Annette Messager’s Penetration 1993–94 takes us on a tour under the skin, deep into the human body cavity, through familiar but strangely fascinating forms that hang like misshapen stalactites. These oversized body organs are soft, stuffed fabric shapes in vivid colours. The circulatory system is shown in its arterial and venous forms: bright, glowing cerise for the newly oxygenated blood, and dark blue for the oxygen-depleted. An intestine coiled and curved, squeezes the stuffing at each bend to suggest its peristaltic action. Blood vessels are raised and slightly detached, crisscrossing the heart and chocolate-coloured liver. A common consciousness is pricked, of memories from biology lessons: ‘They are clichés (or recollections) from our childhood class books.’ Because the objects are modest and unrefined, they also recall the coarse stuffed toys and clumsy objects produced in school domestic-science classes.
In her use of domestic crafts and materials, Messager makes a clear connection with the feminine, consequently turning her back on dominant art practices. Needlework is conventionally acknowledged as an expression of femininity rather than as serious art, to the extent that ‘in the 19th century [needlework] and femininity were entirely fused … Women embroidered because they were naturally feminine, and feminine because they naturally embroidered.’ By inference, the most intricate and attractive work was produced by the most passive and feminine women.
This finesse and refinement are not at all evident in Messager’s handiwork for Penetration. The objects are roughly stitched and dangle casually from fuzzy angora-wool threads. The effect is of a forest, a dense scrubby wood that we must struggle to get through. Like the artist’s earlier work Mes voeux (My vows) 1989, in which hundreds of little photographs and texts are suspended on strings, the impact of Penetration’s body organs is both singular and cumulative, like being in a forest when ‘you cannot see the wood for the trees.’ Unlike Dante’s journey into Hell, however, the route through Messager’s forest is not dark or threatening. The initial impression is playful and enticing as the elements tempt us to touch them. We are drawn in to enjoy the ‘decorations’ before we even entertain thoughts of the butcher’s shop.
Individual lights hang within the installation and encourage our close examination of the body organs, illuminating and revealing their forms and, like doctors’ probes, delineating one from the other. Foetuses hang like pendants from their fine woollen ‘umbilical cords’. Their presence defines the female body’s capacity for reproduction; their dislocation suggests that they have been removed or lost through abortion or miscarriage. However, this installation embodies the human anatomy in its entirety—it includes elements that are common to both sexes, as well as the internal reproductive organs specific to each.
Like many of Messager’s installations, Penetration is calculated to ‘disturb the viewer’s mind.’ She draws on the Surrealists’ philosophy to awaken a place in our subconscious; Messager has cited Réne Magritte’s illusionistic imagery as one important influence. In addition, she has a vast repertoire of sources and stimuli that have permeated her life and work. Messager’s biological construct in Penetration disregards gender and the conditioning that accompanies it. In doing so, she suggests a universal experience of the body rather than a conventional, socialised female or male identification with physicality. Messager proposes that ‘one believes we know these shapes, however [I] would prefer we could go through them in order to be really inside, as organs are inside our body’.
then Curator, International Photography
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Annette Messager, in an interview by facsimile with the author, September 1995 (trans Patrice Riboust). The artist’s other comments on the work are drawn from this interview; see NGA file 83/0199-01
 Rozsika Parker, The subversive stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine, The Women’s Press, London, 1984,p 11
 Collection, National Gallery of Australia
 Cheryl Conkleton and Carol S Eiel, Annette Messager, Museum of Art, New York, p 74
 From Kate Davidson, ‘Annette Messager: Penetration’, in Kate Davidson and Michael Desmond, Islands: contemporary installations from Australia, Asia, Europe and America, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1996, pp 53–57. Edited by Christine Dixon 2009
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: National Gallery of Australia exhibition SoftSculpture (reference )