Road to the Hills - a text for everything and nothing. 8th Asia Pacific Triennial Of Contemporary Art, QAGOMA Brisbane, 2015-2016
Through a glass, but even more darkly– catalogue essay by David Hansen
In much contemporary art that poses as ‘political’, there is a jejune, one-liner flatness, a programmatic, self-conscious, even self-congratulatory drawing of attention to the bleeding obvious. Janenne Eaton’s practice is, by contrast, both allusive and elusive, fascinating and frustrating, an art that drifts like a ghost net through the oceanic depths of ideology, that makes an instinctive, exploratory, reactive progress through material, formal and conceptual shadowlands.
The title of this new installation, Road to the Hills, is borrowed (with respect and affection) from that of a work by the artist’s great uncle, John B. Eaton, an accomplished late Pictorialist photographer who worked in Victoria during the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, this very image – a country track running between roadside fences and under a stand of gum trees towards a distant, central mountain – is directly incorporated in the descendant work. Eaton has had it printed onto a convex mirror attached to the wall at the top left of her work’s core element, a wall of black panels. It is one of those road safety mirrors that enable you to see what’s coming at you, to assess and respond to the otherwise invisible risk just around the corner. Here is the work’s first (political) metaphor, a sign of the instability and unpredictability of the world, with the photograph and its title inevitably carrying overtones of apocalypse, escape and survival, of the road in Mad Max and Cormac McCarthy, of a desperate flight to the hills, of the biblical psalmist lifting up his eyes.
But this curious element, this eccentric centre of the work is not only a homage and a warning. It is broadly resonant: equally a skyhook, a punctuation mark, a balloon, a shining Pear’s soap bubble, the eye of God or the lens of a surveillance camera. The Australian landscape contained within its circular frame inevitably summons Fred Williams’ rear-vision mirror tondos of the mid-1960s, while the convexity goes back further still, to virtuoso retinal reality set-pieces like George Lambert’s The Convex Mirror or Parmigianino’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, or even (the most famous of them all) the mirror at the back of Jan Van Eyck’s Wedding Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini.
Coincidentally, the flanking object on the other side of the black wall, one of those flapping fabric signs familiar from outside car yards or highway-side megastores, presents a detail of Van Eyck’s masterpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The figure on the banner is the angel of the Annunciation, from the closed altarpiece's centre left panel. If you look closely, you can see that Gabriel's crown has a pearl at its centre, the convex, silvery, reflecting form echoing in miniature that of the mirror opposite, in a neat ricochet of formal motif and art-historical reference. More broadly, more significantly, the angel is recognisably a guardian figure, another safety device, a transcultural icon of metaphysical protection.
But just what is it that these ungainly three-dimensional offerings, these votive sculptures, are protecting us from? Between the real-space curvatures of these flanking heraldic supporters, Eaton’s big, flat, black, 2.5 x 5.5 metre grid-screen hums quietly, threateningly. It is here that we find the installation’s essential subject, described by the artist as ‘the constant flickering “present” of global interactivity, shaded by pervasive echoes of memory, ennui and mortality.’
Although painted in a manual, analogue fashion – by spraying through metal mesh, by the careful dotting of letters and numbers and ambiguous glyphs, by the collaging of decals, by the application of rings of Blutak – the lower, painted sections of Eaton’s wall have a synthetically electronic appearance, that satellite data-LED screen look familiar since the TV coverage of the first American Gulf War of 1990-91. Within a disjunct grid, amongst the blotch and blur of atmospheric or galactic clouds, of land forms or cosmic dust, Eaton introduces a constellation of symbols: skulls, targets, crosses, arrows, stars. There are scatterings of digits which might describe the position of an astronomical or military target, or might equally be secret numerical codes, telephone or pin numbers. There are saw-tooth-edged squares that look like Space Invaders, but are in fact renderings of specific digital artefacts, the ‘blind spots’ in satellite photographs of extra-terrestrial bodies. And there are bullet holes. (With weird synchronicity, during the making of this work Eaton heard the news that her childhood home in Springvale South had been the site of a drive-by shooting.) This is an image of the Dark Net, the hidden underside of the Disney-bright, cat-video world of global digital commerce and entertainment, e-camouflage for the illicit trade in arms, drugs, pornography and identity.
This is a negative space in all senses of the word, its fragmentary texts – ‘after everything’, ‘whatever’, ‘nevertheless’, the Edgar Allen Poe-Paul Gauguin-resonant ‘nevermore’ and the (revised Anarchist) monogram of an ‘N’ within an ‘O’ - all tending towards the conditional, or beyond, to the totally obliterating.
Indeed, below a narrow top edge of white noise, a horizon of raised matchstick blinds, the upper rows of Eaton’s screen-wall are completely void. The rows of blanks have a triple signification. For the art literate, they summon the shades of 20th century abstraction: the black squares of Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt, Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting and the blackboards of Joseph Beuys. In relation to technology, they allude to those all-too-familiar glitches where parts of a computer screen image drop out randomly, unexpectedly, and more broadly, to the problems of system destabilisation and the decay or disappearance of digital files. Finally, they also reference more deliberate editing, the redactions of censorship: the blacking-out or pixellation of faces, the refusal to comment on ‘on-water matters.’
More, they have a specific and important physical function within the overall installation. The unpainted, uninscribed surface of the high-impact styrene panels is highly reflective, so that the viewer becomes a part of what she sees. We look at ourselves looking, in a manner comparable to that experienced in front of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mirror paintings. Here, however, there is more than Pistoletto’s simple (or complex) conceptual play of subject and object; here we can also read our implicit complicity in the burgeoning techno-dystopia. As avid, status-anxious consumers, as novelty-drugged sleepwalkers, eye-chained and ear-phoned to our hand-held devices, as tweeters and facebookers and instagrammers, we are become a passive, somatosed citizenry, living a life of blank.
Eaton’s implied socio-political critique is made fully explicit by another reflection. On the wall opposite the black mirror-screen she has placed a sign in reversed cut-out lettering: ‘These People.’ In previous works Eaton has used this phrase in a deliberate, even pointed manner – the particular reference being to former Prime Minister John Howard’s description of ‘irregular maritime arrivals.’ Here, while maintaining the original tang of conscientious objection to government policy, the phrase assumes a wider connotation. Here, it signifies in more general terms the Other, the threat, the opposition. Here, at the very moment we register our own reflection in the work, we see ourselves named and described. We have found the enemy, and they are ours.
David Hansen Melbourne, September 2014
See Sunlight and shadow: Pictorial photographs by John B. Eaton FRPS (1881-1956), Reeder Fine Art, Melbourne, 2006 Janenne Eaton, working notes for Road to the hills