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.