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Annette Messager: Avec et sans raisons - Marian Goodman Gallery London

Exhibition preview

MARIAN Goodman is presenting Annette Messager’s first solo exhibition at the London gallery. Entitled Avec et sans raisons, it will be on display from April 19 to May 22, 2017.

Messager’s work has not been shown in London since her 2009 solo exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.

With the exception of three pieces from the 1984–86 series Mes Reliques (My Relics), visitors will discover recent works, some never shown before.

The exhibition brings together works that display a diversity of forms: small assemblages of objects, acrylic washes, textile works in the form of installations, and a wallpaper. As she often does, Annette Messager cultivates antithesis, complementarity, and, as ever, polysemy.

Even the title of the exhibition seems programmatic. As Annette Messager’s fondness for word-play and punning is well known, one can venture a double reading of the word raison. On one level, Avec et sans raisons may be understood to mean “having reason, or cause, for doing something, or not”; but one could go further and take it to mean “being deprived, or in possession of, the faculty of reason.”

Messager offers an experience full of contrasts. While some works have a clear underlying rationality, the absurd character of others soon comes to undermine it. The collection as a whole reveals an irreducible freedom of spirit.

Alluding to Pascal who, in Les Pensées (1670), drew a distinction between the “geometric mind” which analyzes reality through the lens of reason, and the “intuitive mind,” which, above all, “sees the matter at once, at a glance, and not by a process of reasoning,” Messager invites the visitors to put their “geometric mind” to the test and make use of their “intuitive mind” in order to better succumb to the lightness of what seems to have no raison d’être.

There thus are three works that will take the viewer by surprise: Gants croix, Gants triangle, and Gants croix oblique (2017). The minimalism of these three pieces, made of simple lengths of taut string with end-points in the form of gloves studded with colored pencils, stands out. Their mathematical rectitude, however, gives way to an unruly tangle of references, presenting us with utmost whimsy – as in En trottinette (On my Scooter) (2017), 3 Escargots-seins (3 Snails-breast) (2017), Le Bras chaussure (The Arm Shoe) (2015), or En équilibre (In Balance) (2015).

These sculptures intensify unusual associations between objects, including breasts shaped like snail shells, an infant’s arm emerging from a child’s shoe, a carbonized Barbie doll precariously balanced with both legs in the air. The resulting bizarre forms, as much uncanny as burlesque, defy any rational reading.

In the work “Mémoire Robots” (2015), where the words “memory” written with metal wire covered with a thick black net and “robots” written with soft coloured letters, Messager asks another metaphysical question that already preoccupied 17th and 18th centuries philosophers: does human nature contain a machine component?

Messager asks this question today, with even greater relevance in that one can now identify man in machines due to the development of artificial intelligence. Indeed, robots have come to replace man in a number of professional fields, they are a part of our daily lives and have in some ways become extensions of ourselves, safeguarding our memories and managing our social lives.

It is said that reason gives humans the faculty of judgment, the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Yet Annette Messager, also known for multiple identities, continuously blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. By disseminating the motif of the mask, namely in the installation Les 7 balais (The 7 Brooms) (2011) and the assemblages La Chaussure à double visage (The Two-faced Shoe) (2016), the artist cultivates subterfuge.

Some works, in turn, alter our perception of reality by presenting spectacular variations in scale. The monumental installation Daily (2016), composed of everyday objects hung from the ceiling, as if sewn to giants, generates a Lilliputian experience. Walking among enormous trinkets, the visitor experiences a strange inversion of proportions: the objects we routinely handle and which fit in the palm of the hand, are now out of reach. We feel as if we were in the shoes of Alice in Wonderland who had just swallowed a shrinking potion.

While reason is one path in our quest for truth, Messager never forgets that it is also the normative one. In response, the installation Les Interdictions (2014) suggests a mutinous relationship with the norm, as well as a critique of our deceptively emancipated times. Messager collected, and then re-drew, sixty-eight pictograms from around the world designating various interdictions. The sixty-ninth frame takes up the saying “It’s forbidden to forbid” coined by the actor Jean Yanne during the strikes of May 1968, and which then became the emblematic slogan of that moment in French history.

The desire for freedom and emancipation manifests itself with power and jubilation in Messager’s latest drawings. Painted using acrylic wash, some represent Femen in action, insolently baring their chests which serve as the canvas for such incisive catchphrases as I Am My Own Prophet (2017) or Fuck Your Morals (2016). Some drawings depict efflorescent or vengeful uteruses, as in To My Desire (2017), where a brash uterus twists one of its tubes to give the finger.

Other drawings represent isolated breasts, either in pairs or in a multitude, as in La Mer de Seins (2016). As always in Messager’s work, humor is just below the surface, and the uteruses seem swept by a wave of frivolity as they pirouette as innocently as little colored flowers the artist used as a motif in her wallpaper.

The ultimate lightheartedness and tomfoolery is perhaps best embodied in the recent work Tututérus (2017), exhibited here for the first time. It is a sculpture in the shape of a pink uterus attached to a puffy black leotard, suspended in mid-air and dancing in the wind generated by electric fans placed on the ground.

Finally, the spindly rag dolls Annette Messager installed above Interdictions, or the small wooden puppet tangled in his own viscera which the artist entitled Pinocchio dans ses entrailles (Pinocchio in his Entrails) (2008), or again the word Icone which she enveloped in black netting and which seems to be tumbling down like an overturned symbol, once again bring to mind Pascal pointing out the misery of the human condition and mocking human vanity.

While Annette Messager may observe others with an irony which is somewhat dark, she never forgets that they are also full of desires and dreams. Thus the word Désir is spelled out on the wall, large as life, and draped in black netting.

Marian Goodman Gallery, 5-8 Lower John St, Soho, London, W1F 9DY