HEART OF GLASS - REFLECTION/PERCEPTION AND THE WORK OF NATASHA JOHNS-MESSSENGER.

Feature article by Kate Rhodes.
Publication - LIKE Art Magazine
No 16- Spring 2001, pages 12-14.

Like the cassh-kak of the metal pressing musical factory in ‘Dancer in the Dark’, the Pumping Station at Scienceworks whirrs to the didactic sounds of pumps pumping: cisterns, gears and steam. Now cleared of soot and shit, the Station was once the grimy heart of nineteenth-century 'Smellbourne'. Saddled amongst the giant boilers and the coal bunker is Natasha Johns-Messenger's Boiler House Look-Box (2001), a large stainless steel sculpture commissioned by the Museum. Johns-Messenger's most recent works continue an interest in ephemeral sculptural and installation devices that inhabit sites and make a claim for permanency through their relationship with the surrounding context; almost the same logic used by enterprises like IKEA, where the commercial can become a part of your life. Recent exhibitions at RMIT and the George Paton Gallery (‘Sense of’ 4-20 April, 2000, ‘fixate’ 7-17 November, 2000) have also used a range of optical devices- angled mirrors, shiny surfaces, surveillance cameras and live video projections- that trap the location of the work within their reflective and/or constantly-recording surfaces. Autonomous installations thus become site-and audience-dependent for 'activation'.

Look-Box is a complex bus-shelter style construction made up of rows of circular holes on either side of its two walls. One side is punctured by cubes filled with perspex tubes and mirrors that, when peered into, bounce the floor, ceiling, walls (and visitors) into a strange single line of vision. The small slices of information made available - feet, brickwork, metal- act like snaps of a larger picture, without any fixed spatial relations, that produce complex psychological effects. ‘Look-Box’ takes structural (and titling) cues from localised motifs, mimicking a microscope, a wave mirror and the playground equipment outside the Boiler House. More immediately, it adopts the circles that appear in the boiler's 'multitubes', the boilermaker's forge and the contemporary handrails, which also acknowledges the work's place in a trajectory of progress amongst all this 'dead' industry. There is a Scienceworks brand of wonder and discovery about Look-Box that is mixed with a very appealing sense of both ambiguity and abhorrence toward the work.

The construction of Johns-Messenger's work is always intensely rigorous and calculated. While this is acknowledged (at least in the mind's eye), one quite often enters these exhibitions as an image via a camera before entering them physically. A relationship is therefore established between the acceptance of one's image and an agreement to partake in its dispersal. We still experience anxiety when unexpectedly confronted by our own image; perhaps our most intensely repressed memory of this life is due to the scope available for its multiplication. It is this play that makes Johns-Messenger's works so powerful.

Importantly, our image, captured in Johns-Messenger's work, is graded by the quality, distortion effects, and arrangement of reflective or documentative surfaces. Indeed, as we only remember the image of ourselves (we refuse to know it) we are at the mercy of Freud's uncanny; that experience when 'something which is familiar and old-established in the mind ... becomes alienated from it only through the process of repression'. As Freud claims, this is determined by the fear of confronting our own double and the distrust of our own eyes. In this situation, the experience of Johns-Messenger's work and her exploration of real and representational space come to the fore.

While there is nothing sinister about the appearance of ourself in Johns-Messenger's work, there is an element of imposed self-regulation. In ‘HERE’, a maze of mirrors, toughened glass, white walls and live video make viewers also producers of the work they experience. Perception is anchored in the body (the existential state, according to Sartre), and here, a viewer cannot escape consciousness of his or her own image as reflected in the glass/mirror/projection. Viewers are also made aware of their agency, in the act of vision, and the tiny deaths induced by its release. Nor can visitors remain unaware of the participatory social character of perception in ‘HERE’. In the very surface of the work, reflections and refractions project and superimpose viewers' images onto those of others, creating a ghosting effect peculiar to glass. The artist's strategic apertures in one wall also move bodies in and around one another.

Indeed, the quasi-architectural elements of Johns-Messenger's work, such as 'viewing boxes', walls, mirrors and light, allude to the reflective surfaces of International Style buildings and their initial promise of structural openness and social exposure. At the same time, however, Johns-Messenger's work expresses the sort of perverse and dehumanising aspects of this movement, as recounted in Edith Farnsworth's uncomfortable experience of her Mies Van Rohe designed house. With a capacity to render us docile and vulnerable, Johns-Messenger's installations threaten a sense of unbalance as the destabilising experience of hyper-surveillance takes over. But while the artist is watching, so are we.