedly stable particulars and all becomes connected without the establishment of a hierarchical order. Yet abandoning the ego and becoming lost in the other runs its risks too, such as becoming subsumed by the dominant regime. However, Caillois presents mimicry as a political weapon of guerrilla warfare against the witless variant of mimesis cultivated by totalitarian regimes. He proposes ‘a strategic depersonalisation’, channeling a chaotic energy which might be able to disrupt the totalising hegemony of fascism and capitalism. By using tactics such as mimicry, art plays a great role in the channelling of such strategic disorder.
Annette Messager, Les Dépouilles (Skins), 1997
In her 1996 and 1997 works Dissection and Les Dépouilles (Skins), Messager opens up, carves into, and lays bare the innards of plush toys and children's clothes like sacrificial victims. The inner linings of the clothes are pulled apart and pegged onto a wall, rendering the garbs unrecognisable. The small plushies are also pinned, but in a vertical row which resembles a totem pole. They open up symmetrically— evocative of Rorschach tests or monstrous orchids. The French word dépouille refers to animal hides. Violence, and more specifically sacrifice, is the means by which the profane is converted into the sacred; through violent means, Messager has imbued these profane objects —a little girl’s pink coat, a toddler’s blue bear— with a sacred aura, like sacrificed creatures. Her operations are not much different from what children are often capable of. The sinister installations remind us of our own infantile perversions and discredits the suggestion that childhood is an innocent and risk-free period. Despite children’s play seeming trivial to adult eyes, the stakes for those experiencing it are akin to the stakes of adult religious rituals. This state of psychic openness can imbue the profane, such as the toy, with sacred meaning, transcending designated meanings and defying the rules of unimaginative adult conventions. In their state of play, they propel serious, sacred operations. From children’s games, one may glimpse an opening for the possibility to do away with object hierarchies. Messager’s childish sacrifices remind us that this state of defiance starts almost at infancy— an important impulse we must not allow the adult world to domesticate.
Annette Messager, Dissection, 1996
For the possibility of any positive political change, it is necessary to instigate a wholesale ontological dismantling; one that opposes modern individualism, which renders people servile, and seeks an unadulterated collectivity and a headless communitas. In our current age, when we feel evermore isolated while also living under the canopy of an increasingly totalising system, there might appear to be no room to navigate, neither communally nor autonomously. Art, though far from being an autonomous sphere, may provide a glimpse into alternative modes of being and call normative orders into question, to bring us into a more collective imaginative space. In its invitation for displacement, art can make subject-object relations topsy-turvy and may incite feelings of wonder, joy, and playfulness, alongside discomfort, terror, and ambivalence— all of these affects coincide in Messager’s oeuvre. Her work encourages that we should get together, not just in harmony, but in a spirit of child-like and animalistic dissidence.
Bataille, Georges. Prehistoric Painting : Lascaux, Or, the Birth of Art. Geneva: Skira; London: Macmillan, 1980.
Caillois, Roger. “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia.” Trans. John Shepley. October 31 (1984): 16-32. Kristeva, Julia. The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt: The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis. New
York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Turner, Edith. 2012. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.