Brook Andrew to exhibit in the group exhibition Really Useful Knowledge at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Really Useful Knowledge
29 October 2014–23 February 2015
Following text from e-flux.com
The notion of ‘really useful knowledge‘ originated with the rise of the workers’ awareness of the need for self-education in the early 19th century, when workers’ organizations in the UK introduced this phrase to describe a body of knowledge that encompassed various ‘unpractical’ disciplines such as politics, economics and philosophy, as opposed to the alleged ‘useful knowledge’ proclaimed by business owners, who had begun investing in their companies’ development through funding the education of their employees in ‘applicable’ skills and disciplines. In its reference to the long-forgotten class struggles of capitalism’s early years, the title of the exhibition suggests an inquiry into ‘really useful knowledge’ from a contemporary perspective.
Really Useful Knowledge (curated by What, How and for Whom?/WHW) starts from the position that the ‘battle for education’ was always central for “the very survival of socialism as the pedagogy of a world-view,” and assesses the success of politics of recent social movements whose critical pedagogy has proved capable of illuminating the threats that capitalism poses for human lives, the environment and democracy. The exhibition thus probes into the tension between individual and social emancipation through education, structuring its explorations along several lines of inquiry related to historical and present instances of critical pedagogy in their relation to organisational forms capable of leading unified resistance to the reproduction of capital. In doing so, the exhibition insists on the collective utilization of existing public resources, actions, and experiments, either forgotten or under threat of eradication, taking the museum as a pedagogical site devoted to the analysis of artistic forms interconnected with actual or desired social relations and Benjamin’s ‘materialist education’ that posits cultural history at the core of class education.
AUSTRALIA series premiers at the Adelaide Biennial
In his series AUSTRALIA, Andrew reworks images made in the nineteenth century – images that focus on the rites and rituals of Aboriginal people from south-eastern Australia and reflect European curiosity.
Andrew reworks images originally by a young German artist Gustav Mützel, who never visited Australia but was commissioned by Prussian naturalist and inveterate traveler William Blandowski. The once-small bookplate images are up-scaled using a mixed media process onto reflective metallic surfaces that speak of the lure and magic associated with Aboriginal culture in the eyes of nineteenth-century Europeans.
a unique commission for the Lyon Housemuseum, Melbourne, Australia.
All images: WITNESS, 2014. Site specific installation, Lyon Housemuseum, Melbourne Australia.
Silkscreen print on metalic foil mounted on Alucobond. Black foam, neon, theatre light, sand bags, pulleys and black trickline rope.
Image courtesy Lyon Housemuseum and Lyon Collection. Photography Dianna Snape.
Notes à propos de l’œuvre WITNESS de Brook Andrew
par Christopher Chapman
L’installation WITNESS (TEMOIN) de Brook Andrew active des vecteurs d’énergie d’une rare puissance. Telle une partition symphonique, l’œuvre se déploie dans un espace où les images grondent et s’élèvent. Des figures humaines, un mammifère, des bâtiments, un nuage atomique de débris et de fumée, des anneaux de néon et une scène éclairée convergent depuis des dimensions parallèles.
Les images émergent de récits historiques connus. Elles ont été sélectionnées par l’artiste à partir d’une collection de cartes postales et de photographies publiques et privées, rassemblées au cours de ses voyages autour du monde. Elles ont été produites à différentes périodes et créées en tant que documents, souvenirs et archives. A l’origine, ces images ne sont pas passives ni innocentes – elles ont été conçues à des fins de consommation. L’artiste les décrit comme des « pièces à conviction ». Il les a éditées, reproduites, remixées, extraites de leurs limites figées, réanimées, et mises en espace pour être réincarnées.
L’attrait pour le subconscient, qui a fasciné les dadaïstes en Europe ou les surréalistes au niveau mondial, trouve un écho pertinent dans le projet artistique de Brook Andrew. La célèbre peinture d’une pipe à tabac, du surréaliste belge Renée Magritte, porte l’inscription « ceci n’est pas une pipe ». Le vrai titre de la peinture La Trahison des images avise du danger de confondre l’image et la chose elle-même. En tant qu’artiste, Brook Andrew travaille à redonner corps à des images et à des voix en déployant et réassemblant les langages de l’architecture et de la communication publique, en explorant les possibilités des matériaux et en se laissant guider par les forces du hasard et de son intuition – et ce depuis deux décennies.
Ici vos sensations sont de la plus haute importance. Comment réagissez-vous en vous déplaçant dans cette installation ? Je suis impressionné par la force que dégage cette œuvre– sa taille vertigineuse, la tonalité industrielle, l’audace de l’impression à l’encre sur feuille d’argent. Au milieu de tout cela, je me retrouve témoin – de ces images dynamitées hors des idéologies dominantes.
Dr Christopher Chapman a collaboré pour la première fois avec Brook Andrew au milieu des années 1990, il est actuellement conservateur en chef à la National Portrait Gallery of Australia, à Canberra.
Notes on Brook Andrew’s WITNESS
by Christopher Chapman
Brook Andrew activates strong vectors of energy in the installation WITNESS. It’s an artistic work that rises in the space like a dramatic orchestral score – the images boom and soar. Human figures, a mammal, buildings, an atomic cloud of smoke and debris, neon rings and a stage-spotlight have converged from parallel dimensions.
The images arise from known histories. They have been selected by the artist from a collection that includes postcards and public and private photographs – gathered on his travels around the world. The images have been produced across time, created as documents, records and souvenirs. In their origins they are not passive or innocent images – they are designed for consumption. The artist says the images are ‘evidence’. He edits them, re-produces them, remixes them, removes them from their frozen confines, re-animates them, and gives them space to become embodied.
The appeal of the subconscious mind that fascinated Dada artists in Europe and Surrealist artists globally is equally relevant to Brook Andrew’s artistic project. Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte’s famous 1929 painting of a tobacco pipe is inscribed this is not a pipe (ceci n’est pas un pipe). The painting’s actual title The treachery of images points to the danger of mistaking the image for the thing itself. As an artist Brook Andrew has worked to re-embody images and voice by unfolding and reassembling the languages of architecture and public communication, exploring the possibilities of materials, and being open to the forces of chance and intuition – for two decades.
Your feelings are of the utmost importance here. How do you react as you move through this installation? I am impressed by the muscularity of the work – the dramatic scale; the industrial tone; the boldness of the screen-printed ink on silver-foil. And in all this I am the witness – to images exploded out of dominant ideologies.
Dr Christopher Chapman first worked with Brook Andrew in the mid-1990s and is currently Senior Curator at the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
De Anima, 2014
Bendigo Art Gallery: 12 April – 1 June
RMIT Design Hub: opens 12 December, 2014 – 2015
CATALYST: Katherine Hannay Visual Arts Commission
A NETS Victoria exhibition curated by Bridget Crone for The Cinemas Project
Brook Andrew’s major new work De Anima immerses us in a world of images and sensations. It asks us to question the way we see the world and to consider a new view. Drawing upon Andrew’s extensive personal archive of home movies, war propaganda, ecological and pseudo-anthropological films, De Anima combines and recombines these images with newly shot footage that creates a theatre of sensations: of light, of sound, of image, of images that we feel. Upon entering De Anima, we are immersed in a world of sound and image, and we accept an invitation to see the world anew.
Andrew has worked with performers Mama Alto and Justin Shoulder as well as composer Theodore Wohng (and an extensive crew) to produce the world of De Anima. Each was invited to respond to the question of the soul and the result is a richly, theatrical and world in which difference is celebrated, and the spirit or soul runs riot.
De Anima references one of the great philosophical treatises, Aristotle’s “On The Soul”, in which the soul is considered to be the essence of every living thing (rather than simply belonging to human subjects). Andrew interprets this as a call to consider our responsibility to the life around us in all its myriad forms. We must consider, the artist says, “that humanity is essentially doomed if it sticks to its current course.” In asking us to experience the world differently, Andrew shows us a way that we might embrace our interconnected place in the world, and consider a new worldview.
De Anima is presented as part of The Cinemas Project – a programme of new contemporary art works by five of Australia’s leading artists who include: Mikala Dwyer, Lily Hibberd, Bianca Hester and Tom Nicholson. The artwork produced for The Cinemas Project takes the form of live performance and film replicating the nature of the activity that once took place in many of the early cinema buildings which were at once a meeting place, a theatre, a dance hall as well as a cinema.
The Cinemas Project responds to what we have termed, the spectral spaces of cinema. Spectral suggests ghosts, apparitions, colour and light but is also linked to day-dreaming, speculation and, of course, imagination. The “spectral spaces of cinema” therefore refers to the diverse temporal spaces that are opened up both within the narratives of film, and by acts of reminiscence and memory. The Cinemas Project is therefore not a collection of works about cinema but a series of works that approach ideas of what cinema is, has been and could be…
SEEING WITH SMALL EYES IN A FOREST
by Bridget Crone
Brook Andrew’s De Anima is a work that is ostensibly about images and sensations. It asks us to question the way we see the world and to consider a new view. Drawing upon Andrew’s extensive personal archive of home movies, war propaganda, ecological and pseudoanthropological films, De Anima combines and recombines these images with newly shot footage that creates a theatre of sensations: of light, of sound, of image, of images that we feel. Upon entering the world of De Anima, we are immersed in a world of sound and image and we accept an invitation to see the world anew.
De Anima directly references the title of one of the great philosophical treatises, Aristotle’s On The Soul (Latin: de anima). Aristotle proposes that the soul is the essence of every living thing, and it is therefore integral to living matter. The soul is the potency of life or the drive for living, and, in the most basic terms, it is that which every living thing possesses – it is not a separate, solely human capacity. There are many complex philosophical debates extending from these seemingly simple observations that Aristotle made so many years ago, yet what is the most pertinent for us today are the ethical implications of his theories. In its reference to Aristotle, De Anima is a provocation that demands that we consider the world differently; that we consider the world as that in which we are immersed as just another being amongst others, not at the centre of the world, not as the most significant because ‘rational’ being but equal to all living things; all with a vitality and potency for life and living. This places us within a vast ecology of which we are simply one part – no more, no less.
De Anima therefore strives to shift our worldview, and our sense of being in the world. Most significantly, the work demands (and causes) us to shift our view in relation to images – our ways of seeing. A simple manifestation of this idea can be seen in Andrew’s appropriation of landscape photographic images by Tasmanian photographers Stephen Spurling and J W Beattie. In Feeling (man) (2014), which is present within the overall installation of De Anima, a man is awkwardly positioned and a vast expanse of rock looms over him. He stands almost horizontally, as if the usual laws of gravity and proportion have been eroded. The horizon line, which would normally act to anchor our gaze and order our relation to the world, is destabilised and skew-whiff, and the expected hierarchies of scale have been unhinged. In this image, man is overcome by the epic vastness of nature. And while this image – of a loan hero attempting to conquer the wildness of nature – might seem to reinforce a sense of man versus nature, Andrew asks us to see this image anew: to rethink and re-question this view that pits man against nature. Instead, the affective nature of the image is emphasised so that we feel the sensation of the figure immersed in the world that surrounds him. It’s a scene that aptly demonstrates what Deborah Bird Rose has so vividly evoked, writing of the sense in which, ‘the hereness of the place is vividly present, and (in which) the nowness of the living moment is the time of life and encounter.’1
In De Anima this ‘nowness of the living moment’ is emphasised through our immersion into an affective space in which seeing and feeling and other sensations – hearing, for example – merge in our experience of the present. Here, seeing is feeling, which is articulated by the lone figure dwarfed by the power of the landscape that surrounds him (as in Feeling (man) described above). Seeing this image, we feel the power of the landscape as the rocks tower above us, and so we swap seeing for feeling and sensation. This notion of seeing as feeling or as thinking-feeling is further emphasised by a second photographic image that accompanies Feeling (man).2 Titled Thinking (man), 2014, the photograph is a manipulation of the work of an early Australian photographer Stephen Spurling, and depicts a mountainous waterfall. In response to a question regarding the equation of thinking rather than feeling with the majestic flow of water, which is a movement so often associated with sensation, Andrew responded: ‘we need to think about rather than only feel the waterfall, and consider our responsibilities to it’.3
