Mock suns—or sun dogs—are a perceptual phenomenon caused by the combination of sunlight, ice crystals and their refraction at the vantage point of the viewer. They are a natural accident whereby the viewer sees the Earth’s sun multiplied in a horizontal band across the sky—with a mock sun flanking the actual sun at either side. With the sun now in triplicate, one’s regular environment all of a sudden appears otherworldly—like a planet orbited by multiple moons. Perhaps it is for this reason that science-fiction writer and art critic Mark von Schlegell titled his 2005 book Sundogz (part of his System Series), which is set somewhere in the future amongst the moons of Uranus. For von Schlegell knows that the one of the highest achievements of art and science fiction alike is to alter our perception of the world around us, and render its everyday truths a little wobbly.
Hobart-based artist Nadége Philippe-Janon’s work pivots around the exploration of both everyday and more mysterious natural phenomena, which she often seeks to approximate in experiments using projected light and scavenged items that she has stored in her studio. Past works have featured video-mapped projections that have simulated eclipses, the otherworldly glow of phosphorescent jellyfish, and networks of sunlight across rippled water. These immersive environments often feature an absorptive soundtrack and, coupled with moving light, choreograph viewers’ attention by directing it, and their bodies, around the exhibition space.
Given their shared interest in restaging natural phenomena as experiments in the studio, we might be tempted to compare Philippe-Janon’s practice with that of the contemporary Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, whose eponymous Studio brings together a range of specialist architects, geometrists and theorists, etc., to produce slick, large-scale, wholly illusionistic environments. Eliasson, for instance, has reproduced the glow of a star and the appearance of a rainbow in the gallery. But the comparison quickly begins to disintegrate; for where Eliasson’s works often engulf and overwhelm viewers in their artifice, Philippe-Janon’s deliberately maintain a fragility or vulnerability—it is as if her works retain their right to fall apart again just as they fell together in her studio experiments in the first place. In this way, we may read Philippe-Janon’s work, contra Eliasson’s, as a type of aggregator—what David Joselit has described as a sum of many parts that sits in critical opposition to the Debordian spectacle, which functions to totalise.(1)
It is worth dwelling for a moment on the nature of Philippe-Janon’s studio, which, it must be said, is as chaotic as it is marvelous, overflowing with deconstructed television sets, magnifying glasses, synthetic light prisms, and so on. Unlike Eliasson’s Studio (with a capital, corporate S), hers is a site where experiments and accidents naturally and frequently occur. Indeed her experiments and accidents regularly produce beautiful and otherworldly effects from humble origins. This as opposed with the more fully seductive environments of an Eliasson or a James Turrell, the latter of which Claire Bishop has described as undermining viewer ‘self-reflexivity of phenomenological perception’, furthering that his installations are above all ‘spaces of withdrawal that suspend time and orphan us from the world.’(2) Against such a complete withdrawal, the vulnerability of Philippe-Janon’s work is key, for it disallows us as viewers to disappear into the spectacle completely, instead forcing us to observe a continuity between ourselves and our environment, to recognise our co-existence and the contingency of this relationship.
In Light and Shadow (chasing the Broken Spectre) 2017, Philippe-Janon creates a sunset or aurora effect by directing a combination of red, green and blue lights at one spot on the gallery wall, which together create white light. Here, the artist has built and installed an automated circular light blocker that cuts off one of the coloured lights at a time, creating a slowly gradating colour spectrum from yellow to orange to pink to red then green. Moreover, when an object—such as the viewer’s body—moves in front of the three-part light, the projection refracts spectacularly, splitting into seven colours—blue, red, green, black, cyan, magenta and yellow, each of which is created by a different combination of the coloured light. The viewer’s shadow is thus cast into a rainbow-like myriad of forms. Located towards the gallery’s entry point, viewers are directed to walk in front of Light and Shadow (chasing the Broken Spectre) light projection and cast such shadows in their own image. In addition, there is a live feed of lights and shadows on the gallery wall, which Philippe-Janon has captured through a kaleidoscopic-type lens salvaged from an old rear-projection television. This real-time footage of the light explodes into a psychedelic show of moving colour and pattern, multiplied and distorted. Here our shadows, that most personal index of the body, reinsert us back into the spectacle—obliging us to acknowledge our presence within and our impact on the perceptual environment.
The product of experiments making solar-powered pendulums, Potential energy 2017 is a low-lying pendant light that swings back and forth like a pendulum above a textured bed of sand. After visiting Foucault’s Pendulum in Paris during a recent residency at the Cité, Philippe-Janon became interested in the giant instrument invented by the nineteenth-century French physicist Léon Foucault to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation around its central axis as its pendulum swings back and forth towards the Earth’s magnetic poles. In Potential energy, Philippe-Janon wanted to draw attention to powerful invisible forces like gravity, meanwhile introducing the more mundane or quotidian themes of repetition and predictability. The swinging light also produces a panoply of contracting and expanding shadows that are thrown around the room, and onto surrounding artworks and viewers. In The nearest star from here 2017, Philippe-Janon demonstrates the power of the sun to create life and destroy it. The nearest star from here presents a scattering of rocks and cement blocks upon which she has melted tin, metal and bismuth, which, once solid, now take on the appearance of liquids that have bubbled up and spilled over. The artist melted these metals in an experiment that simply used light from the sun concentrated with a giant Fresnel lens scavenged from an old rear-projection television.
