ART : A Private World of Women : Annette Messager makes art about women's rituals, the secrets they develop in a world of male privilege. Just don't call her a feminist.

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

'I found my voice as an artist when I stepped on a dead sparrow on a street in Paris in 1971," recalls French artist Annette Messager, whose work is the subject of a retrospective exhibition opening Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "I didn't know why, but I was sure this sparrow was important because it was something very fragile that was near me and my life.

"Like the people I love, these small birds were always around me, yet they remained strange and mysterious. So I picked up the sparrow, took it home and knit a wool wrap for it. Why? I can't say. You want to do something and don't know why--all you know is that you have no choice, that it's a necessity."

That sparrow was the first in a "family" of dead sparrows that Messager collected, preserved and clothed for presentation in "The Boarders" ("Les Pensionnaires"), a haunting, morbidly funny work completed in 1972 that was to launch her career. Messager baptized her sparrows, created devices to discipline them and take them for walks, made an alphabet of feathers to teach them language, and displayed them in orderly rows. The roots of much of Messager's subsequent work can be found in "The Boarders," which incorporates allusions to the need for control, women's handicrafts, fetishism and fakery, the act of collecting and cataloguing, the experience of loss and mourning, and fictional narrative.

Regarded in Europe as one of the key artists of her generation, Messager has exhibited regularly there for 22 years, but remains largely unknown in this country. She has, in fact, never had an L.A. exhibition before the LACMA show, which includes 58 works and three site-specific installations dating from 1971-95.

That the show was co-curated by LACMA associate curator of 20th-Century art Carol Eliel and Sheryl Conkelton, associate curator of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art, is indicative of the complexity of Messager's work. Photographs--some that she takes, many more that she appropriates--play a central role in her work, and she's often described as a photographer. She, however, insists that she is not, and summarizes photography as "the horror of time reduced to a quarter of a second"; traditional photographic concerns clearly aren't what's driving her.

The LACMA show, which travels to New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago after closing here Sept. 3, is a fairly splashy debut for a woman who describes herself as shy, and one gets the impression it all makes her a bit nervous. Meeting with the 52-year-old artist in a Greek restaurant near LACMA, one encounters a decidedly French woman--which is to say she's graceful, beautifully dressed, and she smokes. Soft-spoken yet strongly opinionated, Messager seems to visibly wince when asked pointed questions about her work, which she designs to operate in a zone of mystery and intuition. Being interviewed leaves her so distracted she hardly touches her lunch.

The label most often affixed to Messager's work, which often deals with the subjugation of the female body, is feminist; this is a tag she both accepts and rejects.

"I'm reluctant to call my work feminist because in France feminism is different than it is here. American feminism is much more dogmatic," says Messager, who lives outside Paris in Malakoff with her companion of 22 years, artist Christian Boltanski. "France is a Latin country where machismo is important, but it's also the country of Simone de Beauvoir. It's a country of contradiction with a strong sense of tradition, and French feminism tries to integrate the past into the present. I don't go to rallies and speeches--my feminism is deeply embedded in my work."

Rejecting the hubris central to much European art of this century, Messager chooses instead to ruminate on the secrets of women, on the private rituals and ablutions they devise in order to maintain a sense of themselves in a world of male privilege. Hers is an aesthetic rooted in the accumulation of small things rather than the grand statement, and as can be said of work by the great poet of the ephemeral, Joseph Cornell, her art shimmers with a bittersweet, heartbroken beauty.

Disdainful of the notion of "good taste" and drawn to things usually dismissed as unworthy of attention, Messager fashions her mixed-media works from materials common to the average home: thread, hair, glue, safety pins, fabric, photographs, stuffed animals, clothing, dolls. From these humble materials she's developed a style rooted in the Structuralist belief that context is the most powerful factor in the creation of meaning.

One of Messager's key strategies has been the development of different personas--trickster, collector, peddler, practical woman--which she adopts for different kinds of works. She first used this approach in the early '70s, when she divided her output into two distinct categories: Work made in her bedroom was by Annette Messager Collectionneuse, while work made in her studio was by Annette Messager Artiste. The bedroom work comprised 56 album collections, each of which was a compilation of written and embroidered text, drawings and photographs exploring a specific theme: "Women I Admire," "Everything About My Child," "Nine Months in the Life of Annette Messager."

Of the autobiographical current in her work, Messager says, "an artist must be willing to reveal his personal life, but there must be more to the work than that. [Antonin] Artaud spoke only of himself, but his writing is about much more than that." Messager frequently refers to herself in her work; however, to describe her art as autobiographical is simplistic, as it's invariably grounded in a multi-layered network of ideas and a knowledge of history.

"My Trophies," for instance, a series from 1986-87, grew out of her fascination with the "maps of tenderness" invented in the 17th Century by French writer Madeleine de Scudery. De Scudery's maps were of imaginary lands where one could take a sentimental journey to such places as "the lake of indifference" or "the sea of enmity."

In a more recent work from 1991-93, "The Pikes," Messager alludes to a practice common during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, when long poles were used to impale and display the heads of victims of the guillotine.

T he roots of Messager's defiant ly original vision are hard to trace to her childhood, which was relatively normal.

"I was born and raised in Berck, which is a small rural town by the sea," begins Messager, who has an older brother who runs a language school in France. "It was a strange place because after the war it became a haven for sick people--hardly anyone was born in this town, and it was filled with people from other places who spoke constantly about illness and the body.

"Because I was born in France during World War II, I was exposed to death at an early age," she continues. "In fact, on the day of my baptism most of our town was destroyed by bombs dropped by the English, and had the townspeople not been in church attending my baptism, many of them would've been killed that day. I saved a lot of people! So it was a strange beginning. There was a lot of drinking. It was a crazy town.

"Of course my parents were political. My father was an architect who hated architecture. It was art he loved, and he made sure my brother and I always had materials to make things. I knew from the time I was young that I wanted to be an artist--either that or a dancer or a nun. I wanted to be a nun as a way of rebelling against my family, who had no interest in Catholicism.

"Unfortunately, I no longer believe in God," she adds with a sigh. "Art is my god now. Art truly is a religion, and one must believe in some kind of utopia, despite the fact that utopia can be dangerous.

"I've always operated in the realm of opposition," she says of her flirtation with Catholicism. "My family wasn't Catholic, so I wanted to be Catholic. My art teachers told me I must make paintings, so I insisted on doing something else. It's difficult to say where this contrary streak came from, but I do know I never wanted to have the life my mother had, and never had the normal, little girl dream of growing up and meeting a wonderful prince and marrying. I never wanted to live like that and chose another life early on."

Messager names two works by Francisco Goya--an image of two old women titled "Time" and a genre scene of a young woman reading a letter while accompanied by her maid, called "The Letter"--as the first artworks that made an impression on her. "Looking at them was like having a nightmare, and they resonated on a symbolic level in a way other paintings I'd seen did not," recalls the artist, who enrolled at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1962.

"I had traditional art schooling but it never engaged me," says Messager, who was asked to leave school in 1966 because her professors felt she wasn't attending to her studies. "From the start I rejected 'high' art materials because for me the making of paintings is too traditional and male. I wanted to find something more intimate, and to show the beauty of modest things. Is a cookbook more beautiful than a Rothko painting? I don't know, but it's a question I wanted to pose."

Messager's unconventional approach to art-making was further fueled in 1968, when she was 26, and the student uprising that shook Paris that May exploded. A heady mix of Maoist and Marxist ideology, the student uprising began as a protest against the Vietnam War, then quickly accelerated into a political free-for-all that almost forced Charles De Gaulle from office, and led to a massive strike involving half the French work force.

"The student uprising marked the beginning of a new life for women," Messager says. "I've seen profound changes for women in France over the course of my life, and women are not in a bad place now. It's coming along, especially in America."

Messager is very much in sync with the liberal politics of her generation, but is primarily a product of the art of this century.

"[Marcel] Duchamp, of course, is an integral part of my culture," says Messager of the artists who've influenced her, "and Eva Hesse is another artist I admire. Her work brought elements of Surrealism into Minimalist sculpture, and it was difficult to make the kind of work she made in the period when she worked." (A German artist who emigrated in 1939 to the United States, where she died in 1970 at the age of 34, Hesse produced her most celebrated work in the '60s.)

"The Fluxus artists also interested me because they weren't as macho as much of the art being made then, and they were funny. I intend that there be humor in my work, and though some people see the humor, others find it mournful and dark, while others think I'm cruel for using dead animals in my work. Ah well," she says with a resigned sigh.

"Of the Fluxus people, I particularly admired Joseph Beuys, whom I met once when I was in a show with him," continues Messager, who also acknowledges the influence of writings by Jean Genet, the Marquis de Sade and Michel Foucault. "Beuys was nice to women and young artists, and he told me, 'Your work is good.' I had long hair then and he cut a lock of it, put it in his breast pocket and told me: 'I will always keep it here.' I thought he was a liar when he said that, but then, artists lie all the time," she says with a laugh. "I also love Outsider art because it comes out of everyday things as opposed to high art tradition, so it's more chaotic and authentic."

A central reference in Messager's work is Surrealism, which she was drawn to "because it is provocative and makes me feel something."

Of the central motifs in her work, Messager says: "I'm attracted to repetition and collecting as a way of defying death--a collection is never finished because there's always something to add. I like there to be too much in my work and I need excess--perhaps I have horror vacuii. I should add, however, that I've stopped dealing with collections because they no longer interest me in the way they once did. My early work was intensely intimate, but I think that's over, as it seems to be getting larger.

"Cliches interest me because I'm fascinated by the degree to which they've invaded our lives--you can't see a sunset or a flower without thinking about the cliche," she continues. "Maybe we'll reach a point where there is no more real life--only cliches about life. This is a strange period because everyone speaks about Internet and virtual reality, yet we continue to fall in love the same way--we're normal humans in a virtual world.

"I like photography because everybody makes photos, and I draw on my photographs because drawing and photos together are a bad combination that pleases me," says the artist, who sees a link in her use of photographs and stuffed animals. "Taxidermy and photography are alike in that there's something murderous about both of them. Both are fixed in the past--even if the photograph you're looking at was taken just minutes before, what it depicts is irretrievably lost to the past.

"Moreover, I think the fragmentation of the body we're experiencing in the late 20th Century has been largely fostered by photographs and films, which have made us accustomed to fractured sequences, details and close-ups," adds Messager, whose series from 1988, "My Vows," was composed of framed photographs of male and female body parts suspended from string and hung in clusters.

Is there anything recognizably French about her work? "I recently saw a large show of my work in Paris and in looking at it I realized I am a French artist, just as when I saw Bruce Nauman's retrospective in New York--which is a very great show about the subject of torture--I was struck by how American his work is. It's hard to pinpoint how, but you can feel these things when you look at the work. My work gets a different reading in France than it gets in America--I think it's seen as more exotic here," she adds.

As to the feelings this traveling retrospective has stirred in her, she says: "Sometimes I feel like a young, stupid girl, and other times I feel very old; this show makes me feel old and not free to change my life. Shows like this are difficult because it's like going through analysis, only you're by yourself. A retrospective forces an artist to review the past and that can be hard. I'd forgotten much of the work I've had to deal with, and some of it I hated. The work I hate isn't in the show," she says with a laugh, then adds, "but it's the greatly loved work that's truly confusing.

"I'm always perplexed when a work is well received--I never understand why, and that disturbs me, so I don't like to know too much about the reactions to my work. Of course, I work with my head, but I prefer to feel, and not to understand too much about what I'm doing, because understanding makes me stop. There must be some mystery, something open that enables me to continue."

* "Annette Messager," more than 60 works by the artist, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Thursday through Sept 3. Schedule: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fridays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (213) 857-6000.

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