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Book Review: Voluntary Tortures


Book Review Voluntary Tortures By Annette Messager Reviewed by Colin Pantall There are so many interesting books on the archive, the album and the vernacular that sometimes it seems like the already-existing image is the front line in how to read and show photographs. Some books (such as the charisma-filled mugshots of City of Shadows) hit the spot because of the extraordinary images, others require smarter strategies to make their mark.

Voluntary Tortures. By Annette Messager.
 Hatje Cantz, 2013.
 
Voluntary Tortures
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Voluntary Tortures
By Annette Messager

$75.00
Hatje Cantz, 2013. 92 pp., 82 illustrations, 10x13¼".

There are so many interesting books on the archive, the album and the vernacular that sometimes it seems like the already-existing image is the front line in how to read and show photographs. Some books (such as the charisma-filled mugshots of City of Shadows) hit the spot because of the extraordinary images, others require smarter strategies to make their mark. Erik Kessels Album Beauty does it by categorising the family album and then peeking into the cracks where the rules fall apart, Melinda Gibson’s Miss Titus Becomes a Regular Army Mac does it by super smart elegant construction and an examination of both the packaging of both old agency photos and the women who appear in them.

But if you go back a few years and where were all these archive, album and vernacular pictures. They were around and just as prevalent. There was Dadaism, Constructivism, photocollage, and photomontage. Bertold Brecht’s War Primer was published in 1955 after all and the sixties was the decade of bad photocollage to end all decades of bad photomontage, so there’s that. What else? Well, there’s lots more, especially if you selectively skip forward a few years to 1972 where you end up with Annette Messager and her Voluntary Tortures.

Voluntary Tortures. By Annette Messager. Hatje Cantz, 2013.

Messager is an artist interested in how women are seen and shown by society, how they are chopped into metaphorical pieces by art, photography and fashion cultures. In the 1970s, Messager was interested in what she calls ‘devalued art,’ the popular art that existed in women’s territory, a territory that Messager says was thought of as ‘obscured and oppressed.’

In 1972, Messager placed herself firmly in this ‘obscured and oppressed’ territory and became a collector of images. For Voluntary Tortures, Messager snipped her way through countless magazines and collected pictures of women undergoing a variety of beauty treatments. She put these in grey passe-partouts and stuck them on gallery walls. Then she took them down and stuck them in the proverbial box in the closet. And that’s where they stayed until, as Messager writes, this happened:

"A few months ago I was putting some things away in a closet that I rarely ever go near – I hate it, because it’s such a mess – and quite by chance, I found eighty-one photographs that I had completely forgotten about, prints I had made in 1972. They were part of my piece Les Tortures Volontaires.

And that gave me the idea of suggesting it for this book with Hatje Cantz."

Voluntary Tortures. By Annette Messager. Hatje Cantz, 2013.

And so the book was born. It’s a lovely book. It’s large-sized and comes in a buff cardboard slipcase. Tip it out and it’s a slim softcover album of loose leaves held in place by a piece of twine that doesn’t quite fit right. The cover is elegant and absurd; a framed picture of a woman undergoing a primitive form of electronic chin massage therapy. The picture is still in its grey passe-partout so placing the work in its art context.

Voluntary Tortures. By Annette Messager. Hatje Cantz, 2013.

Flip open the book and, after a short essay by Messager, the pictures come rolling in, one voluntary torture after another. Face masks, exfoliations, and massaging techniques are dominant as are scientifically controlled bath tubs and just about anything with wires. Breasts are squeezed, foreheads are rubbed and bellies are shaken in that elusive quest to bring every inch of obstinate skin into tidy line. The wrapped heads and Turkish baths, exercise bikes and curlers are all about controlling bodies (80 female and one male) that with every living breath threaten to break out of the baby-boomer straitjacket to which they belong.

The pictures in Voluntary Tortures are wonderful. They are dated and funny; we can laugh at the primitive mechanics of it all, at how amazing it was that people believed that a control panel or beauty therapy that looks like something out of Woody Allen’s Sleeper could convince people of its efficacy. And doesn’t everybody look so Stepford with their perfect couture and cucumber eyes.

Voluntary Tortures. By Annette Messager. Hatje Cantz, 2013.

But then we might wonder at how much that 1970s conformity has been tightened, how much more control is exercised over the female body. You could replicate the pictures in Voluntary Tortures with contemporary images. But now it would be needles, scalpels and bleach replacing cucumbers, rollers and wire. The primitivism has turned up a notch, the straitjacket tightened, the voltages of Voluntary Tortures cranked up to 11. As Messager says in her introduction:

"These days, people’s bodies and faces are remodeled, regenerated, transformed, and fantasized — whereby, adhering to socially defined standards.

Unlike wines, which change over time and acquire their bouquet with age, we humans never give up the struggle against the natural processes of time."—COLIN PANTALL


COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport.http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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