FIXATE

Review by Esther Pierini.
Publication - Art Monthly Online
November 28, 2000

'Fixate' is an exhibition of three works by four artists (two in collaboration) at the George Paton Gallery, the gallery of The University of Melbourne Student Union. The gallery is an intimate L shaped space, and on this occasion it is lit only by the light emanating from the video projections that form part of each of the three works. In the essay accompanying the exhibition, curator Kate Rhodes links the works conceptually through the idea of surveillance, suggesting that they mimic certain processes of surveillance through the use of video and sound recording.

Surveillance is a concept that has been extensively plundered by artists and curators since the inception of video recording technology. At its most extreme, surveillance suggests actions that are covert, intrusive and perhaps even unethical. As Rhodes points out, in recent years there has developed a social anxiety around the more intrusive possibilities of video surveillance.

In 'fixate', however, any act of surveillance is much less devastating and the works do not make any political or even moral assertions. Surveillance is a convenient concept to link the work curatorially and is used in its most benign form. More significant is the relationship each work sets up with the viewer, and the role of the camera in mediating the viewing experience that Rhodes touches on in the essay. It is Natasha Johns-Messenger's work that most obviously involves an act of surveillance on behalf of the viewer. She makes viewing boxes that are at once magical and quite ordinary. These beautifully constructed objects use mirrors and angles to capture views of the environment in which they are situated. Johns-Messenger mounts the boxes around her chosen site, often in a sequence that reflects the position of other boxes, creating a kind of Chinese whisper of reflections and having the potential to involve a number of viewers simultaneously.

At the George Paton Gallery she has mounted one viewing box at eye height, halfway along a wall of the gallery so the viewer is looking towards the adjoining wall. Looking into the box, I take a moment to recognise that what I see is a real-time image of the forecourt to the union building in which the gallery is situated. (I later learn from the catalogue essay that the image is captured with a video camera through the plaster wall.) The angle of the reflected image in relation to my knowledge of the gallery's architecture is unexpected- this moment of confusion is Johns-Messenger's game. I only make sense of the image in the box by considering the position of my whole body in relation to the interior and exterior of the gallery environment. Even if I could not identify the image I see in the box, it would make no sense to me initially because it is mounted halfway along a gallery wall.

Juxtaposed with the viewing box is a video projection onto a piece of glass mounted upright on the floor- about the size of a medium-sized TV screen- of the same real-time scene viewable in the box. The difference between the viewing experiences feels significant. The image projected on to the glass has the grainy quality of video surveillance footage and the experience feels quite passive, as if I'm watching a TV screen. The viewing box is a more concentrated and voyeuristic experience, forcing the viewer to peer closely into the box as if looking through a peephole. But there is no footage recorded from either the box or the projection, and the only memory of the scene is in the mind of the viewer. In each case the view is rather uninteresting and too far away to identify people clearly. Johns-Messenger denies the viewer a more intimate voyeuristic experience.


'Escape' by Elissa Goodrich and Gabby O'Connor links video and memory in another way by recording the sites and sounds of the urban environment in close and abstracted detail. The projection on to the gallery floor shows rapidly changing images that are abstract and colourful. The audio component is a hybrid of urban sounds, taking the viewer on a frenetic tour of an unspecified city. The work, initially shown as a public artwork under the portico of the Melbourne Town Hall earlier this year, feels less successful in the gallery space. At that outdoor site, with the sounds of city traffic and the public walking over it, the work appealed more strongly to its original inspiration: the flux, colour and sounds of the city. In the gallery space, it feels out of context and the echo of the city from which it takes its inspiration is less able to be heard.

Like 'Escape', Briele Hansen's work 'still' also closely documents a site using video and sound. In 'still' however, close scrutiny of the site- a gravel country road- is made through repeated filming. Standing in front of the life-sized projection, it is as if I am walking down a gently curving, gravel road in the country, flanked on one side by trees and the other by views to the horizon. But I am certainly not in control: the image jerks slightly as if the camera is hand-held, and then suddenly there is an edit and I am moving down the same road but in what appears to be a different direction. When I finally put on the work's headphones, I hear the familiar sound of shoes crunching over gravel and the 'empty' sound of the countryside with a few birds singing intermittently and the occasional muffled sound of the video microphone.

This video has a cinematic presence due in part to the size of the projection, but also how it builds a feeling of anticipation - if not quite suspense set up through its moody, late afternoon light and slow, determined forward movement of the camera. For the first few minutes of the video I expect some kind of disruptive event to upset the serene country vista before me - but nothing happens. There is no narrative and there is no 'happening', and the repetitive nature of the scene, flipping between different though repeated sections of the road, has the effect of concentrating and drawing out the focus of my imagined walk along the country road while also lulling me into a distracted state. This enjoyable experience is well recognised as fulfilling the mesmerising potential of the moving image. Hansen's repeated recording of one site- in this case a country road in Tuscany- evokes a slow back and forth but circular journey somewhat like a video loop.

The works in 'fixate' relate comfortably to each other. They draw attention to the act of perception, highlighting the viewer's position in the gallery environment and the processes and implications of the act of looking.