Annette Messager offers intimate intrigue in Calais

By Mark Sheerin - Friday, January 8, 2016
Annette Messager offers intimate intrigue in Calais

Consider if you will the bolster, a firm tubular pillow used in continental Europe. Right now some 420 of them flood the atrium of the Musée des beaux arts in Calais. They flow from a balcony to the ground floor, where they puddle in a spotlit maze. Amidst this intimate nest, abject puppets sprawl, and play out dark vignettes. But although there is a story here, the narrative is as private as a locked bedroom.

Annette Messager offers intimate intrigue in Calais

Consider if you will the bolster, a firm tubular pillow used in continental Europe. Right now some 420 of them flood the atrium of the Musée des beaux arts in Calais. They flow from a balcony to the ground floor, where they puddle in a spotlit maze. Amidst this intimate nest, abject puppets sprawl, and play out dark vignettes. But although there is a story here, the narrative is as private as a locked bedroom.

Mistress of this crowded boudoir, Annette Messager, is one of France’s foremost artists and winner of the Golden Lion at Venice in 2005. But she remains hard to pin down. Her public has faced a range of personae, as she has been trickster, peddler, an artist and a collector, a practical maker and a self-proclaimed witch. Her major survey here returns to a cluster of motifs, and the recurrence of puppets, mannequins and fashion appears as fluid as her identity.

The upshot of this self-referencing is that while many of the works here speak to one another, few speak in unambiguous terms with the audience. Puppets appear in three more significant installations: 3 Pantins PQ (2015) where three are pinned aloft with tails of toilet paper; Notre Planète (2014-15), in which they rise and fall on globes made of parachute fabric; and Les Interdictions (2014) where they scale a wall of warning signs. Their struggle is touching, but faceless as they are, they withhold easy readings from the sentient observer.

Not that each work is without intrigue. 3 Pantins PQ reads like a bright, childish crucifixion scene, a bathroom Golgotha. Notre Planète evokes geopolitics and, as has been pointed out, the migrant crisis here in Calais. Les Interdictions, with its rich accumulation of rules and regulations, has a spirit of anarchy. But none of these pieces are didactic. For an artist called Messager, there is very little message. Instead we perhaps have Annette the Trickster, whose works fox viewers and defy paraphrase. 

Annette Messager, 3 Pantins PQ

There is little gloss either. These works are not only provisional, they retain a quality that is handmade, even home-made. This is thrown into relief at the Museum of Lace, in which the counterpoint to so many bolsters at the MBA is a forest of lace tools in imitation leather, suspended above the display cases. This is where Messager’s improvisational approach comes up against the well-drilled, mechanised production of a luxury textile.

These menacing black needles, scissors and pins suggest the nearby presence of a predator, perhaps a spider, since the cross-referential imagery spins a web across town. One thinks of the motherly arachnids of French precursor, Louise Bourgeois. But Messager has recast this maligned insect with a bright sidestep and responded to her predecessor with a spider crab, put together out of 13 lacey bras. Lingerie is, of course, every bit as intimate as pillow talk and such found objects will ambush you with a sexual pull.

Annette Messager, 13 soutiens gorge

Lace, too, is a web. The local artist makes this point with a snare-like arrangement of draped tape measures, presented here as a homage to the seamstresses who worked in Calais. Before the turn to digital technology, lacemaking was a dangerous trade causing serious problems to eyesight and hearing. So this elegant sculpture, from another intimate found object, speaks for victims of history, and for workers in sweat shops around the world. Fashion, here, is another web, in which the so called ‘little hands’ of the world are ensnared for life.

If political message this be, it is a highly personal one, a memorial rather than a sermon. Messager grew up in Berck-sur-Mer, 60km from Calais, and addresses the themes which resonate most in this part of the world: the inequities of the garment industry and the crisis nearby at the so-called Jungle. In this respect, she stays true to her formative encounter with art when, as a child, she was taken to see the Burghers of Calais.

Annette Messager, notre planète, 2014-15

Rodin’s monumental outdoor sculpture, which remains in the centre of town, narrates a 14th century event in which six city councillors volunteered for execution to spare the populace. Like the current show, it deals in agony rather than activism. And Messager reports feeling terror before this world famous bronze and a fascination with the outsize key to the city. 

It is tempting to say this detail can unlock the rest of her work. But this artist understands the power of meaning held in reserve.

Annette Messager: “Dessus Dessous” can be seen at Musée des beaux-arts and la Cité de la dentelle et de la mode until May 15 2016

Above: Annette Messager portrait Image, 2014, © Marc Domage

Mark Sheerin is a journalist, writer and blogger from the UK. He holds a degree in English and Spanish American Literature from the University of Warwick, and an MA in English Literature: Critical Theory, from the University of Sussex. A former copywriter, Mark retrained in 2009, gaining an NCTJ certificate in Magazine Journalism from City College Brighton. Since then he has written for Hyperallergic, Culture24 and The Arts Desk, interviewing the likes of Yinka Shonibare, Jake Chapman, Glenn Ligon, Mary Kelly, Nathan Coley, and Marcus Coates. The latter story was syndicated by Whitechapel/MIT for their book Documents of Contemporary Art: Nature. He is also author of the art blog criticismism. In 2014, criticismism appeared in top ten blog lists from Cision, Creative Boom and CreativeTourist. Between 2009 and 2011 Mark also covered live music events for best-selling paper News of the World.

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Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

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