Despite the artist’s notoriety, exhibitions of Annette Messager in French museums are extremely rare. The most recent took place in 2015, and it was in Calais. Today, it is in Villeneuve-d’Ascq (Nord), and this Nordic tropism is not surprising, from an artist born in 1943 in Berck-sur-Mer, in Pas-de-Calais. Sticking to the dates of execution of the works that make it up, this exhibition falls within the genre of the retrospective, since the oldest, My illuminations (1988), are over thirty years old, and the most recent sculptures and installations, just a few months.

But the word “retrospective” is not the right one, and there is not one that is satisfactory to designate the sequence of operations at the end of which the exhibition “As if” was constituted. The best is to go through a comparison. Annette Messager acts like a composer deciding to take up, re-orchestrate and reinterpret many of her old creations and to add new creations to them, which fit into this frame with such precision that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish them. of the first.

Invention et expression

The operatic analogy is all the more justified since Annette Messager is not only the author of the scores and texts, but also the director, decorator and chief lighting designer. “Comme si” is therefore a new and unique work, executed for the place in which the performance is given and because of its architectural particularities, which are numerous in Villeneuve-d’Ascq. Annette Messager is not the only one to act in this way: for many contemporary artists, the exhibition is a genre in itself, which is not to be confused with an addition of already existing works, and which must be recorded and archived. in all its details.

But while many do this, few artists excel as much as she does in this particular genre. “As if” is clearly one of the masterpieces of its author because she arranges in it with a consummate mastery of rhythms, proportions and lights, works of various kinds – drawings, acrylics, sculptures, assemblages of materials – which are themselves, considered separately, remarkable for invention and expression. She divided them between seven successive spaces (six large rooms and a sort of narrower corridor) with, for each, a dominant theme.

Thus there is the map room of France, which is the most explicitly political, from the wall map made of parts of stuffed animals attached to the wall to the tragicomic painting of La France qui digère mal (2000), which would have made Daumier laugh. Thus there is, by way of conclusion, the room of The Revenge of the Animals (2019-2021), invaded by the bestiary of the artist. It is sometimes exotic, since the ensemble entitled Pulsions (2013) features the embraces of hyenas, giraffes, reindeer and lions, like a salute addressed to the artists of the Chauvet cave.

It is more often banal and European – cats, rabbits, country sparrows – and placed under the authority of the snail, which for some years has become the artist’s favorite totem. It’s that this peaceful gastropod has symbolic abilities that had remained unrecognized. When he crawls over the drawing paper, he draws webs of dried slime which, as Messenger traces them, look like parodies of Pollock as much as quivering labyrinths. But, having become a black sculpture, it can carry, instead of a shell, a female breast and becomes a sexual allegory, with its two erect antennae. He then enters into a relationship with other animals, these fantastic ones: the Cancer Octopus (2019), with a breast body and reddened tentacles, symbol of Thanatos, and the Winged Vagina (2018), a bird of Eros with plumage decked out.

Pleasure and destruction

Thus we come to the balance that has animated the whole of Messager’s work since its beginnings, at the end of the 1960s. Although she likes to call herself “messenger without message”, she has taken charge of the confrontation of the principle of pleasure and the instinct of destruction which, incontestably, characterizes the human species in its behaviours, its fantasies and its crimes.

While the contemporary art of the 1970s locked itself in formalisms and vain interrogations on itself, Messager began very early to develop languages ​​heavy with collective symbolic meanings, as collective as what they give to feel and to think: alternatively, the intensity of desires, whatever their objects and their way of being satisfied, and the violence of passing time and death. She inscribes them sometimes in separate figures, sometimes in installations where they confront each other.

Figures separated from pleasures: in addition to the Winged Vaginas, the variations on the same motif which she made a wallpaper and those on the female figure inscribed in a symmetrical geometry of black, angular or triangular sculptures, which are also homages to statuary ancient African. Figures separated from death: human skulls, dancing skeletons, birds on their backs with legs in the air, the series of drawings caught in nets Requiem for Joan (2021) – Joan of Arc, of course – or the models of collapsing buildings, Notre-Dame de Paris, the Eiffel Tower or the Center Pompidou.

Installations in tension: they punctuate the course. For starters, Daily, from 2015-2016: greatly enlarged scissors, spikes, anatomy, and rat corpses hanging from the ceiling and dropping to the floor. To follow, the series Mes illuminations, in which the letters are inhabited by female and male bodies or organs, but are also the first of a word: B for “brute”, J for “jobard”, L for “loose – this is to remind us that Messager was one of the pioneers of feminist criticism, from her Albums collections, begun in 1971 and an exhaustive description of the condition of the model housewife.

And, between the two, Dessus sous (2015) resumes, while purifying it, one of the ideas of Casino, the artist’s participation in the Venice Biennale, in 2005. Agitated by a wind tunnel which inflates it with waves , an immense red veil covers shapes that can only be seen fleetingly when they are illuminated. In these moments, we believe we see the organs of a body whose skin has become briefly translucent. Shades of red intoxicate a great chromatic enjoyment. But, underneath, there is the anatomy lesson.