ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


Women Artists - Annette Messager

This four part mini-series explores the lives and work of female stars of the contemporary art world: installation artist Annette Messager, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, large-scale sculptor and painter Katharina Grosse, and printmaker and sculptor Kiki Smith. At the center of all four of their careers is the tension of expressing ideas about gender without being defined by it.

AIRED: August 03, 2020 | 0:26:18

[ Gunshots ]

[ Shouts indistinctly ]


Narrator: Art by women is dangerous.

Why are their works worth less on the art market?

Why do almost all museums worldwide exhibit

far fewer works by female artists?

Where are all the women?

They are there, and they have always been there.

Women artists have liberated the female body

from male ideas of beauty.

They have conquered new paths and taken many risks.

In this series, women artists introduce other women artists.


The curator of today's episode is Annette Messager.

With a travel-sized maquette in our luggage,

we visit her in her Paris studio.

Here, she develops an exhibition with works

by other women artists that will be presented in a virtual space.

Her large installations sprawl through museums

and exhibition spaces like plants.

With these personal worlds,

Annette Messager questions our reality.

She dismantles things that seem familiar to us,

and reassembles them in unexpected ways.

She jolts our subconscious.


Stuffed animals and toys, the relics of childhood,

mutate into grotesque, comical, and uncanny shapes.

Her early works provoked scandals.

She knitted tiny cardigans for taxidermied sparrows,

and scratched out the eyes in baby photographs,

challenging our ideas of cuteness.

She launched a frontal attack on our desire

to protect ourselves from the brutal reality,

by retreating into an idyllic world.

Annette Messager destroys it.

On embroidered handkerchiefs, she collects

proverbs that describe the role of women in society.

"When a girl is born, the walls cry."

Annette Messager has also questioned her role

as a female artist again and again.

[ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: Of course, it was difficult in the beginning

to be accepted

or even noticed, especially in France.

One can say that this is a chauvinist country.

I took the liberty to do what I like.

In my work, I've always addressed the search

for my female identity.

In the early '70s, that was not accepted at all.

[ Speaking French ]


Narrator: Despite always embarking on her own path

or because of that, Annette Messager later

became one of the most famous women artists of her country.

Besides many solo exhibitions worldwide,

she represented France at the Venice Biennale in 2005.

Here, she created a living, breathing, kinetic cosmos

for Italy's most famous fictional character --


For her pavilion, titled Casino,

she was awarded The Golden Lion.


[ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: I have selected several women artists --

Alina Szapocznikow, Lynda Benglis, Eva Hesse.

And then two young artists --

Elika Hedayat and Emma Dusong.



Narrator: Alina Szapocznikow was a Polish sculptor,

and she was born in 1926 in Kalisz, Poland.

As an adolescent, she survived the Jewish ghetto there,

and later, three German concentration camps.

In the early 1960s, she moved to Paris.

Interpreter: At that time, Alina Szapocznikow

discovered a completely new technical process for herself --

the inclusion, immersion of objects in synthetics.

She enclosed photographs of faces and body parts

in the material, deforming the images.

Very expressionist works developed this way,

too expressionist for the times, I believe.

She was too sexual, a woman.

It was all much too much.

Narrator: The subject of her work was the human body

in all its vulnerability and mortality.

Her sculptures celebrate life, beauty, and sexuality.

Working with a variety of synthetics,

she preserved life in her body casts,

which she dismembered and put together in a different way.

Interpreter: This series is very playful and easier to sell,

if I may say so. At the time, she said,

"I must sell, I must sell, I must absolutely sell.

So I create lamps with genitals, phallic objects,

nice things like that, a cable,

and then you can turn on the light inside."

This here is also a body,

with an outgrowth protruding from the neck,

with a mouth here, this dark outgrowth,

and this bra-like piece. Incredible.


[ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: I like this series very much.

She realized that her chewing gum

took on different shapes in her mouth,

like a sculpture that can be changed indefinitely.

Roman Cieslewicz, her husband,

photographed her chewing gum sculptures very well.

Here, they are suspended in the air, a bit like an animal.

It's very, very beautiful.

He took many photos of these.

Narrator: "In my mouth, I form strange-looking bizarre shapes.

Suddenly, I realized what an extraordinary collection

of abstract sculptures move between my teeth.

One only needs to photograph and enlarge my chewed creations,

in order to archive their sculptural presence.

Chew well, look around.

