In the upstairs rooms of Calais’ Museé des Beaux Art, under the general title of Les Liaisons Heureuses there are pieces by Joseph Beuys, Picasso, and Andy Warhol. But I am taken with a work by Annette Messager.
A “History of Dresses” appears to be about the layering of our history, and the physical representations that we use to understand it. In Boulogne, at my hotel, it is Jeannette’s Guest Book, old and faded, held together by thick rubber band that is this type of representation. Jeanette turns the pages with a smile, remembering each encounter.
For me – as for all tourist/travellers – it is the buildings first of all, which is why I am so hesitant to generalize from a church, or a shopping mall. Tom Coryat loved his churches, I do too: but I am not sure they tell us much these days, not here in northern France, anyway. They speak of architectural moment, and that strange Philip Larkin-esque compulsion we have to visit them, despite our fiercely secular nature and, even more, the knowledge that we will understand little, so far divorced are we from the mythologies of the religions celebrated here.
In a sub-section of the show in Calais, Annette Messager gives us a wedding dress framed so that it is displayed horizontally. A photograph of a face, distorted beyond recognition, lies at the centre of the dress: once there was a woman, and a man. She is whole but absent, he is present but pulled apart.
Perhaps we are looking at a cloud, or the shapes of a Georgia O’Keefe flower. Or a religious relic, like the many items Thomas Coryat tried – but usually failed – to see on his trip. Is this a wedding dress or shroud?
The catalogue uses a phrase by the art historian, Harald Szeeman, who talks of the artist’s “individual mythology,” and I think this is right. “History of Dresses” considers how we conceive our personal history and other people’s. For me, though, the piece is redolent of death, not life. Perhaps it is history that must be forgotten for life to happen.
Two histories: first Calais, below that Boulogne, close to the Dance School