Alina Szapocznikow and Annette Messager were born almost 20 years apart, in Poland and France, respectively. During the 1960s, however, both lived in the district of Malakoff in Paris and, in the words of gallerist Isabella Czarnowska, ‘This show is about their friendship.’ ‘North of the Future’ brought together sculpture and drawing by the two artists, dating from 1955 to the present day. Curated by Messager, the exhibition comprised three rooms that established a loose formal dialogue between the artists’ works. The corporeal sculptural language employed by the two artists is disparate: Szapocznikow’s oscillation between abstraction and figuration is rooted in Modernism, while Messager’s work engages with the later framework of Conceptualism. But both artists challenge reductive perceptions of gender and, more specifically, womanhood, through an exploration of the body.
The image of the phallus as a counter-symbol to female subjectivity book-ended the show, which opened with Szapocznikow’s Fiancée folle blanche (Crazy White Bride, 1971) and ended with Messager’s Fetischism (2013). Crafted using resin and netting, the former recalls Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (1647–52) in its smooth, white perfection. Body arched and head thrown back, the line between pleasure and pain is uncertain as the woman’s face appears to have dissolved in its proximity to a dominant pink phallus. A comparable, albeit less subtle, fetishization is suggested by Messager’s flesh-coloured latex dildo, violently protruding from a black stiletto heel, presenting a relationship between aggressively erect symbols of male and female sexuality.
Inscribed upon the wall in the first room, Messager’s Hotel / Fiction (2010) oscillated between sculpture and drawing, symbiotically connecting the two; the words are delineated using black netting, and seem to be dripping or bleeding. Her proximate drawing, Chance (2012), appears to violently haemorrhage. The body’s suffering and vulnerability is conveyed, which perhaps suggests the viewer’s own misery when confronted with the stark, painful reality of our inevitable physical impermanence. For me, these drawings recall Szapocznikow’s intimate letters to Messager, written while she was in hospital in 1972, which Messager reproduced in the catalogue for the 2010 exhibition ‘Alina Szapocznikow’ at Kunstparterre, Munich. In this correspondence, Szapocznikow described her physical trauma resulting from breast cancer, painting a picture between word and image: ‘The woman 50 cm to my left […] is now spitting blood […] + she has her period + she vomits.’ These letters were unfortunately absent from this exhibition, leaving viewers to search for their own connections.
The symbolism of the fragmented corpus was explored in the exhibition’s second room. A major element in Szapocznikow’s oeuvre was the casting of her own body, and in Untitled (Prototype) (1966) her lips appear as a severed, organic form. Duplicated mouths fuse, resting back to back, their plump sensuality and seductive lightness accentuated in candy-coloured pink. More violent in its intent, Messager’s Trois Fusils (Three Guns, 2007), is studded with constellations of black and white badges depicting body parts (toes, tongues, teeth), while 6 Dissections (1997) sees toy animals flayed and pinned to the wall, their entrails removed. Brutal and disturbing, the work is cruel yet darkly humorous. Messager utilizes media that suggest childhood and, by proxy, motherhood – tainted objects that signify a nostalgic space coloured by psychological unease and empty, disfigured memories.
Messager dedicated the third room solely to Szapocznikow, highlighting her exploration of material, balance and mass within the context of body politics. Sculptures ranged from early works like Ponytail (Portrait of a Mexican Woman) (1955–6) – for which Szapocznikow produced heads and busts as part of a Social Realist doctrine, and even made a monument to Stalin – to later sculptures depicting anthropomorphic forms in flux. During the 1960s, Szapocznikow radically pushed the boundaries of artistic media. While recalling the traditional medium of bronze, La Ronde (The Round, 1968), for example, utilizes polyurethane, with ambiguous folds of asexual human flesh mercurially floating in an amorphous pool in which the body is either emerging or dissolving.
Art historians have repeatedly assessed Szapocznikow’s practice through her biography; as a Holocaust survivor who died from a cancer that physically deformed her, there are clear connections to explore. Likewise, theorist Julia Kristeva has described how Messager ‘travels her self’ through her work, conceptually moulding and merging a sense of her own time, memory, mind and body. ‘North of the Future’ subverted this tendency to reduce women artists to their biographies, and instead considered thematic overlaps, attempting to let the works speak for themselves. This created the potential for the oeuvres of these artists to shed a formal light upon one another. However, at times their work felt incompatible – Messager’s playful forms made certain pieces by Szapocznikow seem tame. Unfortunately, very little of real pertinence was conveyed regarding these women’s intriguing friendship. But then, when it comes to relationships, perhaps we can never really know what goes on behind closed doors.