Art emerges between dreams and daily work."



Messager: [ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: She lived in Malakoff,

but I didn't live here yet at the time.

We met in Yugoslavia, on a small Island.

She swam a lot like a fish. She was very playful.

I, on the other hand,

have always been a bit water shy.

Later, when she became sick and had to be hospitalized,

we wrote each other letters.

I saved one where she drew her sick body and her operations.

She writes there, "Ah, my doctor is a good-looking young man."

She said to him, "You are delightful, doctor."

She writes and talks about art.

Here, she shows her scar and says,

"If I don't manage to get attention with this,

I will never succeed."

She takes it with humor.

She says, "I'm a Cyclops with just one breast."


Narrator: Alina Szapocznikow died in 1973 from breast cancer

at the age of 43.

Her studio in Malakoff remained vacant

for a long time after her death.


[ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: Here, we have a work she created

in her inclusion technique.

One can see it as an allusion to her breast cancer,

or one can see in it whatever one wants.

This dark form that takes over her body and locks her in,

it's the same here, these black labia.

There's a drop, the feet are black, and here, the skin.

It looks very delicate next to the black, in contrast to it.

This body held in a kind of lava.

I like this series very much.


Narrator: Lynda Benglis creates giant sculptures

reminiscent of organic forms and plants.

Since the early 1970s,

she's been working with synthetics like polyurethane,

which allowed her to capture the material in movement.

Her works reveal the process of their making.


Messager: [ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: These elements are hanging down.

They are practically flowing, and they change their colors.

They are mysterious, simply emerging from the wall.

They glow in the dark and really jump at you,

as if they were about to attack you.

The shapes are soft, but they still seem slightly dangerous,

and that is very impressive.


Narrator: Lynda Benglis was born in 1941

and grew up in Louisiana.

The marshlands of the South were her first visual impressions.

Lush nature, forcing its own path,

creating forms and structures

that are mirrored in the artist's oeuvre.


[ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: This here is an older piece by Lynda Benglis,

which she manufactured directly in the gallery.

In the beginning, she was more of a painter than a sculptor,

I think. She mixed many different colors,

first on the canvas, later on the floor.

I believe that was before she molded things in space.

She liked Pollock and the American expressionists.

This piece is made of latex with different colors mixed in,

which then spread more or less at random, like a long ribbon.

This piece was not preserved, it was destroyed.


In 1974, I think, Lynda Benglis bought an ad inArtforum,

a double page spread.

That was really extremely shocking at the time,

in such a respectable art magazine.

The people at Artforum had to take abuse

that it was a disgrace to show a woman that way.

What could that mean? She had done it voluntarily,

because she was not given a chance to exhibit her work.

Nobody was interested in her.

It was a good thing to do, very good,

but afterwards, every opinion that people had formed about her

was strongly influenced by that ad.

It blocked the view on her actual work.

As a sculptor, she has created excellent pieces,

but people always return to that one picture of herself.


Narrator: In her multifaceted work,

Lynda Benglis always conquered new materials

that made the physical power of her forms most visible.


Messager: [ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: Let's put the sculpture into the corner,

where the wall is going to be.

We can try to place it across from Alina's bellies.

They also have many folds.

Let's put the bellies here,

or perhaps rather here, after all.

These play figures are so easy to move,

not like in a real exhibition.

[ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: I say that Alina Szapocznikow's

work is expressionist,

but she is simultaneously also very playful.

There are these bellies, they are funny.

Big pillows, very soft, a suffering body in fact,

but at the same time, a warm body.

Both can be found in her work, I think.

And from this point of departure,

she made many drawings.

One can see a connection to Lynda Benglis,

these dark masses,

the way they ooze out of the walls and run down.

It is not clear anymore whether they are human, or mineral,

or perhaps botanical.

But in any case, I definitely see a connection

between the two.


And Victor by Lynda Benglis will hang here.




Narrator: Eva Hesse was a pioneer who left deep traces

during her brief lifetime. Her three-dimensional work,

which she developed in just five years in the 1960s,

consists of hitherto most unusual materials --

polyester, fiberglass, and latex.

From these, she created fragile and ephemeral installations.


[ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: It is the minimalism in Eva Hesse's work

that interests me most.

She is actually very minimalist,

and simultaneously, sentimental, which is a contradiction,

but she's succeeded in uniting these opposites.

I believe that only a woman could do that.

