Annette Messager
The Pikes 1992–3

Artwork details

Annette Messager born 1943
The Pikes
Les Piques
Date 1992–3
Medium Steel, fabric, coloured pencils, paper, cardboard, glass and dolls
Dimensions Displayed: 3000 x 8000 x 1120 mm
Acquisition Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1998
Not on display


The Pikes is half of an installation first shown at the Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne, Paris, and subsequently divided into two works by the artist. It comprises a dense arrangement of more than a hundred long, spiked poles or 'pikes', propped against two adjacent walls, each of which supports or impales a variety of objects and images. Little bodies made out of a combination of doll parts, stuffed limbs, headless torsos and internal organs are enclosed in sections of stocking, or pierced by many coloured pencils and hung with drawings of torture instruments and victims. Other pikes bear pastel drawings of limbs, corpses and figures of despair as well as fragments of maps showing various contemporary political entities in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The pike has a particular historical significance in France linking it to political turbulence. It was the principal weapon used to display the guillotined heads of the aristocracy during the popular uprising, known as the Reign of Terror, during the French Revolution. A point of contention at that time was that women were not allowed to carry the head-bearing pikes. (Eliel, pp.81-2)

For me, it's a 'natural' gesture to rip bodies apart, cut them up … I always feel

that my identity as a woman and as an artist is divided, disintegrated, fragmented,

and never linear, always multifaceted … always pictures of parts of bodies,

fragments and closeups … I always perceive the body in fragments.

(Messager in Eliel, pp.67-70)

Influenced by Surrealism and the Fluxus movement, Messager's early work expressed female experience and emotions in terms of fragmented and shifting identity. She has used a wide variety of techniques and materials, often in combination, including photographs, drawings, text, sculpture, found and made objects, embroidery, knitting and painting, to bring the artist's everyday life into a high art context. Her works explore and subvert hierarchies of power in the relationships between male and female, nature and culture, vulnerability and aggression. In the 1980s Messager developed large-scale installations which combine diverse and unexpected objects and materials with strong fetishistic overtones. Many, like The Pikes, reflect the world of the carnival in which chaos is briefly allowed to replace order, and the boundaries between civilized and uncivilized behaviour begin to blur. In this work Messager draws parallels between the potential cruelty of children's play and that of modern social and political structures, using a combination of pathos and violence. Evoking sympathy while suggesting sadism, her objects and imagery illustrate the paradoxical complexity of human relations on both personal and political levels.

Further reading:
Jean-Louis Froment, Annette Messager: Penetrations, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, New York 1997
Sheryl Conkelton, Carol S. Eliel, Annette Messager, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1995, pp.35-41, 81-4, reproduced pp.9, 36-7, 39
Femininmasculin: le sexe de l'art, exhibition catalogue, Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne, Paris 1995

Elizabeth Manchester
June 2000

About this artwork