FORMALISM’S RADICAL INTERIORITY – THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE.
Catalogue essay by Bernhard Sachs
It would be easy and consistent, on one level, to read Natasha Johns-Messenger’s
HERE as a series of formal restatements or recastings from the orthodoxies of
Modernism. The readings of painting and sculpture after Michael Fried, Rosalind
Krauss and others; the discourses around the monochrome and minimalism; and
the somatic post-minimalist articulations of artists exemplified by Bruce Nauman,
are not incorrect or unintended. The notion of ‘here’ participates
in a logic of presence, and the material conditions of the particular, formalism’s
refuge in the objecthood of facts.
The recourse to the language and materiality of the artwork as the content of
art is, it seems, eternally recurrent. Formalism can be read as a prioritizing
of the signifier and a deliberate restriction of the second term, the signified,
to the materiality of the artwork. The language of modernity, of the contemporary
is read as a surface and as index: an ideological subtext exposed through its
In this, HERE acutely reiterates a modernist orthodoxy. Johns-Messenger’s
video imaging (of oneself and others) provokes inevitable repercussions concerning
surveillance; the scale and construction of space proposes questions concerning
the politics of the body; and the very presence of the mirror implies a dense
psychoanalytic obsession with the mirror stage, invoking discourses concerning
doubling and the double, and the quotation of ourselves in material. Natasha
Johns-Messenger has made the not insubstantial observation concerning her use
of mirrors that ‘the more there are of you, the less significant the ‘initial
you’ is’. If there was space, the notion of the ‘initial you’
alone warrants extended extrapolation.
As necessary as these readings are, they are insufficient to the work of Natasha
Johns-Messenger, HERE participates in the problematisation of formalism, even
as it depends on and extends a formalist logic. A ‘mere’ formalism
quickly degenerates into an interminable production line of indicative objects,
if not materially then in the linguistic sense of the object, as level of operation.
This is one of the fundamental problems with, for example, collapsing the critique
of the art object that characterised a substantial content of the twentieth
century avant-garde into the category ‘installation’, to be then
lined up with and/or against other discrete material categories like ‘painting’
or ‘sculpture’. The assumption is that the site-specific work, because
of its materiality, avoids the problems of the so-called art object. It does
not. The problem remains the same – a problem of language.
The, not unjustified, formalist suspicion of the authorial gesture or the polemics
of ideology critique runs the extreme risk of imploding the artwork into what
is read as its own language (remember Rosalind Krauss’ famous demand for
‘more work on the signifier’). Talking about materiality alone and
leaving any further (eg. political, psychological) reference to incidental ‘surface’
connotations – when the signified is collapsed into the signifier –
ultimately cauterises signification. It is to talk within a distorting limit,
limiting the reach of art to background effect, a type of decoration.
The solution to this problem opted for by artists like Beuys, Kounelis, Horn,
Trockel and Hatoum was to consciously rehistoricise the object, to acknowledge
the significations the formalist tendency would deny as inherent in the formal
relations of the artwork, as undeniable. Another solution lies in recasting
formal relations in the significations of the artwork into formalism’s
radical possibility – the epistemological questions predicated on the
cognitive, on gaps on perception. Natasha Johns-Messenger’s practice actualises
the former in a muted sense and the latter in a strong sense. It is saved form
the ubiquitous and incessant play of surfaces by the epistemological questions
it provokes, and in this her work is unorthodox. Perceptual dislocation is actualised
in an inescapable way – it is built physiologically into her work. Through
what she terms the ‘basic technology of the mirror’, though articulations
of virtuality and through architectural supplements – video loops, temporary
constructions – the dematerialisation of the ‘object’ is effected,
not by reference, but through careful attention to ocular logic. Formal relations,
rather then being presented as demonstrations of reference for dispassionate,
or distanced, consideration, are thrown into the radical interiority of direct
The experience is of being conscious of oneself in the act of perceiving. There
is paradox in the simultaneous presence of the same object/person in different
positions, ‘logically’ impossible but, at least momentarily, perceived
to be true. What is real and what is illusion becomes problematic, according
to the formal logic of simulacra. The veracity of the perceptual is an open
question. This compression of the trickery of mathematics, the convergence of
Escher and the fair ground, makes a very important point. In the space of perceptual
ambiguity, in the somatic experience of being conscious – provoked by
being jolted out of the familiar – we face the contingency of the perceptual
as, firstly, not a natural given but the interpretative construction of raw
sense data, and secondly, the action of directing consciousness. We are returned
to the fundamental brain/mind distinction, to the ghost in the machine.
The loss of orientation constructed into the architecture of HERE thematises
the individual cognitive negotiation of space as its first point of reference.
A radical form of interiority, the experience of being behind one’s own
perceptions physically, precipitates, in Johns-Messenger’s terms, ‘the
perceptual priority over presence.’ It amounts to a critique of formalism’s
refuge, objecthood itself. The critique of presence proposed in HERE is consistent
with, and emanates from, quantum physics, that is, from a materialist reassessment
of materiality. This reassessment exhibits a complex and fascinating relation
between acts of cognition and what is perceived.
The relation is chiasmic: the perceptual critique of presence though physics
is simultaneously the physical critique of perception. Natasha Johns-Messenger
advances the example of dead stars seen as bright (live) in the night sky through
what amounts to a play of simulacra in nature. The philosophical critique of
presence in one mode, from science and analytical philosophy, runs parallel
to a philosophical critique of presence in another mode, the critique of the
metaphysics of presence, a cultural or ideological critique variously exemplified
by deconstruction, Baudrillard, Jameson, Deleuze…, although with this
discourse the persistence of the dead star is likely to be Hegel or Elvis. Both
senses of the critique of presence, that physical and the metaphysical, converge
in Johns-Messenger’s work, dissolving the object certainties of presence,
rendering them anxious.
The object certainty of ‘here’/HERE is anxious in yet another way.
‘Here’ immediately postulates a ‘there’, spatially and
temporally. ‘Here’ invokes the grammar of fixation, of location
and placement. This ‘here, now’ participates in the instability
of somewhere-else and some-other-time, of which it is a part and which it inevitably
becomes. The fact that HERE is assiduously consistent with its material surroundings
creates its autobiography, is indexical of its historic moment, of its already
specific and receding contemporaneity. HERE has been constructed to be dismantled
and reassembled. Transposed, it is the ‘there’ of somewhere else.
‘Here’, seemingly certain, is a tenuous refuge of slight comfort.
It is perpetually impermanent. Paradox is reiterated in excess of the ocular,
in the material circumstances of HERE and through its thematisations of the
word/name itself. HERE resides in the temporary nature of permanence.