THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS.
Profile by Stephen Crafti.
Publication- SDQ-Scene Design Quarterly.
No.14, Winter 2004, page 12.
Natasha Johns-Messenger's work exists at an intersection between architecture
and art. When Stephen Crafti spoke with her, he found out how she inverts spatial
concepts in order to draw awareness to our experience of them.
Melbourne installation artist Natasha Johns-Messenger always wanted to be an
artist. “Wanting to become someone like an accountant wasn’t seen
as particularly desirable in my family. The issue of financial security certainly
wasn’t the main goal in life,” says Johns-Messenger, whose installation
art is a hybrid between architecture and sculpture. “I’m interested
in taking people into a different spatial zone, where people can experience
space rather than just looking at it,” she adds.
Johns-Messenger studied Fine Art at RMIT University. “I was abstract painting
from the start. I was interested to see what work developed from the paint rather
than having a preconceived idea of the subject,” she says. In 1994, after
completing her Degree with Honours, Johns-Messenger headed to New York, which
culminated in an exhibition of her work. Her small scale pieces consisted of
collage and photography, layering found objects, such as simple food wrappers
with photographic images. The simple street fixture, such as the humble fire-hydrant,
was elevated to art. “There’s so much to see in New York. I used
to walk everywhere, covering block after block.”
Returning to Australia after a year in New York, Johns-Messenger enrolled in
a Masters of Fine Art in Installation Practice. Inspired by artists such as
Richard Wilson and Rachel Whiteread (both from London) and James Turell (Los
Angeles), Johns-Messenger creates work aimed at ‘participant viewer’
rather than the ‘gallery goer’. For an exhibition held at Studio
12- Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces in Fitzroy, Johns-Messenger spent days
studying the gallery site. She was spurred on by the creaky timber floors and
an old Georgian window, the only original window remaining in the gallery. With
a maze of mirrors and corridors, Johns-Messenger created a ‘ghosting effect’
that invokes the kind of spatial disorientation Alice experiences in Lewis Carroll’s
Alice in Wonderland, a technique that blurs images. “It was a popular
technique when this building was designed,” says Johns-Messenger, who
was also fixated by other period details in the room.
In a different exhibition at the same gallery, Johns-Messenger used the slot
window to the gallery’s office as a cue for her installation. Again with
the use of mirrors, the slot window was extended to capture an image of the
grainy timber floor. “I’m interested in acknowledging the architecture
and materials in a space, captured in images that are integral to the structure
of the space. I called the exhibition ‘Floorlooker’,” says
Johns-Messenger, who in her conjoining of this word refers to Shakespeare’s
quirk of making up words. For a larger installation at the Scienceworks Museum,
the reference point was two original boilers. Adjacent to the boilers, Johns-Messenger
designed a new stainless steel walk-through structure, complete with mirror
perforated holes. “The walkway allows you to see different angles of the
old boilers, with multiple views from one position”, she says.
The latent humour in Johns-Messenger’s work is also expressed in an exhibition
associated with a suburban housing estate on the fringe of Melbourne. The estate’s
mock ‘inner city’ warehouses look incongruous and out of place in
the suburban landscape. As a consequence, the work featured in the exhibition
"Small Architecture" consisted of a series of surrealistic images.
Johns-Messenger used small architectural figurines and placed them next to suburban
icons such as heating ducts, transposing a sense of the heroic and the mundane.
More importantly, the images perfectly captured the architecture (or the lack
thereof) on the estate.
For Melbourne’s annual Midsumma Festival in 2004, Johns-Messenger duplicated
the image of a billboard receding inside itself, extending into infinity. Located
on a street corner in the inner-city suburb of Fitzroy, motorists as well as
pedestrians could engage with the billboard. “The work isn’t about
the advertisement. It’s about making connections to the site and bringing
people into the work. The art and the environment should work together,”
says Messenger who prefers to create an experience where people can discover
something entirely new about the place they’re standing in.