Annette Messager, The Messengers, Hayward Gallery, London

I headed along to the Hayward with the intention of writing something about Mark Wallinger's The Russian Linesman. He's won the Turner prize, he's best known for dressing up as a bear and he's convinced the powers that be to erect a ruddy great horse in the south of England countryside, so I was expecting great things. If time permitted, I'd check out the Annette Messager retrospective, The Messengers, as well.

Annette_messager

I hadn't, then, banked on being sidetracked, even blown away by the show I was only interested in as an afterthought. I thought Wallinger's show was going to be the main draw, but it's the Messager collection that contains the major works out of the Hayward's spring offerings, with Wallinger's curated show only really playing second fiddle.

Messager is a Paris-based artist whose work repeatedly calls into question various issues of identity. Her work centres a great deal on the nature of female identity and the materials she works in, some of the questions she deals with in her work are the staples (some could even say cliched) of female artistic introspection – toys, meditations on female beauty, children, absences/presences. What makes Messager's work so powerful, however, is that its never trapped in a female cul-de-sac, it talks equally about the male experience; she uses the female as a starting point to explore universal  questions of identity.

The Messengers is the single most disturbing yet profoundly touching and liberating contemporary art show I've seen in some time. Perhaps some of Messager's best known works are her stuffed 'pillows and pikes', but here her larger scale works have the most impact and are the most genuinely rewarding.

Messager's work skirts the boundries of the horrific, the unspoken terrors that surround us at all times. This is brought vividly to life in the collections first work, Chimaeras, the realisation of a personal horror, and takes in the harrowing photo montages of Children With Their Eyes Scratched Out (which is pretty self-explanatory really).

Nothing, however, prepared me for Casino. This formed part of Messager's submission that represented France at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Part of its impact stems from the surprise factor, so I won't go into detail. Suffice to say, I found it both terrifying and intimidating, but also ultimately exhilarating. It is a joy to experience.

Another large work, Articulated-Disarticulated (pictured) is similarly touching. A room filled with vaguely animal, vaguely human puppet forms are powered by a system of ropes and pulleys, making them toss, turn and twitch pathetically. This is apparently a response to the BSE/Mad Cow crisis, but also a sombre comment on the roles we all play from day to day.

In short, its a staggering show. It runs at the Hayward until May 25th. I suggest you check it out. 
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