Janenne Eaton: ‘My work is deeply political’
Melbourne-based artist Janenne Eaton talks about the inspiration behind her recent installation, Road to the Hills, her love of driving alone through the Australian landscape, and the changes digital technology has brought
Janenne Eaton Road to the Hills – a text for everything and nothing
Nuttall Kibel Nguyen Gallery, Cremorne, Australia
7 October – 1 November 2014
by JANET McKENZIE
Janet McKenzie: Your installation of simulated LED screens via a grid of 28 panels confronts the phenomenon of the contemporary world, but the title, Road to the Hills, evokes a romantic worldview. What does the title signify?
Janenne Eaton: My installation Road to the Hills – a text for everything and nothing was conceived as a contemporary vision of “landscape” where the viewer leaves the certainties of the tangible world to cruise, disembodied, within the virtual terrain of cyberspace. I am interested in how we negotiate these opposing dimensions on a daily basis; how we understand language, meaning, history and experience, as we inhabit and engage these distinct “zones”.
In the installation, I present a simulation of a large, digital LED screen. Locked in a “frozen moment”, the visual character of contemporary global information systems – strings of binary code, grid matrixes and pixels – shift and flicker. The audience and the surrounding space, reflected across its surface expanse, reference the immediate and familiar, amid those “darker” interactions occurring within the mesh of global forces that define our new “digital ecology”.
I borrowed the title Road to the Hills directly from a 1922 photograph by my great uncle, John B Eaton, of an unmade country track that leads off towards a range of distant hills. The image has been laminated on to the mirror’s surface. My uncle was a renowned pictorialist photographer. Characteristically, this school of photographers sought to present landscape, and other subject matter, inflected with painterly qualities, under soft romantic lights and shadows. Here, flanking the sides of the road, the limbs of two towering eucalypts meet to form an arch, offering the viewer/traveller a portal into another space; perhaps an escape route, via the romance of the limitless realms of the imagination, to a place where one might seek refuge from the unrelenting pulse of our contemporary world. I incorporated Eaton’s image to act as a symbol for those contrasting zones of time and space – the ethereal and the corporeal. The viewer, reflected in the mirror, appears to be standing on the track itself.
The extended title of the installation, Road to the Hills – a text for everything and nothing, recalls the common phrase “head for the hills”; it acts as a metaphor proposing the lost potential for escape; the breakaway, the all or nothing. The romance of simply getting lost, of flying under the radar, is an impossible place to locate, living as we now do under the all-encompassing gaze of global cyber-surveillance.
JMcK: I still associate the Australian landscape with a timelessness and indestructibility. However, in the past 30 years (since I left), the natural environment has been profoundly challenged. How does your work address the dangers and uncertainties of the future?
JE: One of my great solitary pleasures is driving long distances. I’ve been driving the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Canberra regularly for more than 35 years. Driving that same route over time, I’ve seen both seasonal and climate conditions change the landscape. The long years of our most recent drought led me to make Creek Runner – Second Crossing (2009). The work documents all the names of the creeks that cross that long section of the highway. I felt that many would disappear under the effects of climate change. While the Australian population is mainly urban – so our relationship to the bush is somewhat distanced – technology is assisting us to understand the pressures on it. Of course, the Australian landscape that we experience today is largely an artefact of colonial design.
JMcK: Digital technology has enabled artists in Australia to assuage the tyranny of distance that defined early responses to the land by white settlers. How has the world wide web, and email affected your art practice?
JE: In so many very practical ways – such as conducting this interview with you in Scotland and me in Melbourne, half a world away, in different hemispheres. I know I can deliver a text with images in moments, just as soon as I finish this sandwich and select “send”!
I often reflect on times, and not so long ago, when the photographic documentation of artworks was formatted as 35mm slides. It took time to have them processed, copied to multiples and distributed via the post: all quite costly and slow. The web and email are both great and revolutionary facilitators for artists wanting to reach out to a potential audience. In submitting images and texts to magazines, arts institutions, exhibition venues, or simply to share with friends, the ease and speed of sending material via the web makes for quick responses to opportunities that might arise anywhere in the world. The lengthy time for an overseas mail delivery to arrive on somebody’s desk is now not an issue for us down in the antipodes.
Having a dedicated website for one’s work also means having a live, “virtual gallery” space in which new projects can be shown and the breadth of an artist’s practice becomes easily accessible to anyone in the world who may be interested. For artists in any discipline, access through the world wide web in functional terms lessens the isolation factor that characteristically surrounds the making of work.
JMcK: The dystopian anxiety of Mad Max is evoked in your new work. What does your use of road-safety mirrors imply?
