‘Spaces for Reflection: Natasha Johns-Messenger at Heide’,
Art Monthly Australasia, No. 292, September 2016
Sitelines: Natasha Johns Messenger
Heide Museum of Modern Art
25 June – 25 September 2016
Natasha Johns-Messenger delights in optical conceits and guileful explorations of embodied perception. Her room-scaled installations cleverly inhabit a space between the virtual and the real, beckoning the viewer into their phantasmatic realms. Often designed as architectural interventions produced from the materials of MDF and sheets of mirror and perspex, Johns-Messenger’s installations play games with the viewer’s mirror image by subverting these reflections in unexpected ways. Through the use of false walls and multiple angled mirrors, the artist creates structures whose labyrinthine reflections confuse the spectator’s depth perception and sense of interior architectural space in ways which are both amusing and intriguing.
‘Sitelines’ presents the most ambitiously scaled series of Johns-Messenger’s installations yet to appear in an Australian museum or gallery. Three works – Enfolder (2016), Echo (2016) and Skytree (all 2016) – form the mainstay of the exhibition. Enfolder (2016) is a head-height circular structure whose interior hexagon of alternating mirror and opaque MDF panels encloses a narrow walkway. Walking through the interior, the viewer catches a glimpse of an image of their head and shoulders from the rear, a reflection lasting only a few seconds of the viewer’s ambulation. The work is clearly indebted to the historical precedent of Bruce Nauman’s ‘corridor pieces’ – partitions built into gallery interiors forming passageways for the viewer to traverse – in particular Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970), where a video camera filmed the spectator from the rear and relayed this verso image in monitors installed within the structure’s corridors. Enfolder, however, cleverly adapts this Nauman-esque conceit to produce two simultaneous reflections of the viewer in a single frame. The angle of the internal mirrors means that a double image of the viewer is for a split second captured in the mirror plane, dissolving as the viewer takes their next step.
An interior structure of plasterboard partitions, Echo (2016) cuts a zigzagging path through Heide’s main gallery. The carefully angled false walls mounted with floor-to-ceiling sheets of mirror create an interplay of virtual and actual corridors that entice the viewer forward. The ludic dimension of the work operates in the gap between the illusion and reality; at a discrete moment each viewer discerns the optical trick and manages to deftly avoid walking into the illusion of a frontal corridor that is in reality an oblique mirrored wall. Echo resuscitates an element of early popular cultural fairground entertainment – the interactive spectacle of the mirror maze. Using various kinds of convex or concave mirror surfaces set in interior structures featuring passageways, these mirror mazes offered spectators distorted mirror reflections that satisfied a cultural appetite for sanctioned forms of public narcissism and amusement.
The most enthralling and optically complex work in the exhibition, however, is Skytree (2016), a viewing aperture apparently cut into the building’s side wall, directing the viewer’s gaze downwards to a deep window revealing a view of the garden beyond the building’s walls. The unexpected visual paradox of Skytree is that it offers a view of the sky instead of the earth. By presenting unequivocally ‘real’ views of exterior space but in impossible configurations, Johns-Messenger gleefully thwarts our expectations of architectural depth and spatial orientation.
This clever mirror play is absent in the two-dimensional works in the exhibition which, by comparison, appear somewhat bland. The suite of digital prints, ‘Heide Site Photographs’, presents blurred cropped forms whose degree of pictorial reduction mean that they could be abstract digital images of practically anywhere.
The great 20th c.twentieth-century Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges intuitively understood the pulverising power of the mirror, detailed in his fateful poem ‘Mirrors’ (1964):
I, who have felt the horror of mirrors
Not only in front of the impenetrable crystal
Where there ends and begins, in uninhabitable,
An impossible space of reflections …
Executors of an ancient pact,
To multiply the world like the act
Of begetting. Sleepless. Bringing doom ...
Such an ominous casting of the mirror image as annihilative is counter to the cluster of interactive spectacles of ‘Sitelines’. Inspired by a minimalist precedent (as well as Nauman’s corridors, Dan Graham’s 1970s mirror-and-glass structures which bisected gallery interiors to produce ricocheting reflections of viewers in real and reflected spaces), Johns-Messenger’s installations are similarly handsome but without doubt more beguilingly playful. In their rectilinear elegance they interlink beauty, wit and visual intrigue, but circumvent the more menacing yet perhaps more profound dimensions of the mirror’s destabilising potency.
Natasha Johns-Messenger, Enfolder, 2016, installation view, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne.