“The female is as it were a deformed male.” –Aristotle
“Distinguished women . . . are as exceptional as any monstrosity . . . for example a gorilla with two heads.” –Le Bon (1879)
“It was certainly an odd monster that one made up by reading the historians first and the poets afterwards–[woman as] a worm winged like an eagle; the spirit of life and beauty in a kitchen chopping up suet.” –Virginia Woolf (1929)
“Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.” –Hélène Cixous (1976)
“Being called a poetess brings out the terroristress in me.” — Audre Lorde
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” — Patti Smith
Leoff: You have referred to the heaviness of transparency in the United States.
Annette Messager: As I have said, everything must be exposed, everything must be said. This is not the case in France, although it is becoming more that way. In France artists still have a private life. In the States I feel a distinct form of exhibitionism …
Leoff: You are often referred to as the hysteric, the femme fatale, the witch or sorceress, the “cruel Annette” who is shameless and goes beyond the limits of decency …
Messager: I remember the reaction I got when I said “Je pense donc je suce” (I think therefore I give head). People said, “Annette Messager has gone mad.” It is outrageous that the very same people who criticized this wordplay are those who turn on the television and are not shocked by the amount of violence there is in the world or the fact that teenagers are spray-painting “Fuck my mother” all over the place.
I think it is very different to exist as a woman artist than as a male artist in France. Things are automatically stuck, grafted onto the woman because it is still not completely accepted to be a woman artist. We are always looking at her life, linking her work to her life. In late-nineteenth-century medical photography there was an expression, “women-clichés,” referring to hysterics whose skin was so sensitive that it was possible to inscribe words or drawings on it. Often the nurses would brand the patient’s back with the name of the doctor. These women found themselves doubly marked: by the illness and by the institution.
A woman artist’s work is looked at through her cultural position and everything becomes mixed up. This is why I am particularly touched by Eva Hesse’s biography. I identify with her completely. She is the best example of this link between Minimalism and Surrealism. She exposes her intimate life, her difficulty with living and her work and her body. All this is interwoven, formally and personally.
Messager: I was not used to having my studio separate from my living quarters. As a result I retained nothing from that experience except the visual effects of the city itself. I find the light in New York very beautiful. New York is a nightmare and a paradise, the absolute image of what a city should be, magical. Everything is broken and modern at the same time, as if it were two cities in one.
Regarding what impedes my art work, I feel that because there are more and more wars, diseases, broken homes, that everything in the world today is totally pathetic and vulnerable, I am no longer able to make a series of works. I have always worked in bits and pieces, ripping, cutting, and pasting, but today I can no longer consider working in series and this is a dramatic change for me.
Vulnerability is so much greater in the world than in any art work that it is impossible today to create anything that is more obscene than reality. Bosnia, Algeria … Algeria is our culture, there is not the same Islamic presence in the States as in Europe. It is the new ideology.
Messager: Violence is more direct in the US, linked to madness or acting out. Here there is another form of violence, more covert, linked to religion.
Messager: It is still one of the most essential things in life. It can be found in making little dresses for stuffed birds, or in a garden of tenderness like I have done (”Le jardin du tendre,” 1988), mixing writing, photography and real spaces. There are all kinds of acts of love.
–from an interview with Annette Messager, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. (1995)
More on Messager’s “making up stories” found here. The photographed piece above is by Messager.
“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” — Stella Adler
“If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.” — Isadora Duncan
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.