Untitled drawing. 1995. Ink on paper. Collection the artist.
Images below: details of Voluntary Tortures (Les Tortures volontaires). Album-collection No. 18. 1972. Gelatin-silver prints. Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain, Lyon, France.
Although Messager would not identify herself as a feminist, she understood even as a student that the art world is a masculine place, with codes and privileges that are difficult for a woman to transcend. In her use of the less-heroic practical arts such as embroidery and her method of repetitive copying, she seemed to embrace an essentialist idea of the feminine, but her subjects often contradicted this easy equation: rather than challenge social definitions with separatist feminist imagery, Messager often defiantly appropriated images that are regarded as exclusively male. In copying them exactly, she could capture them as her own and combine them at will--in her own words, "displace rather than change, rather than submit." Her own particular style has evolved not as a presentation of oppositional dogma but as a subversive, intensely personal resistance to categorization.
In this strategy Messager's constructions parallel the philosophical conclusions of French feminist writers such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Like Messager they began their work in the late 1960s and early 1970s and focused on changing the exclusionary nature of social institutions. Their methods are very much like Messager's: merging many sources and articulating them in a bricolage style which undoes the authority of a single form; using sources that do not have scholarly weight, such as anecdotes or fairy tales; and turning language upon itself to loose unexpected types of meaning. The title of Irigaray's best known work is a playful double-entendre: Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (This sex which is not one). Cixous has written extensively on the natural subversiveness of the state of being female, and she has incorporated stream-of-consciousness writing into her essays, clouding the difference between the expository and the fictional, much as Messager has confused fact and fiction.
There is a tradition of not wanting to be named "feminist" in France, where theoretical and philosophical positions have been aggressively institutionalized. But like many of her feminist contemporaries, Messager has emphasized not the feminine characteristics of her work but the transgressive aspects of her process. In her art things become other things: they are allowed an alternate existence in which their definitions, and the prevailing cultural values that provide the definitions can be challenged. Messager doesn't invent new forms but moves away from stereotypes and archetypes by conjuring up a mélange. Her meanings are located in the dialectical positions between things; she reevaluates traditional cûltural constructs and exposes both their arbitrariness and their reversibility.
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