Annette Messager embarked on her artistic career amid the tumultuous climate surrounding the May 1968 student uprisings in Paris. It was in this atmosphere of radicalism that she discovered that art could be found in the streets and in the tasks of everyday life, rather than solely within the cloistered realm of the museum. Some of her early pieces—such as Boarders at Rest (1971–72), in which she clothed dozens of embalmed sparrows in tiny hand-knit sweaters, and My Collection of Proverbs (1974), a selection of mostly misogynistic phrases about women hastily embroidered on unhemmed squares of cloth—use modest materials and techniques commonly associated with domesticity and often devalued as “women's work.” Her nostalgia-laden gestures belie the subversive messages of social concern in her art, in which the conflict between nature and civilization and the lack of sexual equality in society are recurrent themes.
My Vows, a series begun in 1988, hovers between photography and sculpture. The works consist of numerous small black-and-white photographs of the human anatomy, often clustered in dense groupings, each print hung tenuously from the wall by a single, simple string. The body parts depicted in the photographs—from a calloused toe to an ankle to the close-up image of a breast—belong to men and women of all ages and types. Together the photographs form an inclusive representation of humanity that is equally old and young, masculine and feminine, sensual and base, and often simultaneously humorous and poignant. Ultimately, they reflect an understanding of humanity that is not categorized by physical difference. My Vows may also be understood in relation to Messager's Catholic heritage; the work resembles the assembled votive offerings left at pilgrimage sites by the faithful, which often include accumulations of handwritten notes or miniatures of ailing limbs for which cures are being sought. The work's solemn reference is characteristic of the tension between lyricism and gravity that often informs Messager's art.