STRANGE PLACE

Review by Fiona Donald.
Publication - LIKE Art Magazine
No 11- Autumn 2000, page 56.

Level 11 operates as an occasional art venue. Usually the space is a standard commercial entrance foyer – shiny but neutral – with adjacent offices populated largely by architects. If working with space occupies the attention of Level 11’s tenants it also forms the subject of Craig Easton and Natasha Johns-Messenger’s collaboration.

Five seconds of illuminated embarrassment mark the entry point to Strange Place. Crossing from the lift to the common entrance the visitor walks through a door-sized rectangle of red light. Insubstantial as this coloured arrival point might be, it causes a momentary loss of assurity. A small, abrupt shock.

We have arrived and this is art in a borrowed space. Judging from the first few seconds it is also art committed to prickling audience sensibilities. Difficult art. But ‘Strange Place’ then effects an unexpected dislocation. The facing wall offers something quite at odds with the opening sequence, a formally intricate, immaculately painted composition applied directly to the surface of the wall. Forming the major part of the work, this wall painting includes a square of green projected light and a grid recognisable as a car park spacing. In one corner a sprayed arrow/circle locates a power point. At the other end a thick, black frame wraps around the main wall on to a window.

Taken individually each of these elements appears as a graphic quote. The origins of the references must be immediately apparent to a Melbourne audience. The graffiti-like marker which helpfully locates the power point answers the spray can ‘A.R.M’ which advertises the offices of architects Ashton Raggatt MacDougall. A.R.M’s presence as a major Level 11 tenant confirms the origins of other elements. The green, projected square is recognisable as the colour of choice at Storey Hall, a major work from the office. The black grid and thick distorted frame recall (albeit more distantly) the mathematically derived frame which decorates Storey Hall’s façade.

In combination these architecturally derived motifs read as a collection of ‘favourites’ recycled from an A.R.M catalogue. The artists could be regarded as starting with references to the site in the tradition of installation art but ending with a kind of homage. But 'Strange Place' then effects another curious shift. Moving towards the window the thick, hinged frame and black grid combine to form an abstract, spatial order utterly removed from the graphic, visual phenomena we have just experienced. This little pocket of space near the window is remarkably intimate like the interior of a cradle or a cup.

‘Strange Place’ consistently employs such strategies of proposal/reversal. The first moments of the piece, red and unsettling are followed almost immediately by a pristine, formally elegant composition which is not in the least enervating. Clearly referential this wall painting employs familiar post-modern strategies of quotation/recombination. From the other direction (parallel to its surface) the first graphic, visual condition gives way to something quite different – an abstract, spatial experience. What was initially understood intellectually (as text) is now experienced perceptually (rather than cerebrally). One thing has become quite another.

Architectural commentary is afflicted at times by a bipolar tendency. According to this logic critical architecture is to be understood intellectually as built text typically using post-modern tropes borrowed from visual culture. Such intellectually derived work could be marked as ‘hard’ against the ‘soft’ tendencies of architecture determined by an experiential or perceptual condition. Strange Place pivots between one thing and its apparent opposite rendering ridiculous such savage simplifications. As the audience we are asked to question any/all overly strident theoretical orthodoxies. At the same time we are left wondering about the possibilities for architecture beyond the current state of play.