Interview: Annette Messager

Featuring artworks created over four decades, ‘Annette Messager: Motion/Emotion’ (2014) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, is playful and disturbing in equal measures. Here Annette Messager and I talk about making art, the past, and what her works might mean. 

 Annette Messager, Chance.   ©  Lucy Rees. 

Annette Messager, Chance.  © Lucy Rees. 

Lucy Rees: Let’s talk about your interest in the so-called ‘devalued arts’ – the art of the everyday.

Annette Messager: I have always wanted to use materials everyone knows about and has access to. I grew up in a small town called Berck-sur-Mer, which was a sanitarium. In the nineteenth century many sick people would visit and all would make poetry, paint, write, and tell stories. Art was not even considered a ‘therapy’, everyone was simply making art.

  Mes Veux,  1989.   ©  Lucy Rees 

Mes Veux, 1989.  © Lucy Rees 

  Mes Veux,   1989 (detail). 

Mes Veux, 1989 (detail). 

LR: How did you make the transition to being an exhibiting artist in Paris?

AM: There was a decisive moment where I said I would become a professional artist – even though I find the term horrible.  I decided to meet people from the art world and went along to an exhibition opening of an artist I really liked in Paris. I didn't know anybody so it was incredibly daunting. I observed the way people were talking to the artist and saying the most stupid things. I wanted to say something more meaningful so I approached the artist and was invited to a dinner afterwards - now I hate dinners and avoid them at all costs – but I was young and excited. A critic asked me what I did and I replied that I was an artist and asked if he wanted to see my work. His response was ‘to see your work, no. But to sleep with you, yes’. That was an eye opening experience! 

LR: Your work is a mélange of mythology, fairytales, religion, sorcery, the occult, astrology. What is it about these themes that interest you?

AM: It’s not the ideologies that conjure interest for me. I like the symbols, the forms, and the aesthetics. With Mes Veux, for example, I had been awarded a travel scholarship and spent some time looking at the churches of Southern Italy and Greece. The ex voto plaques often included little limbs made of wax hanging in a gathered bunch.

LR: At the end of the 1970s in France it was commonly accepted that artists were not to mix mediums. There were also very distinct movements – Conceptualism, Surrealism, Minimalism. But you have never really been interested in following convention. Would you call yourself an outsider artist?

AM: I suppose the thing I like about outsider art is that it is timeless. I hate that someone can be considered ‘a good artist from the 1980s’. At the time I was practising in France, there were two schools of thought – Henri Matisse, who was painting with colour, versus Marcel Duchamp, who was about the rational. I did love the Surrealists and the Dadaists, of course, and I read a lot of Andre Breton’s manifesto but it was so formulaic. I wouldn’t say I work entirely independently either; we are all living in a particular place and time and you cannot help be influenced by things. I absorb everything. I am a thief; I take the things I see. 

LR: Language and text are central to your practice, from your embroidery ‘Collection de Proverbs’ (1974–2012), to the Lignes de la main, 1988, where you obsessively write the same word down the wall. 

   Lignes de la main,    1988.   ©   Lucy Rees 

Lignes de la main, 1988. © Lucy Rees 

   Lignes de la main,    1988 (detail). 

Lignes de la main, 1988 (detail). 

AM: I like to repeat the same word hundreds of times to the point where it loses all sense. It becomes a litany, mantra or song. I’m really fascinated by language and words.

LR: Over time your works have become substantially darker in colour. Was this a conscious decision?

AM: It wasn’t conscious at all, but I am older. There has been a lot of progress for women, for example, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Annette Messager MCA Sydney Lucy Rees

LR: What do you think has changed in the art world?

AM: In the 1970s there was only America, France and Germany. England didn't even exist. Now there’s the whole world. In a way its better because it’s more open, but at the same time things are worse because all anyone talks about is money. It wasn’t a business before; it was about art. It's not like that for me because I am old, but I am honestly not sure if I would be an artist today. 

LR: Are art and life one and the same?

AM: You know the artist Robert Filliou? He said that art exists to make life more beautiful.

  The gloves-grimaces,   1999

The gloves-grimaces, 1999

annette messager mca sydney lucy rees art
 Head-gloves, 1999. 

Head-gloves, 1999. 

LR: Yet a lot of your works aren’t conventionally ‘beautiful’, preferring to reveal the cracks, the broken, and the parts we don’t always want to see.

AM: With a box of crayons most people comment on the colour looking so beautiful all together, but I see them as dangerous. They way they form the fingers of the gloves in The gloves-grimaces, 1999, they have become weapons. I like to play with the negative and positive connotations of things, the beautiful and sinister.

Annette Messager: Motion/Emotion, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 24 July – 26 October 2014. 

A version of this interview was first published on the Art and Australia website. 

About Annette Messager: 

Annette Messager was born in Berck-sur-Mer, France, in 1943. She has exhibited in solo shows since 1973, including exhibitions at the Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture in Grenoble, France (1973), Saint Louis Art Museum (1980), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1981), Bonner Kunstverein in Bonn, Germany (1990), the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1995), Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires (1999), Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2004), Musée D’Orsay in Paris (2006), and Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris (2007). She has participated widely in group exhibitions, including the Biennale de Paris (1977), Documenta 6 and 11 (1977 and 2002), Biennale of Sydney (1979, 1984, and 1990), Venice Biennale (1980, 2003, and 2005), Biennale d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (2000), and the Liverpool Biennial (2008). Messager was awarded the Leone d’Oro for her work in the 2005 Venice Biennale. She lives and works in Malakoff, a suburb of Paris.

Read more about the artist's life here.