Annete Messager – Le Chapeau Sorciére (The Witch Hat)

Annette Messager, Le Chapeau Sorcière – ‘The Witch Hat’ (2012)

I write first from memory.

Such clever, cunning simplicity. A wig, a black cone and a fan. I encountered it with surprise and delight. It was not what I had come to see and not what I had expected to find. Le Chapeau Sorciére touches on several pet elements; the unseen force of air made visible by the streaming hair, the absence of trickery (all engineering clearly visible), animation (in the broadest sense), a suggestion of a simple magic at work in the ordinary world and A WITCH. Immediately, I secretly adopted it as some kind of mascot, the perfect symbol of the unruly woman.

Hours later I refer to my own documentation.

I set my phone up by the computer where I am writing and hit play again and again on the brief video I shot. I get a sense once again of the scale of the thing – relatively small against the large installations that comprise the largest part of Motion/Emotion, the MCA’s recent retrospective of Messager’s work. It is contained – a one liner – but it is the work that resonated strongest and has stuck in my mind most persistently.

I hit play again and realise I have no idea what the cone/hat is made of. It looks like it may be heavy, which would prevent it being moved too wildly by the air current, which in turn means it is only the hair streaming wildly in the artificial breeze, not the whole object being buffeted about. I remember that I recently heard the fan+hair equation described as something requiring ‘hairography’ in the world of music video production.

Then I wonder if this work was pulled together quickly by Messager. Or did she go through several trials in the studio constructing the hat out of a variety of materials until she found the perfect stability. Or a selection of wigs until the correct ‘hairography’ was apparent.

I remember my own studio battle to create a ghost for a gallery from a sheet thrown over a helium balloon. In embryo it was one of my better ideas. I still think so. But the sheet needed to be so delicate so as not to weigh down the balloon that I couldn’t source a material both delicate AND large enough. The helium was never strong enough to carry any weight greater than the balloon itself and dissipated frustratingly fast. I spent more money than I could afford on balloons, gas, tissue and lightweight plastic tablecloths over two weeks before I gave up on the object.

I wonder if the wig is cheap or expensive…

I paint for a while, return to the computer and run an image search on the work.

I’m still convinced that hat is heavy. But a witch can cope with a heavy hat. To be a witch must bring a weight with it and you would become familiar. Responsibility, isolation…

To be honest I’m playing a game with myself now. When I next sit down to write I will refer to the catalogue and images, and then I will probably know what the hat is made of. But I won’t look till then.

I recently changed my Facebook cover image to a William Mortenson studio photograph from 1927 in which a young, nude witch rides her broom over the rooftops of a town. Her hair is relatively coiffed by comparison (no hat) and the lack of movement to it makes me feel she is simply hovering. Messager’s witch is either flying fast or staring into the face of powerful magic. My Mortensen witch is playful but static while Messager’s is exhilarated.

I leave these earlier words to marinate overnight and return the next day to open the exhibition catalogue.


Le Chapeau Sorciére – The Witch Hat


mixed media, fan


Mixed media.

And to compound my frustration, in the catalogue images the hat looks as if it is made from a heavy felt (probably a better aesthetic choice) rather than the metal it reads as in the video on my phone. I realise I’ve been somewhat distracted by it’s materiality. A good magician never shows you their tricks. Maybe all the engineering is NOT clearly visible at all.

I read over the words I’ve written before now – add a word, take a word away – and realise the most relevant thing I have had to say about Messager’s work came at the end of the first paragraph of this text – the perfect symbol of the unruly woman.

It is this that draws me into her work time and again – the unruly woman, the unruly body, the unruly mind – here all three are clearly represented in Messager’s invisible witch.

The unruly woman – the witch is immodest, highly sexual and powerful.

The unruly body – that refuses to conform to standards of desire. This one is invisible, completely unattainable.

The unruly mind – that makes things happen with the power of intent matched with arcane knowledge.

An anecdote.

I attended a social pub drawing evening in February. I had dashed out the door grabbing a notebook and pen and when I arrived, sat down with a glass of cider in convivial company, chatting, laughing, some people bent deep over sketchbooks. My friend was taking the opportunity to complete some illustration work but I had come somewhat unprepared with a lined notebook, a green fine point Sharpie and no intent.

And after some hesitation I simply drew my recollection of Le Chapeau Sorciére over and over until it was time to call it a night. My notebook now contains 8 green renderings.

SR, March 2015


3 thoughts on “Annete Messager – Le Chapeau Sorciére (The Witch Hat)

  1. I can’t believe I forgot to blog about going to see the Anette Messager retrospective at the MCA in Sydney. That’s how absolutely rubbish I have been as a blogger. Anyway – the whole show really impressed me. I’m a big fan. Good thing the workshops drew something out of me on the subject…

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