EXHIBITION ESSAYS & ARTICLES
Changing Sides – Georgina Criddle, catalogue eassy
Janenne Eaton’s art is full of rabbit holes, blind corridors and illusive tricks. It’s the kind of art that lures you into thinking you’ve understood it, that it’s somehow obvious, until suddenly all clarity disintegrates and you find yourself back where you started. Hitting walls.
Before Janenne asked me to write this text, I’d already seen the exhibition at various stages of completion. I’m on the board of TCB and I do their mail-outs. I discovered Janenne’s ‘wall of text’ when I was putting together the media release for her exhibition FENCES B/ORDERS WALLS. In the description of her show, Janenne constructed a text formatted like a wall made up of facts about walls and fences. A couple of days later I visited the gallery and saw Janenne and Simon McGlinn installing the physical work, a painting titled FENCE. I saw the calculation and precision with which they installed the first ten panels and it made my white skin crawl. I thought about the bureaucracy behind the Australian Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders, the clean administration of it all. I was also reminded of ‘The News of the Building of the Wall: A Fragment’ a text by Franz Kafka, how it described in detail the moments before and after an anonymous character learned that a wall would be built nearby their village. What was remarkable about the text was that Kafka left his reader uncertain as to what side of the wall the character is speaking from. A similarly ambiguous question is asked in Janenne’s exhibition: ‘which side of the fence am I on?’
Sitting the gallery some days after the opening of the exhibition, I experienced the full brunt of FENCE. It was fully erect and ran the entire length of the gallery wall. I walked along it, letting the sharp black lines and the blotchy grey tones build up in my peripheral vision. When I turned to face the work I saw the grid — a reoccurring character in Janenne’s practice, only this time it was turned 45 degrees to look like a wire fence. It was black like a silhouette and it hovered in front of what looked like cloud coverage or liquid metal. Painted over the top of the grid in giant black letters as tall as each individual panel was the word FENCE. The word was painted in a way that was disinterested and banal and it was repeated seven times across the gallery wall. First the front of the word was painted, and then the back of the word. On the opposite wall to FENCE, in both the Front and Back gallery, were two identical small paintings that reminded me of the long narrow slots in the great-fortified walls of medieval cities, the kind of slots that castle guards would look through to control who came in and out. Visible inside each slot-shaped canvas were two ‘eyes’. The left eye doubled as a bullet hole that from some distance looked as if it had punctured the canvas. The right eye was made out of a reflective surface, a circular mirror with a rubbery rim protruding out from a black painted background. The two eyes were separated by a silver slither — the nosepiece of medieval helmet? I found out later that both paintings reference the evil eyes of the warlord in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 1339 fresco Allegory of the Effects of Bad Government. The warlord was the personification of Tyranny.
After seeing the exhibition I thought I had understood what side of the fence I was on. I thought it was obvious. In response I wanted to write a text that performed the control of the Deadeye and the containment of FENCE, and the unnerving feeling of being trapped and monitored. I fell into an Orwellian rabbit hole, turning the TCB gallery into a totalitarian space where free-speech was forbidden and where board members and volunteers were restricted to using specific language and only speaking about selected topics. Soon volunteers would start to go missing and there would be rumours that surveillance cameras and microphones were installed in the Deadeye paintings and around FENCE. In this version of the text I not only assumed that the viewer in Janenne’s exhibition was on the wrong side of the fence, I also committed myself to making sure that the authorial control of the artist and the artist-run gallery was like a ruthless dictatorship.
