THE YELLOW BRICK WALL [USA] 2018 Catalogue and Essay's
Dan Miller - Steady, and Urgent (2018)
I was on the clock when I first saw a Janenne Eaton artwork. In the southern spring of 2012 at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Eaton’s These People (2006) was installed among other objects from the museum’s collection of Australian art. I don’t remember the precise details of my first encounter with it, but it probably happened on my way to get coffee at the building’s third floor café.
If—after returning to my post as an ‘Information Officer’ in the foyer—a member of the public had asked me about the work, I wouldn’t have been able to provide much in the way of facts. But I might have been able to give an account of the historical (although not exactly art-historical) context in which the work was beginning to appear for me as a significant object.
These People consists, almost entirely, of an enamel painting. Its black-and-gray canvas forms a kind of framed screen, employing a highly detailed pattern that appears to waver between repetition and variation. At the center of the frame, visible behind a kind of moiré effect, is the phrase, ‘THESE PEOPLE’, rendered in a geometric typeface.
I say the work is almost entirely a painting because it has two key additions—small plates which poke out from behind the stretcher at the center of its top and bottom. These each hold a single red LED which blinks on and off, as Eaton described to me in a recent email, “about roughly the speed of a light buoy on the sea…Steady, not urgent.“
Yet despite the lack of urgency in their meter, I understood these lights to be not just a warning, but a distress signal. The text, too, functions in this dual manner. ’THESE PEOPLE’ is a xenophobic epithet, publicly announced as though on a traffic message board, meant to distance the reader from a group of subjects. But it is also a direct representation of those subjects who are separated from us by some distance.
I trace my own political awakening to the ‘Tampa affair’ of August 2001 and the ensuing degradation of Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. So, naturally, Eaton’s work brought to my mind the many fences and screens through which the Australian public has seen those people deemed unfit for freedom by its government. Although the media has been craven in the face of increasing restrictions, these images—complete with moiré effect—have continued to leak out from the islands on which Australia has, in more recent years, imprisoned thousands of people.
These People still feels urgent to me. Over a six-year period from the late 2000s until the mid-2010s, I worked at three different art museums. In the course of my work, I saw a lot of art objects. Many of these have stayed with me as images, but few have had the haunting effect that Eaton’s does.
I have since gotten to know Janenne Eaton a little, through close friends and collaborators who studied under her in the Painting Department at the Victorian College of the Arts. For me, her practice is distinguished by the kind of gallows humor I love; combining a somber focus on humanity’s ills with a playful attention to vernacular images and materials.
This was certainly in evidence at her exhibition FENCES B/ORDERS WALLS, at the long-running Melbourne artist-run space TCB Art Inc. in March–April 2016. That show extended the motifs in These People to a more bodily experience of a barrier for those who encountered it, with a series of paintings that ran the forty-five-foot length of the entire space.
I was able to experience this show vicariously through those mutual friends, two of whom—Matthew Greaves and Rohan Schwartz—then facilitated a project I organized remotely a few months later, also at TCB. This was an exhibition of collages by Thomas Kong, the Chicago-based artist and convenience store owner with whom I have worked closely since 2014. TCB (as the show was called) served as Eaton’s introduction to Kong, and, happily, as a catalyst for her proposal to produce an installation—also remotely—for The Back Room at Kim’s Corner Food, the experimental project space Kong, Nathan Abhalter Smith and I operate behind the store.
The Back Room, which began as an idea Kong had to “open a gallery” in 2015, is intended to put other artists in a series of horizontal conversations with his unique and prolific practice. The space holds tens of thousands of finished collages and assemblages, stacked ever-more-precariously around an open concrete floor and a series of six narrow former storage stalls, painted and lit to serve as an idiosyncratic exhibition space.
The Yellow Brick Wall, Janenne Eaton’s project for The Back Room, is certainly the most austere treatment of the architecture in the space to date. Her digital collage, repeated as a frieze and printed on commercial wallpaper fabric, is mounted at the back of each of the six stalls, appearing to push sideways through the fire-proof gypsum blocks that separate each one.
Eaton’s wall upon a wall is, as she notes in her introduction to the work, adapted from photographs she made of a quotidian commercial image. This garish and instantly recognizable yellow adorns every branch of JB Hi-Fi, a dominant retail enterprise which enjoyed AU $5.63 billion in sales in 2017. As a regular buyer of compact discs for much of the 1990s and 2000s, just seeing that particular color is still enough to light up my neural reward circuits.
Interestingly, Thomas Kong’s work has long taken advantage of this particular quirk of life under capitalism. In the frequent re-contextualizing of corporate imagery in his collages we are given glimpses, and sometimes uninterrupted views, of the brands we know too well. It is astonishing to think how many of us can recognize, at subliminal speed, the red of Coca-Cola, the orange of Sunkist, or the blue of American Spirit.
