Before you decide to visit the Annette Messager retrospective now at the Pompidou, you should be warned: you won’t have seen such a menacing collection of stuffed animals since you woke in your nursery at age three after a nightmare.
At the heart, physical and conceptual, of this exhibition is “Articulated-disarticulated”, from 2001-2002. These are not, mostly, bodies but the struggling almost dead. A disarticulated acrobat winds floppily around his bar, a rabbit hopelessly kicks its feet, a body that is just torso and arm tries feebly to raise itself.
Around the walls are strange makeshift totem poles, symbols perhaps of the god to whom this slaughter is dedicated. Outside you can hear the carrion birds squabbling, waiting for the waste. What is contolling this, the wires, the pulleys, the counterweight, are all clearly visible – the hands of fate, which somehow only makes it more spooky.
Even before the exhibition, visitors get a powerful taste of Messager, with “La ballade de pinochio a beaubourg 2007”, in the foyer. Over-stuffed plastic body parts in cargo handlers nets descend at unpredictable intervals. They are obscenely over-full, rotten perhaps. Underneath is a great tumbled pile of simple ticking pillows in which are buried their fallen comrades. On a thin track through them one wooden stick figure, strapped into a position of sleep, with a very long nose, circles endlessly.
Entering the exhibition proper, you are in what can only be a fantastic abbatoir: human forms, what might be the hybrid of a shark and a 747, skeletal hands, even a kangaroo, swing jerkily from the ever rotating track, awaiting the attentions of the butcherer. And yet its sound is gentle, almost soothing, hypnotic.
The exhibition then starts with early work – with some of the gaucheness that term might suggest. You can see the future themes in “The boarders” (1971-72): stuffed sparrows and finches, or bundles of feathers, on clockwork machines, fitted into knitted by clothes, and lying on hard beds.
The feminist themes that flood through her work, and something (Anglo visitors will think) of Tracey Emin in “The secret room of the collector”, which brings together early 70s pieces from “My Jealousies” to “The Men I love the men I do not love”, and “Collection to find my best signature”. This is a complete work of self-fashioning laid bare.
Don’t forget to look up in the first corridor, for above you is “Them and us, us and them”, a spooky bestiary of hybrid toy and taxidermied animals sitting on mirrors that reflect the audience below.
The strongly feminist strand in her work returns at this exhibition’s end, with a display of needlework that is the antithesis of those worked by Victorian girls being constructed as good bourgeois women – for these are simple yet utterly subversive in their obvious nonsense: “Women are instructed by nature, men by books. A woman without husband is a ship without rudder.” These are linked: “I think therefore I suck.”
We’ll surely soon see Messager at the Tate Turbine Hall – the London collection apparently only now has one of her works, but she has the intellectual depth and physical scale, with added sheer entertainment value, to possess that intimidating space.
The exhibition continues until September 17. Rather annoyingly you now have to buy one entry ticket for all of the exhibits – but after this, you might need a good sit down and a glass of Calvados.