It turns out that in my insistence to know for certain what side of the fence I was standing on I had misread the function of the work entirely. How sure was I that I was on the wrong side of the fence — a victim of some oppressive force that contained my body and monitored my movements around the gallery? I went back again to look at the work. This time when I see the word FENCE I see it flip to reveal its other side. The meaning of the word FENCE vanishes and is replaced by a thought ‘double sidedness’. Hollowed out, the word FENCE becomes an object, or an architectural structure with a front side and a backside. Then the object disintegrates in front of my eyes and all I see is a cloud-like blur coming through and pulling back behind black mesh. My pupils expand and contract like a camera lens unable to focus. Finally my gaze fixes again on the word FENCE and as the word flips so do I. I’m on the other side of the word and I begin to understand something that feels embarrassingly obvious to me. The viewer is unable to choose sides because the work itself is two-sided. It is the work’s refusal to position the viewer, its refusal to let the viewer position themselves, that makes this exhibition so nightmarish and impossible. Somewhere in all this I learn that there is absolutely nothing obvious about fences, borders or walls. In fact everything around me now has the capacity to be a fence, a border and a wall, because as far as I can see, everything, including me, has two sides. Perhaps I’m confused and I’ve got it all wrong. But am I? I turn around to the other side of the wall and I look again at the Deadeye painting — bullet hole decal on one side, my own eye reflected in the other.
 I came across this short story by Franz Kafka after taking part in a work by Jacqui Shelton, also called The News of the Building of the Wall, a one-on-one storytelling and learning session, Testing Grounds, 2016.
Georgina Criddle is an artist and writer based in Melbourne. She has served on the board of TCB since 2015 and teaches at Monash University in the Faculty of Art Design & Architecture. Georgina has exhibited in artist-run spaces in Melbourne and internationally.
FENCES B/ORDERS WALLS – Janenne Eaton, notes on the fence.
My friend Mark Ashkanasy said he liked the bluntness of the title FENCE for my new work. He said the single word was like a ‘blot’. His remark recalled the words of writer Cecilia Balli, remembering the first time she saw the US-Mexico border fence, the ‘built up’ version of it in South Texas - “When I first drove by it on the way to my uncle’s house, it shocked me. It’s desolate land. To me, it’s very beautiful land. I’m from here. I’m very rooted here, and all of a sudden I see this 18-foot steel fence. It looked like a scar, like a cut that’d just been sutured.” South Texas writer and photographer Gloria Anzaldua describes it as ‘an open wound’. Mark’s comment felt right; as defined, a blot is also a blemish, a stain or a scar.
In my previous works, and most recently the installation, Road to the hills – a text for everything and nothing, (2014), I employ highly reflective surfaces to place the audience into the role of participant, reflecting and incorporating the viewer’s body into the narrative space. By Contrast, the illusion of ‘a way through’ is denied by the Fence’s span and the obdurate materiality of its matte surface. What I am attempting here is to conjure a sense of a palpable physicality; a hard-faced sign for the ‘end of the road’. While invoking the definition of fences as barriers, or boundaries that divide, enclose, restrict or hamper, there is a pervasive sense of a phantom presence; almost an aura of something further glimpsed: a blindfold or gag? This impenetrable barrier, akin to a psychological block, suggests the silence of censorship; the muting of political opposition. A silence ‘erected’ for what it might hide as for what it might stop. Like the redacted paragraphs of government files strung across an ideological terrain of lies and obfuscations; recalling the anonymous face with eyes concealed behind the cold black band rather than the pixilated blur.
Invoking the architecture of the universally recognized cyclone wire fence, I wanted the text itself to form the anatomy of the work - the bones of it. The legible spelling, FENCE, flipped into reverse, forms an alternating pattern along its extension. In this way the word, despite its deadpan posture, is written to suggest conflicting and contested realities, metaphorically trapping the audience on both sides of the fence simultaneously: inside and outside its confines. Depending on where you’re standing, (and/or your point of view), determines what we might see within the shadowy shifts behind the mesh. The work’s visual dynamic sets up a rhythmic density that distorts easy legibility, compressing both accessibility and meaning. Are we ignorant, complicit, confused; or simply powerless to change the things that shape our histories and corral our present.
- Janenne Eaton
I would like to thank the members of the TCB board for their generous invitation to present a project for exhibition in 2016. My particular thanks must go to Rohan Schwartz who, with the support and counsel of Lisa Radford, and ultimately the board members, provided the ignition point and inspiration for me to accept this wonderful opportunity. While at that time, in late 2014, I had no inkling of what might result, I will remain most grateful for the spatial and philosophic scope provided by TCB, which has enabled me to realize the FENCE.