Recently Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) showed the first retrospective exhibition in Australia of Annette Messager’s work. There were pieces created from the early 1970s to the present, including large kinetic installations.
A lot of the works referenced the human body – its presence or absence, movement or stillness. There was often a duality, sometimes a rather sinister note, or at least observations of things we might prefer not to notice.Empty gloves had sharpened pencil inserts like long claws. Photographs with glimpses of grimacing faces were framed by the wrist band. Is it a visual play, creating a weird character from discarded clothing? Has the defence/protection of the warm glove been perverted into a means of attack? Is it simply an absurd, perhaps amusing, combination of everyday domestic items? Signage at the MCA suggests these pencil-gloves symbolise the artistic process. The empty glove evokes the human presence. But here the gloves mass to form a human head – or skull.
I found the work shown to the right even more sinister and unsettling.
This is a series of children’s clothes and soft toys, unstitched and opened out. Gallery information suggested they resemble carcasses or targets, but they reminded me of photographs of the aftermath of some terrible explosion or bomb. There is a sense of viciousness, of wanton destruction.
Looking at it now reminds me of butterfly and insect specimens that have been pinned out for display, presented for the cool eyes of the collector. Really horrid.In contrast, walking around a display of the products of a disembowelment was more intriguing than disturbing to me. What were all those soft fabric organs? Lungs were easy to pick, along with other more obvious items, but much was quite anonymous to me.
On the walls around were small sketches and watercolours of body organs, connected by a maze of yarn. Small items of knitted clothing such as socks joined their unravelling extremities to the exercise.
The hanging organs swayed slightly with the movement of the air, and a few strategically placed light bulbs created a mass of shadows on the walls. Both movement and shadows recurred frequently in the works included in the exhibition. One that seemed a particular joy, but difficult to photograph, was Le Tutu dansant (The Dancing Tutu), 2012. A froth of tulle was suspended from the ceiling, while on the floor below a strong fan sent up blasts of air. The tutu danced and spun in the absence of the ballerina.Language and text were also seen in a number of works. Sometimes they were repeated over and over, losing meaning. In Chance (above) and Désir (detail on the right), the single words were wrapped in a knotted net and cast their shadows on the wall. Enigmatic and rather beautiful. Ma collection de proverbes included both a book and individual stitched and framed texts of proverbs, “received wisdom” about women. The one shown here translates as “When a woman is born, even the walls cry”. Messager doesn’t seem to be a feminist as such, and doesn’t appear to be reflecting on her personal experience. The chauvinistic views are abhorrent, the stitching a clear reference to domesticity and traditional woman’s work, but it felt more like a calm presentation than a denunciation.
Obviously I brought my textile orientation to the exhibition, and there was a lot of work involving textiles. However Ma collection de proverbes was the only one which seemed to involve Messager in the actual use of textile techniques.
A resource area off the side of the gallery included copies of catalogues and books about Messager, as well as these samples of materials available for touching. So some of the things I find most important about the textiles, the hand and drape, were seen by the curator at least as of interest. But overall I would say that Messager finds the connotations of textiles of interest, as well as the absence of the body that is apparent in old clothing – not anything purely about the textiles themselves. If there was something else that had similar associations she could just as well use that.
My interest in using textiles goes beyond that, in a way that I ponder about but which is not clear to me. Working with textiles gives me a pleasure and interest which I think goes beyond the associations I see used by Messager and I think Hiromi Tango (see 30-Oct-2014). This is all mixed up in my mind with “art” and “textile art” and “craft”. At the moment I want textiles and/or textile techniques to be predominant in my work, but somehow I want them to be part of answering or responding to wider questions and concerns. I don’t really know what I mean by that… I’ll keep pondering.