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French artist Messager opens COVID-tinged Tel Aviv retrospective

Art star, who spent time in Israel when younger, says restrictions forced her to work alone, producing smaller pieces; on Tel Aviv: ‘Never seen so much life, so much excitement’

French visual artist Annette Messager poses for a portrait at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in the coastal Israeli city, on February 23, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)
French visual artist Annette Messager poses for a portrait at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in the coastal Israeli city, on February 23, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

French artist Annette Messager, a global star whose retrospective opens in Israel on Tuesday, says her work has been changed by the COVID pandemic, “the masks we wear and all the death.”

The artist, celebrated internationally for the past half century and known for deconstructing stereotypes of femininity, spoke to AFP ahead of the show opening at the Tel Aviv Art Museum.

Messager, 78, is famed for her large installations, filled with items found on the street and in the home, from teddy bears and dolls to old clothes. But the pandemic has influenced her more recent work.

While she usually works with a large team of assistants, COVID restrictions forced her to work alone, resulting in drawings that are striking in their simplicity.

“Youme,” acrylic on paper, depicts a pink heart which resembles a face and above it two skulls staring at each other, eye socket to eye socket.

“We are still all obsessed with what happened, by what we are still experiencing, the masks we wear, all the deaths that there have been and that there still are,” she told AFP.

People look at artwork by Annette Messager during a private viewing at the ART Rio-International Art Fair in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on September 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

“The world has changed… and surely my work too.”

Born in 1943 in the northern coastal resort of Berck-sur-Mer, she was enrolled at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Paris when the May 1968 student protests broke out, and was influenced by that spirit of rebellion.

Messager won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2005 and has had major retrospectives at MoMA in New York, London’s Hayward Gallery and the Pompidou in Paris.

Having spent time on a kibbutz in the 1970s, she said she still feels drawn to Tel Aviv, Israel’s coastal economic hub, and to its energy.

“This is a country at war, but I’ve never seen so much life, so much excitement in a city like this,” she said, describing Israelis as living “in the moment.”

Messager, who has worked for decades in the Paris suburb of Malakoff, said she is “obsessed” with the process of creation.

“That’s the only thing that really interests me — trying to find a little something more, something extra,” she said. “That’s it, it’s my life.”

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