An interview with Annette Messager by Frances Colpitt
Frances Colpitt: There is a connection in your work between fragmentation and accumulation. The body is fragmented in photographs of body parts, ears and feet for example, or in using only the head of birds. You are also a collector, accumulating many objects. Could you talk about how those two ideas are related?
Annette Messager: You’ve answered the question!… I make fragmentations of the body in order to collect them and to put them together.
FC: So are you building a body in a metaphorical way?
AM: Yes, with man and woman together. It’s not a man, it’s not a woman. It’s human, and it’s all people. I take pictures of part of the nose of somebody, part of the leg of another person, and parts of other people, and then it becomes one person.
FC: The little birds in their costumes result also from a process of not just accumulation, but of building a creature. Is that right?
AM: Yes, maybe I am Frankenstein! Yes, that was a woman, Mary Shelley, who wrote the story. She created a man in her story, and he created somebody else. He created from the parts of other people. In my work, the parts of bodies are my milagros. I have the photos–my milagros–in my laboratory where I take a part of one body and then a part from another, and they all belong to me. The animals too. I put masks on them to disguise them. I never take a picture of a face because a face is somebody, an arm is not recognizable as somebody. When you take a photograph of someone’s face, it identifies it as somebody, but if you take just a fragment, it’s everybody. It’s not one person. A lot of people think my work is about sex, or people say I am just looking at just one part of the body, because the genitalia are included. That is silly because there are eyes, there are noses, and ears, too. The sexual parts of the body that I photograph are just one thing. But, we have sex, too!
FC: The titles of your works are often possessive, Mes Trophes, Mes Effigies. Do you consider them autobiographical?
AM: They are a collection of possessions. If you collect something, you begin to understand it, how it fits in your collection. I collect the work to know how things exist.
FC: The idea occurs to me that if you are constructing these little animals by completing their bodies with costumes then, like Frankenstein, you are also asserting a kind of power and performing magic.
AM: Yes, that’s art. It is to possess in order to understand the world.
FC: Are the potions, the little bottles that you purchased in the botanicas here in San Antonio, part of the magic?
AM: Yes, they are for the body, for good luck, for good health, and for love.
FC: Are you supposed to drink them?
AM: No, it’s not a drink, it is a perfume.
FC: Does it smell good?
AM: I have many of them and you have to open them to put the little strings in them. After working with them, I have the perfume all over me. All together they smell awful!
FC: Are they all positive, all for good things?
AM: I hope so.
FC: It’s not black magic?
AM: Yes, that too…. It’s very beautiful, it’s very simple and very naive to think that if you have a bottle the world will change and you will be happy. It’s like going to church to pray and to cry. However, the images are themselves very beautiful, and touch me deeply.
FC: You don’t think it will work? You don’t believe in magic?
AM: I want to believe in something but it is difficult to think it would work. But we need to have things like that. In Mexican churches, there are a lot of milagros, which always represent parts of the body, and are suspended in the way that I hang the objects in my shows.
FC: Before I talked to you today, I was thinking that the fragmentation in your work was simply a cultural response to the fragmentation of contemporary society, but it’s not that. Mine’s a more pessimistic interpretation.
AM: Yes, I love the books of Roland Barthes, especially Fragments d’un Discours Amoreux [Fragments: A Lover’s Discourse]. It is a very beautiful book. It was very important for me. He says you can speak about the body you love only in parts. When you see somebody you love, you say “I like your mouth, I like your eyes.” You see and can speak of only parts of the body, rather than the whole.
FC: Is your work also about death and mortality?
AM: It includes something about death, and about love, because the photos always have something to do with death. The photograph is like taxidermy. It is like the animals I use. They are posed in order to appear to be alive, but they are dead. Their time has passed. The photos have to do with time and loss, and conclusion. The photographs are very black, black and white. In the photos, it is as if somebody is dead.
And also, I like to use these materials not only for what they mean, but for the visual sense, for beauty. I have the small bottles with their different colors, the photos, the nets, the birds. For me the visual is very important. It is all going together and coming together, like the communion of the animals, what it means and what it looks like. The title of my show here is Protection, Protection, Protection… The nets, the milagros, and the bottles of perfumes protect us. The nets also enclose and conceal the things inside. You cannot touch what is protected by the nets, but you can see through them. With this show, the spectator is like a voyeur. Each viewer develops his or her own interpretation of my proposals. A flea which is born in the morning is a grandmother in the evening.