Bird Rose writes about this sense of ‘nowness’ in relation to her long-term engagement with Aboriginal people living in the Victoria River District. However, it is important to stress that this is not a simplistic notion of time but is deeply connected to nature, others and to ourselves. Andrew writes: ‘My understanding of my own inherited Wiradjuri culture is that to understand life is to understand that time does not hold us and we do not hold time. It is fluid and interchangeable. Therefore our relationship to nature, ourselves and others is one, not separate or many.’4 Similarly, Bird Rose emphasises the incorporation of other temporalities, stories and histories into the present encounter.5 This sense of a deeply interconnected temporality that is realised through our engagement with a place or site in the present moment, can also be found in French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze’s work as well as in the artist, Robert Smithson’s earthworks, in which there is a sense of a subterranean energy (or chaos) expressed through the surface.6 The visual diagram of the fold as a process of folding and unfolding usefully expresses the cyclic movement from depth to surface that we see in Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), for example as the crystals emerge and submerge, folding and being enfolded across the surface of the lake.
In creating the feeling – and at times, theatrical – world of De Anima, Andrew combines his interest in the carnivalesque with his enquiry into the anthropological image. Various individual works and other elements combine to create De Anima. These elements include a large revolving circular set and an ambitious two-channel video with performances by Justin Shoulder and Mama Alto, as well as a sound work composed by Theodore Wohng that fills the gallery. All is assembled within a space awash with light, such that our shadows also enter into the play of images and bodies in our midst. This carnivalesque world that Andrew creates not only seeks to remake our ways of seeing (as sensing) but also re-makes images themselves whether they be photographic images rendered lost or insignificant, or those images (stereotypes) that govern attitudes to difference.
Andrew allows this re-making of images to emerge through a gentle process of encounter, a respectful process that enables the anima to emerge, hence the ‘bones’ or costumes of the performers are left like discarded exoskeletons ready to be revisited when the souls of the characters return. We see this through his careful attention to and care for images as is evident in the recent work, 52 Portraits, 2013, in which found postcard images of indigenous or ‘fringe’ peoples from around the world are re-printed and re-touched on a silver surface. Minute care is taken with the reproduction of these photographs as if every outline re-traced is akin to an action of anointing or caressing a body resulting in a sense of the images being re-embodied through Andrew’s attention. As Nicholas Thomas has written, Andrew’s work evokes ‘the haunting power of images that have long been hidden.’8 In 52 Portraits, they are re-animated through touch, through attention. These actions contrast and act as an antidote to the dematerialisation of images in transit – the lives of these images as postcards, as souvenirs of journeys to far-flung and exotic places are returned to them, as they are re-embodied and encountered in the gallery. In De Anima, anthropological images are also given new lives through new renditions of scale and association.
De Anima enables other bodies and images to be seen and seen anew, and voices heard. Through the process of making the filmic element of De Anima, Andrew invited Shoulder and Alto to respond and ‘engage themselves in the project in a way that shows more of themselves’.9 The result is a realisation of one of Shoulder’s Fantastic Creatures in chrysalis form while jazz singer and cabaret artiste extraordinaire, Mama Alto is resplendent in gold and singing very personal songs from childhood. Andrew considers Shoulder and Alto as yin and yang, moon and sun archetypes within De Anima, exuding as they do very different energies. Yet at the same time, they co-exist and are reliant on one another for survival. Shoulder’s creature is a creature of the silvery night, sometimes unseen by the human eye, fantastical inhabitant of a lunarscape, and Alto’s golden diva is of the day weaving melodies that tell us stories of what was and how it has come to be.
Alto’s approach to Andrew’s invitation is based on a personal exploration of her mixed race identity, and gender identity. She has selected songs that trace the story of her Javanese ancestors and their colonisation by the Dutch. Alto sings three songs that her grandmother sang – ‘a Javanese lullaby, a Maori song which had become popularised across the Pacific as a generic islander song, and she sang in church.’10 Alto writes, ‘To me, these three types of songs connect to the notion of the anima – or of the soul – which colonial European powers and social Darwinists misconstrued to impose hierarchies over different racial groups.’11 The songs also, of course, illustrate patterns of colonisation – patterns through which an individual experience emerges. Alto singes a fourth song that is taken from the jazz repertoire as sung by Black American jazz singers, songs of strength, power and glamour that have shaped Alto’s sense of place in the world, dismantling hierarchies of race and delivering the message that ‘black is beautiful’. And Alto responds: ‘I embrace my soul as equally valid and equally human: brown is beautiful.’12
De Anima is also a space for a celebration of otherness – for different bodies and different modes of perception. Yet this is not confined to imagery, to a sense of a ‘looking at’ but what is again a more immersive and embodied approach for we do not look at but are ourselves immersed and implicated within the world of De Anima: we enter into the installation and our bodies commingle within its bounds. And there is also an element of the ungraspable here, in a remaking and redrawing of images that may have fixed or confined our place in the world, for example Mama Alto’s extraordinary voice – a counter tenor – a ‘voice that transcends gender’. Similarly, Justin Shoulder’s creatures awaken our sense of the magical potential of what Jane Bennett has termed ‘thing power’ – the power of material things to do things in the world.13
‘Thing power’ speaks of the vitality and force of non-human actors in the world, actors who are brought to life by and through Shoulder’s performances. Shoulder’s characters, Pinky (The River Eats (2013)) and V (2010) and his other Fantastic Creatures (2008-) highlight the dark and often darkly comic role of other non-human creatures, forces or actors in the world. Hubub (2008) for example is modular in form, moving – or perhaps sliding – over rocks, small and slug-like and perhaps as diminished, insignificant and out of place in the world as Andrew’s Feeling (man) is. But importantly, Shoulder’s creatures are made of everyday inanimate and often recycled materials – they are made from balloons, feathers, fake fur, plastic, generous amounts of glitter – and their embodiment suggests a kind of power within these materials. This is thing-power – vital, active, affecting (and creating) the world around.
For De Anima, Shoulder has created the revolutions of the moon, ‘a natural satellite’. Shoulder says: ‘I thought it would be interesting to imagine the creature as a satellite – its movements becoming the transmission of the soul.’14 Sissy Satellite’s revolutions exude the power of other bodies and other beings as she occupies a central position on a rotating platform at the centre of De Anima’s world. She literally is embedded in the loops and networks – the ecological material – of De Anima, as her skin is made from the silvery printed linen from Andrew’s large-scale photographic canvases (for example, 52 Portaits). And in another sense, Sissy Satellite emerged from the site visit that Andrew and Shoulder made to Hanging Rock, inspired by the eery rock formations ‘formed by the cooling and solidification of magma or lava’, she is woven into a natural ecology and imbuing natural energies. And as Shoulder continues, ‘The forms of the creature are inspired by this landscape and its movement will also draw from imagining the cooling and solidification of rock.’15
In a manner that is similar to the immersive world of De Anima with its diverse human and non-human actors, cinema creates a world into which we enter. Theodore Wohng’s haunting score provides another dimension to this world exploring the soul as ‘a very dark and wild place filled with ontological riots, no matter where you are from, who you are, what you believe in or how you were brought up.’16 Deep bass booms horror and high vibrato notes create a sense of volume and spatial containment – suggesting a space that we might inhabit or in the more sinister passages, be stuck within. Wohng composed the score on a combination of synthesizers adding in voice through text to voice software, which add a further dimension of cosmic, otherworldly voices and actors. A voice reads from Aristotle’s text, and is followed by the booming, vibrating low bass, which produces the feeling of sound as much as sound itself, and we are returned to the affective space of the image as thinking-feeling. It’s a world estranged in which we must see (feel, sense, experience) images anew – a ‘cosmic soup’ (as Wohng proposes), ‘a wild place’, a place in which scale is madly distorted and the stability of the horizon vanquished.17 It’s a dark forest in which we are made small, insignificant…and we’re ‘ready to experience a new view’.18
1 Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country (Sydney: UNSW Press), 9.
