FORMALISM’S RADICAL INTERIORITY – THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE.

Catalogue essay by Bernhard Sachs
May 2001.

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 material traces.

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 somatic engagement.

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.