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.