I adore this 1971-72 work by Annette Messager, Les Repos des Pensionnaires (roughly translated to “Boarders at Rest”). In this work Messager clothed dozens of taxidermied sparrows in tiny knitted garments, then carefully laid them out in natural-history-museum-style display cabinets. Presented as if they are sleeping, cozy in their woollen wear, the little birds become an uneasy cross between scientific specimen and treasured pet.
The macabre arrangement and title, which suggests that they are just temporary “boarders” in the museum, seems to recall the kind of explanation one might give a horrified young child confronted with the stuffed animals in a natural history museum. The adult visitor knows the dark truth, however: these specimens are not contentedly sleeping, and that the museum has gone through great pains and expense to preserve its body and make sure it is not just a “temporary guest.” The museum’s conservation department works hard to make sure these sparrows live up to those famous Eagles lyrics: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…”
Yet beyond this thinly veiled institutional critique, or even the obvious Surrealist elements of this work, there is something so darkly sweet and delightful about it. The child-like playfulness in contrast to the earnest meticulousness of its display creates an absurd tableaux that is more charming than confrontational. Although intentionally laced with hints of biting criticism, I find the tenderness of dressing birds in little handmade clothing the most compelling element of Messager’s piece.
// Further reading: an interview with Annette Messager in the now defunct Journal of Contemporary Art (Natasha Leoff, 1995).
// Image via Filles de Satan.
Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things: