Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Natasha Johns-Messenger’s installation Yellow in Power to the People at ACCA makes the audience integral to a work. It addresses how the emotional reactions that the public brings to any work of art reveal something of themselves. When Ron Robertson-Swann’s minimalist public sculpture came into the world it was name-less and hated. The public and the press gave it a name of their own that reflected both their fear and loathing “Yellow Peril”. The people felt it had cost too much and said too little. Why can’t we have just a nice fountain some asked? It’s like "an old blonde girlfriend pouting at you" said others. Even the Queen was said to ask if it couldn’t be painted “a more agreeable colour”. Towards the end of its one year in the city square, before it was moved to an obscure public pastures it was officially titled Vault.

In light of Johns-Messenger’s work Yellow, we start to understand how on many layers the title Vault was an apt description of a work that the people of Melbourne locked out. As we enter the first corridor of John-Messenger’s work, there is a little peep-hole to our right and a large round window to our left. Through the peep hole we see Vault which has now found a respectful home at the ACCA site. The peep-hole in Yellow emulates how Vault must have been viewed in the seventies and eighties. Peeping from behind the closed door, a fish eye distortion makes it at once bigger and smaller. Vault was a big foreign otherness that was tapping at the parochial door of a blue singlet wearing xanthophobic. Melbourne felt a little bit safer that they shut it out.

In the Yellow installation we see ourselves again and again. Through a big round window in the wall we see a reflection of ourselves looking at ourselves from a side view. Johns-Messenger leads us down corridors that have mirrors on 45° angles that reflect light around 90° corners. You see other people or yourself in unexpected places. With its sharp angles and geometric complexity people can imagine getting inside that feared Vault sculpture. However, Yellow’s big round window in the entrance invites us in to this angular world. One initially feels like there could be many routes or paths to take around this actually quite simple hairpin shaped corridor. Shades of yellow light descend into darkness just as they do in the inner chambers of Vault—suggesting something deeper or more internal. There is an element of Alice’s experience through the looking glass as we start to question what is reflection space and what is real space. Similar to the way any sort of self-examination enables you to be aware of yourself. You think god that woman’s vain look at her pouting at herself in the mirror, oh now she thinks someone’s watching her so she’s trying to act all casual, now she’s looking around to see if anyone saw...oh yeah it’s me..I saw...me. There is a performative element of at once being and becoming. 

Yellow is a playful work that invites us to play a narcissistic hide and seek game with ourselves. The audience is central to the work. Vault was something that seemed to come from an impression of an elitist art world—people felt excluded. Its closed sloping forms, as well as its name, announced something locked or insular. In Yellow we are allowed entry into the secret tunnels of this world and discover in its interior, not a dreaded Yellow Peril Minotaur waiting to devour us; but rather, infinite views of ourselves—which maybe even more frightening. A warning at the entrance asks you enter this space with caution. You never see your double front on in this work but are aware of it like a shadow catching up with you. It is like the sort of claustrophobic madness we might imagine happens in rockets or on submarines, where the one thing you want to escape most is yourself. 

Yellow shows us that sometimes the most unnerving experience can be watching ourselves watching ourselves. It is much easier to stand outside a work and criticise its aesthetic merits (as Melbournians did with Vault) rather then ask ourselves to critique our own values and attitudes. Ironically, the controversy sparked by Vault inspired discussions about identity, art, cultural significance and aesthetics. Johns-Messenger shows us that however we enter into an artwork, with hate, love, fear or indifference; we do so to look at ourselves. Works that inspire the most hate because of their intangibility can become icons of public debate and reveal collective fears. The adventurous maze like quality of Johns-Messenger Yellow also reveals how simultaneously exciting and unsettling this can be.

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