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10.7.04

Taking the Veil: Annette Messager

Yesterday, after having lunch with a friend, who was formerly an undergraduate French professor of mine, at the mythic and delightful Café de Flore (172, boulevard Saint-Germain), I wandered past the Odéon and down the Rue de l’École de Médecine to find the Couvent des Cordeliers. The buildings connected to what is now the Académie nationale de Médecine are horribly ugly modern things that occupy most of the site of this old Franciscan convent, founded in the 13th century. The Couvent, like most monastic institutions, was taken over by the revolutionaries at the end of the 18th century, and it became the meeting place of the Club des Cordeliers, an insurgent group including many future Jacobins. The poet Jean Paul Marat, who published a famous free newspaper called L'Ami du Peuple (The friend of the people, also the title of this biography by Alfred Bougeart) and lived just down the street (at 30, rue des Cordeliers), was a prominent member. The only vestige of the monastery that remains is a part of the garden, where Marat was buried after he was assassinated (his body was then removed to either the church or cemetery of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, in the 5th, but I don't think the exact location is known), and a building that served as the refectory. It’s a remarkable monument, although only a disembodied part of the whole. (It also next to a remarkable 18th-century building, with a broad windowed dome, the Amphithéâtre de Joubert formerly belonging to the Académie Royale de Chirurgie [Royal Academy of Surgery] and now used by the Sorbonne's École de Langues [School of Languages].)

Normally, the Couvent is closed to the public, since it is part of a school campus, but it occasionally hosts art exhibits. Right now, it is the location of one of the Les Intrus shows from the Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, whose normal home in the Palais de Tokyo is closed for renovation. I mentioned this installation, Sous vent (translated by the artist as “wind back”) by Annette Messager, in a post on June 14. The refectory is a single long room with a high, raftered ceiling, divided into two sections by a row of wooden pillars. The room has been left mostly unlit, except for natural light that comes through the rows of clear-glass windows on both sides. As you enter on the left side of the space, the right half of the room is covered with an enormous swath of semitransparent black silk. In an automated sequence lasting about 17 minutes, fans at the near end, hidden under the cloth, blow waves of air under the cloth at different speeds. As this “wind” lifts the cloth and makes it ripple and then billow, a score of sculptures also hidden under the cloth are illuminated, timed more or less with the advance and disappearance of the wind, from beneath by neon lights.

Annette Messager, Sous vent, installation at the Couvent des Cordeliers, 2004The sculptures return to many of the themes used by Messager in her previous work, as I learned in an informative presentation on the artist given that day by a curator. (Unfortunately, both Messager and this presenter believe that Michel Nostradamus was also buried in the Couvent, which is not true. He was actually buried—with his body standing vertically inside a wall—in another church, sometimes known by the same name, but in Salon-de-Provence, in the Bouches-du-Rhône.) Messager is one of the foremost femmes artistes in France, and as a feminist her work often focuses on women and children, whom she regards as the two classes of people who are the most oppressed in society. Since one’s view of the sculptural pieces (some images here) is largely obscured by the black cloth, it is hard to say much about them. Some forms are partially visible: a headless, child-sized figure on hands and knees; a large hand; a red bathtub (recalling the painting by David, The Death of Marat, made in the Couvent where the poet’s body lay in state after his assassination, with one gangrenous arm amputated; apparently, the arm that hangs out of the tub in David's painting was based on a study of an arm taken from another corpse); rubber masks of politicians, purchased in a novelty store (the faces of Chirac, Raffarin, and even President Bush are there); body parts and skeletons (a reference to the cemetery that used to be here); and a mass of tiny nude dolls wrapped in twine. A book of Messager’s photographs of the installation can be viewed at the entrance, and it shows details of some of the pieces, which include the collectible toys and stuffed animals that Messager likes to reassemble in monstrous combinations. (See also this review of the installation, by Lucile Encrevé, for Paris-Art.)

It was the movement of the cloth, which Messager calls a voile (a veil, a reference to both the monastic habit and the issue of girls wearing Islamic veils in French public schools, an issue that has been heavily debated over the past year), that struck me as particularly beautiful. As the fans blow softly, it creates a wave-like undulation under the cloth, creating the impression that one is looking at objects submerged beneath the movement of a black ocean. The cloth is firmly attached to the walls but not to the edges that face the viewer, which allows a sort of ebb and tide effect as the wind moves. As the movement of the fans increases, the air picks up the cloth and it balloons up into a large shape, especially at the far end of the installation where the width of the veil is larger. At that end, a set of automated pulleys raise and lower noose-like weights onto the end of the veil, which hold the air in for the final part of the sequence, creating a large whale-like shape. These gibets, according to the presenter, may be a reference to the Terror, since the Convent was also a Jacobin site.

Annette Messager gave a long interview (Un journal, ça sert à tout, July 6) with Antoine de Baecque and Elisabeth Lebovici in Libération, a newspaper with which she has had a long relationship, as well as her answers to Internet questions (Chat: «Si je sens que je me casse la gueule, ça sera une bonne leçon pour moi», July 6). Her installation, Sous vent, will be at the Couvent des Cordeliers (15, rue de l’École de Médecine) until October 3.

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