Messager often uses words in her art, repeating them over and over to infuse them with the quality of an incantation, or forming them in long lines, small shapes, or thick columns to provide a kind of formal element--an architecture--for her constructions. Rather than sentences, Messager uses simple words to suggest the fragmentary nature of meaning and the possible alternatives to linear narrative. The words come from a list that she keeps, and often they describe an idea or an emotional state. There is always a relationship between the word and the image for her, but it is usually evident only to her and even she often forgets the connection after the work is complete.

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The tenuous relationship between components is meant to be evident to the viewer as an arbitrary construct. Messager is able to suggest the arbitrariness of linguistic relationships by her use of puns as a means of subverting language and introducing new meanings. The French word voeux names the votive tablets placed in churches, connecting Messager's objects with these devotional objects. It also means "vows," as in "promises." This discursive play quietly challenges the authority of a single and absolute meaning. Similarly, Messager is interested in other linguistic displacements. In an early work, My Collection of Proverbs (1974), she embroidered a group of crude, misogynist sayings onto cloth, conflating women's work with men's language, and confusing the meaning of the words. What does it mean when a woman artist frames the words "If woman were good, God would have had one" or "Don't rely on a woman, even if she is dead"? Messager deliberately appropriated a language from which she was meant to be excluded in order to confront clichés concerning women and their roles.

Images above: Top, detail of My Works (Mes Ouvrages). 1987. Installation view, St. Martin du Méjean, Arles, 1989. Gelatin-silver prints under glass and colored pencil on wall. Collection the artist. Above, detail from My Collection of Proverbs (Ma Collection de proverbes). 1974. Fabric and thread. Collection the artist.

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