While Philippe-Janon is interested in natural phenomena like mock suns and auroras, she firmly believes that ‘there is no such thing as “nature.”’ She explains: ‘Humans are not separate from or above nature, and neither are the things we produce.’(3) Her materials are a mixture of the man-made and the naturally occurring, and her experiments are testament to our (human) co-implication with both classes of objects. In this respect, Philippe-Janon’s work recalls the light installations of Brisbane-based artist Ross Manning, which, although in a certain sense are spectacular or wondrous, never eclipse their component parts’ unassuming origins in items of domestic technology—such as a desk fan, fluorescent tubes, or an old television set. This has led Danni Zuvela to remark that Manning’s objects are staged in a ‘defiantly real world context’.(4) The same is true of Philippe-Janon’s: her works invite viewers to locate the spectacular in the man-made and the everyday.
Much of Philippe-Janon’s work draws attention to the way we as humans perceive, frame and often distance ourselves from the ‘natural’ world. Her video work Columba Livia, the Latin name for common pigeons, explores this distance vis-à-vis the hatred humans seem to have cultivated for pigeons (frequently denounced as ‘rats of the sky’, ‘gutter birds’, and ‘flying ashtrays’(5)). In this video, the artist is captured licking and sucking pigeon feathers that she then sticks, one by one, onto a sheet of glass positioned flush in front the camera lens until the entire screen is covered with grey and white feathers. This footage is interspersed with video of feathers falling and the artist cheekily dancing whilst innocently twirling a pigeon feather behind her back. But a close-cropped frame cuts out her eyes in the licking/sucking sections, leaving the camera to focus squarely on her mouth, thereby lending the sequence a strangely pornographic valence. This exaggerated schism between the pornographic and the grotesque jolts us into bridging the inbuilt psychological and cultural drive to envisage the human and the non-human (in this case the common pigeon) as irreconcilably other.
Earlier, Philippe-Janon used this technique of sexualising the non-human when she undertook an artist’s residency in Hokkaido, Japan in 2016 and there created a suite of short poetic works called Ecosexts that describe sexual encounters with the so-called natural world.(6) Ecosexuality is a type of sex-positive environmental activism—a combination of the fields of study of ecology and sexology. Coined by Beth Stephens, an environmental activist and academic at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and her partner, the sex educator and performance artist Annie Sprinkle, it follows the belief that if people are able to develop sexual, romantic and loving feelings towards the landscape, they will be more inclined to take care of it (preserving its form for the future) rather than merely exploiting it for its resources. Closely aligned with the LGBTIQ movement, ecosexuality departs from the gender-essentialist logic of ecofeminism (which identifies the earth not as a lover,(7) as in ecosexuality, but rather as the ur mother—basically female in form) to explore less stable sexual and gender identifications. It is at once a highly sensual practice and, in keeping with Sprinkle’s singular performance art career, uses humour and the transgression of various social-sexual taboos to develop in its followers a less anthropocentric, human-exceptionalist attitude towards the Earth and its climate. While Philippe-Janon’s work does not explicitly align itself with the ecosexual movement, she, Sprinkle and Stephens do share the following belief: ‘that we are all part of, not separate from, nature.’(8)
Philippe-Janon’s emphasis on the fragile, the vulnerable, and the humble, her insistence on seeing the continuum between humans, their products and the natural world, and her work’s ability to let us visualise the whole as a collapsible aggregate rather than a totalising image—these qualities entreat us to rethink our relationship with the environments that we inhabit. These artworks generate spectacular moments without causing viewers to lose themself in the spectacle. Rather, through our encounters with works like Light and Shadow (chasing the Broken Spectre), The nearest star from here and Columba Livia, we develop a perceptual awareness that is at once awesome, sensual, visceral and reflexive; an awareness that inspires a turn to—not away from—the world.
(1) David Joselit, ‘On aggregators’, October, no. 146 (Fall 2013), p. 18.
(2) Claire Bishop, Installation art: A critical history, London: Tate, 2005, p. 85.
(3) Nadège Philippe-Janon, unpublished interview with the author, 2017, n.p.
(4) Danni Zuvela, Ross Manning: Spectra, exh. cat., Milani Gallery, Brisbane, 2012, n.p.
(5) ‘Why do we hate pigeons so much?’, 23 April 2007, BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6583217.stm, accessed 2 August 2017.
(6) Philippe-Janon initially compiled these texts in book-form, but has more recently exhibited them as part of the exhibition Real life fantasies curated by Patrice Sharkey at West Space, Melbourne, where she turned the Ecosext haikus into an automated text-message service.
(7) See Beth Stephen and Annie Sprinkle’s ‘Exosexual Manifesto’, The Ecosexuals, https://theecosexuals.ucsc.edu/ecosexualmanifesto/, accessed 2 August 2017.