The shape shifters: Breathing life into the art of sculpture

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Annette Messager's quirky installations and Rebecca Warren's clay forms breathe new life – and fun – into the traditional art of sculpture. Tom Lubbock approves

You couldn't call her subtle, but Annette Messager has fun. Perhaps fun is an odd name for work that has plenty of agony and aggression and anarchy and other serious-sounding things. But the extravagant way in which they're delivered lightens them up a lot. Fun, in the sense of spectacular entertainment, becomes the dominant note of her art and what sticks in your mind afterwards.

Annette Messager is a famous French artist, born in 1943. You ought to know her, except that she's been little seen in the UK, and this show at the Hayward Gallery is her first proper showing since a touring exhibition in the early 1990s. If her sculpture seems familiar, it's doubtless because there is an overlap with the needlework element of Louise Bourgeois' work; indeed it shares some of her general rhetoric of pain. If you like Bourgeois, you should definitely get along.

This is a swift retrospective, but it manages to include some of her major pieces. The earliest exhibit comes from about 1970 and sets the tone. Simple enough: glass cases are filled with rows of poor little dead birds, each wrapped in its woollen cosy. It's about the most flagrant bit of pathos I've ever seen in a gallery. It gives you an idea of Messager's very direct emotional key.

She speaks a language of victimisation, filtered mainly through the nursery and the Catholic church. The martyrdom of soft toys! She has a knack for imbuing stuffed objects and limp cloths with pitiful bodily sensations, and treating them like relics and ex votos. The furry innocents get massacred over and over. In piles, in scores, they are hung from the wall, dangled from the ceiling, caught in nets, strung up, pegged up, bound up, impaled on pikes.

So no, it isn't subtle. But since her cast of puppets, plastic bags and garments is also richly multi-coloured, there's a counter mood of carnival and ecstatic pleasure. That isn't subtle either, but it's a complication of sorts. Or take Glove-Face, a skull head, made of black knitted gloves which bristle with sharpened crayons poking out of all their fingers: soft, hard, blackness, colour, violence, sweetness.

Messager plays out these mixed feelings freely and without any particular focus. She revels in them, and we can too, but it's a technical exercise. Her art is heart-piercing in the way that a ghost-train is scary. She's staging a psychological funfair, and inciting the same demand in her audience for more. What kind of a ride will she come up with next? The answer is: some extremely inventive ones. In her recent works she creates a sequence of highly theatrical and surprising animated installations.

Inflated-Deflated fills a large area of floor with a variety of forms made of cushion-cover fabric – large body parts, internal organs, sea creatures – attached to pumps. A penis, a hand, a heart, a foetus, a mouth, an anemone, they all begin in flaccidity. Gradually they fill up with air, one here, one there, then puff out again. Finally they are all up, and inflating and deflating in a regular breathing rhythm – or rather, half of them swell out as the other half sink down, and then vice versa.

It's a metaphor for life. It must be – though I wouldn't try to make anything more out of it. Just enjoy this spectacle, and then move along to Casino, which begins with an even more startling device. Wind action, again. It's like the moment in The Shining when the lift opens and an ocean of blood rushes out. Here, through a doorway, we see a raging turbulence of scarlet silk – and then a great carpet of this silk is suddenly blown up, billowing, flooding, towards us.

These shows work alright, sometimes brilliantly, and I was glad to see them done – not least because they're so alien to our own art scene. The "sensation" generation has often been accused of showmanship, but no British artist would indulge in Messager's level of theatre. They'd consider it impossibly vulgar, uneconomical, emotionally splashy.

Rebecca Warren is a British artist, born in 1965. She's a sculptor – that's to say, she works in the very unfashionable practice of clay modelling. A contemporary artist who squeezes, digs, extrudes and moulds the sticky stuff is not one you expect to see at the Serpentine Gallery. Or if you do, you expect some kind of a joke – certainly not that the medium will be taken seriously.

There is one obvious joke here, a piece that Warren made 10 years ago and became a signature piece. Helmut Crumb is two pairs of grotesquely sexed up women's legs plus crotch – the references are to the cartoonist Robert Crumb and the photographer Helmut Newton. Her earlier works developed overt ironies. They were like a rude parody of post-war figurative European sculpture – Giacometti, Germaine Richier – playing the distressed existential body up against "bunny girl" caricature porn. It was a bit stupid, but it had some potential. And that's materialising. The other sculptures here are mostly much more recent. Warren continues to handle the clay in its raw grey state, and show them on rough plinths, as if still in the studio. But these new works are deeper into their medium and making. They're more or less figurative, but in most cases much less. They have a default condition, which is an inarticulate, gunky lump.

Sometimes memories look short. Take the stacked-up bulbous body parts of The Other Brother or A Culture – Miro or Picasso have been there before, near enough. And modern sculptors have done many vivid variations on the mud pie glob: Lucio Fontana, Giuseppe Pennone, William Tucker. If that seems like too much name-dropping, then check them out.

Warren's eight vaguely upright blobs, called We Are Dead, do have life stirring in them. They sit there, unresponsive and obstructive – but something obscure is going on. Hints of flesh are taking or losing shape, appearing embryonically, vestigially. But the more important tension is between a sense of collapse and a sense of stance. Is a figure remotely drawing itself together out of this mess? Is there an entity in there, or just a slippage of surfaces?

In each one a sculpture is on the verge of existence, and though the things look crude the effect is quite elusive. Deliberate cack-handedness is in dialogue with improvised shape-making. This is perfectly traditional sculpture activity.

And next to Messager? Two body-sculptors: but the contrast hardly needs even stating. You can find wildness and excess in Warren's handling of clay, but compared with Messager's her art is a model of restraint. It operates in a tight register, where small gestures count. It values the laconic and the enigmatic. We Are Dead: what's it expressing? What does it mean? We can't quite say, and that's a mark of its seriousness. That what makes it good. And it's good too to see the difference displayed so clearly.

Annette Messager: Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London SE1; until 25 May; admission £9 with reductions (also admits to The Russian Linesman).

Rebecca Warren: Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2; until 19 April; admission free

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?