She used ropes, nets, and similar materials

that she found in her studio in Germany.

She was probably one of the very first

to have hung such things freely in space.


Narrator: Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg in 1936,

as the child of Jewish parents.

With her sister Helen,

she was sent to Holland on one of the last Kindertransports.


The family later immigrated to the United States.

She grew up in New York.

Eva Hesse studied painting and was influenced by minimalism,

and later by abstract expressionism.

Her work was guided by emotion and spontaneity,

instead of perfection.

The stripped-down, lucid visual language of minimalism

was a source of inspiration for her first reliefs and objects,

but she imbued them with vitality

via small imperfections.

She created her first three-dimensional works

during a year-long residency in Germany.

Messager: [ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: Here's a rope.

She turned it into this round shape, this spiral.

It's very soulful, very delicate.

The material is in motion.

I mean, those are no stiff little boxes.

It's very frail and constantly threatened with destruction.

This is also a series.

I don't think that I knew it when I was young,

but there's definitely a very clear relationship to my work.

Sometimes, one sees an image,

then one forgets what one has seen,

but it has been burned into memory

and then it appears again.

One says, "No, I have never seen this one before.

No, no, no," but that's not true.

We all have an ancestry.

There's always been something before us.

No generation emerges spontaneously.

Here, these squares that are connected with threads,

that's very beautiful.

It is tender, and it moves me very much,

the connection of these three things.

This one has to hang.

If we put the video here,

we'll place this one somewhere nearby.



This one is also by Eva Hesse.

So either we'll place both of them here,

and place Alina further away.


And this one also by Eva Hesse, will go on the wall,

something like that.

We won't hang it in the middle, that would be too simple.


And finally, a so-called inclusion piece by Alina,

perhaps here or between the two Lynda Benglis pieces.

Alina calls it The Big Tumor.




Narrator: The Iranian artist, Elika Hedayat,

is bringing new works to her Paris gallerist,

Aline Vidal.

They were made during a visit to her hometown, Tehran.

The 37-year-old artist has been commuting

between two worlds and two cultures for years.

She studied with Annette Messager in Paris.

The sources for her grotesque, quirky

images lie in her childhood and the experiences

she and others endured in their dictatorial country.

[ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: Elika Hedayat moves between Tehran and Paris.

She is Iranian, and has experienced

many horrible things there, and her whole family is there.

She takes great interest in the events

that are happening in Iran.

In her videos, she allows people to speak about their nightmares

or about their childhood games,

which always have something to do with war,

with what happened in that country.

It is a real trauma.


[ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: In 2009, election fraud

led to demonstrations in Iran.

As every year, I flew to Tehran to visit my family,

and I was confronted with things that touched me deeply.

That's what ignited my work method -- observation

and creation of this universe that you find in my drawings...

...a universe that represents an authoritarian system,

in search of a utopia, its own utopia,

but because it wants to force this utopia,

it gets out of control.

The system degenerates into a dystopia.

It turns into its opposite.




This is very strange. There is a mix of black

and white, of colors, of monsters,

and all that has something to do with Iran.

But at the same time, they are very funny,

grotesque, ridiculous,

like these things that dangle around here so oddly.





Narrator: The French performance and multimedia artist

Emma Dusong uses her voice and her singing as her medium.

Her installations often consist of everyday objects

like suitcases, mailboxes, and school desks.

Through her singing, she awakens these motorized objects to life.

In her songs, which she composes herself,

she poses universal questions to life itself.

She plays with the expectations of her spectators

and leads them astray.

[ Speaking French ]

These are very young artists who I met

when I taught as a professor at The Academy for Fine Arts.

I can also say that I saw them grow up.

Emma Dusong sings, that's pretty funny

considering her name, Dusong.

The two are opposites. Emma Dusong is a loner,

and Elika makes films with friends and other people.

Emma sings by herself and her songs are about her mother,

her family, about others, but at the same time,

she carries a suitcase with her, for example,

that allows her to approach strangers.

[ Singing in French ]

[ Speaking French ]

Interpreter: Or a mailbox starts singing.

It also refers to the mail from others, what one waits for.

Or the school desks, which are illuminated.

Suddenly, the desk top opens, and sings.

That refers to the others in class.

She's always completely alone, but surrounded by objects

that hint at the presence of others.

[ Singing in French ]

[ Camera shutter clicks ]


Messager: [ Speaks French ]








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