But while Kong’s work explicitly commands the viewer to ‘Be Happy’ (while, it must be said, slyly critiquing the worst consumptive excess), Eaton’s collage employs a more coded means of communication. If the language of These People reflected the dog whistle politics of an earlier era, it is fitting that The Yellow Brick Wall uses a more-or-less universal symbol. For better or worse, the frequency of the worst parts of our public discourse has been permanently lowered to the range of human hearing.
If these skulls could speak, what would they say? Understanding Eaton’s work as I think I do, I am tempted to suggest that they function not so much as memento mori, but as memento vitae. After all, by definition there are always people on both sides of a wall. Moreover, as the current debates in the United States make clear, the evolution from a fence to a wall doesn’t make a border any less porous.
The unusual context of this exhibition lends itself to an examination of the nature of the state subject in an era of globalized trade flows (notwithstanding recent nationalistic attempts to reverse course). The Back Room, of course, operates in relation to a front room—Kim’s Corner Food itself. Managed by Kong, a Korean immigrant who just spent his fortieth winter in Chicago, the store is a natural staging post for goods and materials that have already made numerous, effortless, border crossings.
When I traveled to Australia in 2015, for my first visit since moving to Chicago, I found the new agency responsible for ‘border protection’ in full swing at airport immigration. What was previously the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service was now the Australian Border Force (ABF), and its noxious name was printed in capital letters on seemingly every surface, including the retractable belts in the stanchions that kept us in line. I found it pathetic but also vicious, because I knew this was only a pantomime; the expressive public face of the border.
The ABF even describes this on its own website: “We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating nation states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border.“ Such an explicit conceptualization puts Australia at the forefront of states willing to enact an omnipresent surveillance regime to sort one group of people from another. As a foreigner who has visited, studied in, and worked in the United States over several years, I am constantly aware of the bright-line between ‘national’ and ‘alien,’ but now I understand that for those who travel, or attempt to travel, to Australia, that line could be even brighter.
It might surprise many Americans to learn that Australian identity is frequently expressed in relation to the United States. “Like America but better” is a pretty accurate summation of the national self-image. I’ve been wanting, for some time, to write about what separates these two anglophone settler-colonial states, and attempt to describe what I love about each place. Yet my perceptions of them are becoming so enmeshed that the task of separation seems nearly impossible.
This has to do, undoubtedly, with the passage of time since I left Australia, but also with the unique and increasingly circular relationship between the two countries. They are not just military and intelligence partners, but ideological bedmates who whisper in each other’s ear. In a phone call between the Australian prime minister and the United States president in January 2017, the president interrupted the prime minister’s description of Australia’s offshore detention regime (for asylum seekers who arrive by boat) to applaud the policy. “That is a good idea,” the president said, “We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”
“Australia thinks of itself as a good country,” the indigenous artist Vernon Ah Kee said in a 2008 interview. But, he continued, “its treatment of immigrants, of people of difference—different language, different colour—should demonstrate emphatically that Australia is not a good country, to the point where it’s actually quite a nasty country.” Extending this logic while speaking to an international audience at the Istanbul Biennial in 2015, I heard Ah Kee state decisively, “Australians are not good people.”
What does it mean to be a white artist from a not-good nation? Are there any means of redress? These are questions I ask myself like a steady, and urgent, drumbeat. In Janenne Eaton’s work, I see an attempt not so much to provide answers to those unanswerable questions, but to acknowledge their centrality to her practice. This may sound like I am attempting to separate authorship from action, but I believe that speech acts, even those made from a position of privilege, can have a beneficial power.
I am reminded of a call by a white protester I saw in Australia, soon after the 2016 US presidential election, to “end racist Australia.” I choose to read this in radical terms. To end ‘Australia’ is an aspiration that appears nothing if not futile. Yet such an outcome would hardly be unprecedented in human history. The identity, and materiality, that fixes to the name of a nation can be subject to radical breaks.
Art, like politics, is a natural home for speech acts that seem futile on their face. For the artists whose work I admire, art is not an idealistic enterprise. I would rather they see how the sausage gets made than walk past the factory every day. These practitioners act not in spite of, but because of, the apparent impossibility of change.
A deliberate turning away from idealism is in the mortar of Janenne Eaton’s The Yellow Brick Wall. Flipping as it does the somewhat-frightening-yet-nonetheless-escapable road of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a barrier, she stops us in our tracks. Unlike Dorothy, we have no Silver Shoes with which to reverse course.
I visited Eaton at her studio in St. Kilda, Melbourne, last month. In chatting with her I learned that the cartoonish vinyl bullet hole decals she uses—to unsettling effect—in many of her paintings are manufactured by a Florida-based company called ‘Hardley Dangerous Illusions.’ When a trompe-l’œil .50 caliber bullet hole is considered a harmless folly, it’s time we looked to someone—perhaps a shrewd and insistent artist like Janenne Eaton—to take the images of a violent culture and flip them back on itself.