JE: Road-safety mirrors function to alert one to a potential risk of collision with something that one’s physical point of view, in time, renders invisible. By reproducing the photograph of a past, antipodean landscape on to the convex mirror, I was hoping to set up an interaction between a looking back and forward in time, simultaneously. In doing this, I want to create a sense of temporal and spatial instability. This is accentuated when the viewer, standing below the mirror, is reflected into the scene, appearing to stand in the road itself. Positioning the mirror at the top left edge of the expanse of the faux LED screen, I wanted to propose a visual and conceptual dialogue between physical and virtual realities, and our changing relationship to place, time and space.
JMcK: Mirrors also make reference to art historical sources as diverse as Fred Williams, George Lambert and Jan van Eyck. Can you explain the way you incorporated them into your vision?
JE: In Road to the Hills, my positioning of the convex safety mirror also represents a direct reference to the convex mirrors in the paintings of Van Eyck and Diego Velázquez. In their paintings, the viewer assumes the position of witness to the scene, unifying the viewer’s space with the pictorial space.
Critical to the concept of my work is the way in which the viewer scans and reads the screen while simultaneously being observed by it. Functioning like a mirror, the highly reflective surfaces of the bank of LED-like screens work to incorporate the presence of the viewer, engulfing, implicating and recording her within the narrative; bringing into focus a darker, cyberspace flipside to popular global social media interaction; and how the effects of digital technological interactivity can blur the boundaries of experience between the private and public spheres.
JMcK: A religious iconography is discernible in your new work, with a wide range of images drawn from a contemporary lexicon of forms. Can you describe the working methods you used and how the final installation was reached?
JE: Going back to the reference I mentioned earlier, I wanted Road to the Hills to embody a contemporary reflection on landscape, but expanded here to tilt historical concepts of it towards an idea of landscape being transposed into a globalised, virtual terrain. The standing banner that displays a ghostly version of Van Eyck’s archangel Gabriel, from his Ghent Altarpiece, represents here, a more secular and transcultural notion of angels as protectors and guardians through the journey of life – in this particular landscape, perhaps appearing to accompany and guide the traveller as she negotiates unfamiliar and dangerous territory. Some people have told me they interpret the banner’s angel as a symbol of hope.
Consistent with much of my work, Road to the Hills is built entirely in black and white, alluding to the past and memory. In my working methods I employ drawing and related media to create flat, deeply layered, rather than perspectival spaces, constructed on a foundation of spray-painted grids. Images and scripts appear and disappear as pixelated points of light into the complexity of the work’s highly reflective surface. Displaying a layering of fractured images and signature visual characteristics reminiscent of those recorded through the “eye” of cyber-surveillance technology, I have adopted the visual tropes of contemporary global information systems – fragmentary texts, strings of binary code, grid matrixes and pixels. Other symbols include skulls, targets, directional crosses, arrows, stars and bullet holes.
JMcK: Your work conjures echoes of memory, ennui and mortality, which were discernible in your large charcoal drawings of the 1980s, which I still love. An impressive development has taken place. Does your new work feel more overtly political to you as the artist?
JE: That’s an interesting question because I recently included an archive link on my website to display that series of large scale drawings from the 1980s, of urban underground car parks. While completely different from Road to the Hills, conceptually and materially, I was struck by how much they seemed to relate to it. Maybe they conjure up a very similar atmosphere as sites of refuge, escape and survival.
I recall, in your 1986 publication Australian Drawing, Contemporary Images and Ideas, you discuss the scale of the drawings as allowing the viewer to confront them physically and almost step into them; how the viewer becomes part of the physical drama. Even more prescient, you mention the sense that when one looks at these works, other people are also watching and participating. Thus illuminating the conceptual links between these works, across the intervening three decades, I find exciting and quite astonishing.
My work is deeply political. Living under periods of conservative government has invariably provided a strong stimulus for my work. During the making of Road to the Hills, certain government policies affecting refugees coming to Australia by boat; and harsh budgetary policies that detrimentally affect the poorer and marginalised members of our community have been enacted. While I am responding to Australian national issues, they find accord with very similar issues that affect people globally.
Across the dark digital screen, I refer to these sorts of issues with short, broken strings of text. In the way I apply the points of white light pixels into the digital grid, words appear to visually flicker, appearing elusive and legible by turn as they move in and out of focus. The allusion to government secrecy, questions of human rights and the level of secrecy that surrounds the application of policies; as well, new intelligence powers that have increased the cyber surveillance of the general population, hang like constellations across the breadth of the screen.
Road to the Hills incorporates the text “These People”. We hear this alienating phrase used so frequently, usually as a way to distance people as “other”. Placed on the wall opposite the black LED-like screen is a sign – “These People” – in reversed text. It reads correctly as it is reflected across the space incorporating our own image, reflected and named.