 “In August 2001, Australian troops boarded the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa off Christmas Island. The commander of the vessel, Captain Arne Rinnan, had rescued hundreds of asylum-seekers from a stranded Indonesian fishing boat in the Indian Ocean and was attempting to bring them to Australia.” Source: National Museum of Australia, ‘Defining Moments in Australian History’. http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/tampa_affair
 Department of Home Affairs, ‘Australian Border Force: Who we are.’ https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/australian-border-force-abf/who-we-are
 Greg Miller, Julie Vitkovskaya and Reuben Fischer-Baum, ‘Full transcripts of Trump’s calls with Mexico and Australia,’ The Washington Post, August 3, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/politics/australia-mexico-transcripts/
 Leesha McKenny, ‘Not happy, Australia,’ Sydney Morning Herald, June 23, 2008. https://www.smh.com.au/news/biennale/not-happy-australia/2008/06/23/1214073123939.html
THE YELLOW BRICK WALL – Janenne Eaton, catalogue essay 2018
...every wall inspires its own subversion, either by infiltrators, who dare to go over, under, or around them, or by artists who transform them.
It’s a given that who we are, and what we make, is informed by what we watch and read and think, as well as what we stumble upon, and who we meet. It’s true, too, that the least likely material can become the fulcrum for action. That’s how it was with The Yellow Brick Wall. In light of this, it seems fitting to offer the backstory account of the five-year journey and its surrounding circumstances that led to its arrival in The Back Room at Kim’s Corner Food. Melbourne, Australia is a long way from Chicago, but in my mind, and as an attentive child of American ‘soft power’, that’s only geographically so.
The origin of The Yellow Brick Wall was founded back in 2013, under circumstances that are, in essence, quite banal. I stumbled across it—the ‘it’ being the immaculate expanse of a thirty-five-meter-long, freshly painted, yellow brick wall. There it was, clear and dramatically present, as I drove into the parking lot of a JB Hi-Fi electronics store, located on the Nepean Highway near my home. Brilliant and dazzling in the early morning sunlight, the experience of seeing such a spectacular visual phenomenon, commonplace artifact though it is, compelled me to photograph it. I still do. It stood in all its clarity and uninterrupted perfection for more than two years before a few graffiti tags and advertising posters started to appear. Facing east, the morning sun lights it up. Each time I pull into the parking lot feels like an event in itself.
Over these four years I have made a collection of images of the wall, capturing sections of it from various distances—mostly details of the larger plane. Last March, after long contemplating the idea of it forming the basis for an artwork, I constructed a large, collaged-based, facsimile ‘section’ of it using details from my photo collection. At this point I also decided to ‘embed’ a skull image into the otherwise minimalist uniformity of the brickwork. I wanted the masklike quality inherent in this ordinary emblem to act as a ‘keep clear’ sign, hoping to magnify the function of the wall as a barrier, a marker of separation, and distance.
...I’ve finally decided my future lies/
Beyond the yellow brick road.
The Yellow Brick Wall installed in The Back Room at Kim’s Corner Food evolved from that first collage work. The impetus to then turn it into a symbolic wall followed a previous installation-based work I’d exhibited at TCB art inc., Melbourne, in 2016. This work, FENCES B/ORDERS WALLS, was made in opposition to my country’s draconian asylum seeker detention policies, and the Australian Border Force Act (2015); along with walls going up across the world against the surge in the numbers of refugees fleeing war zones, famine and persecution.
When I first began to photograph JB Hi-Fi’s wall I’d recognized the irony and oppositional antagonism inherent in the allegorical play between this yellow brick wall and the tuneful echoes of ‘the yellow brick road’, from that classic 1939 icon of American film culture, The Wizard of Oz. Based on the 1900 novel by American author L. Frank Baum, his writing at the time reflected the defeat of a populist movement seeking political, economic and social change for workers.
In the film version of The Wizard of Oz, the young Dorothy Gage’s vividly portrayed, hope-filled journey with her companions, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, unfolds through a series of unsettling encounters as they follow the yellow brick road towards hopeful rescue from Dorothy’s fears and travails, as she finds herself in alien territory a long way from home. Instead, and dashing all hope here, the optimism embodied in the road as the symbolic pathway towards liberation, has flipped vertically to transform into the fortified dead end of a yellow brick wall.
Here in Australia, as in the USA, we contend with polarizations around political and social views based on particular understandings and prejudices—of the relationship between borders, forms of power, ideas on citizenship, identity and otherness. Consequently, in relation to these contested spaces, The Yellow Brick Wall aims to offer a symbolic image, not only as a physical ‘border style’ wall; but also through its posture as an unambiguously metaphoric reference to multiple zones of exclusion, such as relate to issues of social equity, and of human rights more broadly.
 Marcello di Cinto, Walls: Travels Along The Barricades, Soft Skull Press, 2013
 Elton John/Bernie Taupin, Lyrics from ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, 1973