2 Brian Massumi, The Thinking-Feeling of What Happens, Inflexions 1.1 “How is research creation?” (May 2008) http://www.inflexions.org/n1_The-Thinking-Feeling-of-What-Happens-by- Brian-Massumi.pdf
3 Conversation with Brook Andrew, 5 March 2014.
4 Brook Andrew, email, 12 March 2014.
5 Deborah Bird Rose, A distant constellation. http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/3.2/Rose.html
6 Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters: Deleuze and Guattari. Thought Beyond Representation (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 117.
7 Fantastic creatures is the title Justin Shoulder gives to his creations, a series of creatures including: Howl, Hubub, Caenis Cerabrallus.
8 Nicholas Thomas, ‘Blow Up: Brook Andrew and the Anthropological Archive’, The Island (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, 2008.
9 Conversation with Brook Andrew, 7 February 2014.
10 Benny Dimas email, 7 March 2014.
11 Benny Dimas email, 7 March 2014.
12 Benny Dimas email, 7 March 2014.
13 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), 20.
14 Justin Shoulder email, 11 March 2014.
15 Justin Shoulder email, 11 March 2014.
16 Theodore Wohng email, 7 March 2014.
17 Theodore Wohng email, 7 March 2014.
18 Brook Andrew, email 16 January 2014.
Catalyst: Katherine Hannay Visual Arts Commission awarded to Brook Andrew
In partnership with NETS Victoria, The Cinemas Project and Bendigo Art Gallery.
PRESS RELEASE from NETS:
This generous commission will enable the development, production and installation of a major new work by Brook Andrew, one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, as part of The Cinemas Project curated by Bridget Crone for NETS Victoria.
Brook Andrew’s commission De Anima will be first major presentation of the artist’s work outside of the State capitals and will be presented by NETS Victoria and the Bendigo Art Gallery in 2014, as a part of The Cinemas Project.
The work will be Andrew’s first foray into extensive film-making and will address early uses of propaganda film. The filmic image as a manipulator of representations of race and cultural perception will be addressed through Andrew’s use of archival footage, as well as issues of self-presentation and the fictions created by and through the depictions of stereotyping.
About Catalyst: Katherine Hannay Visual Arts Commission The Katherine Hannay Visual Arts Commission is innovative and unique in the arts and philanthropy sector, benefiting both artists and not for profit arts organisations. It is unique in the artistic freedom it provides artists as it is not prescriptive in nature and it supports the artist at a pivotal moment of their career. The Commission focuses on the visual arts and has national reach. The artist will create an original work of visual art that will be kept by the artist.
NETS Victoria is a not for profit visual arts organisation which is working with curator Bridget Crone to support Brook Andrew through the Commission process and promote both artist and the commission work. The Katherine Hannay Visual Arts Commission recognises the vital role not for profit arts organisations play in supporting artists and contributing to the arts sector and the community.
The Commission, made possible by a grant from the Katherine Hannay Estate (a charitable foundation),
demonstrates the power and importance of philanthropy in the arts sector – private money for public good. The Commission honours the philanthropist Katherine Hannay (deceased) and supports the arts which are an essential component of a vibrant civil society.
About De Anima When the viewer enters the installation, they will become lost in between worlds of fictions and truths, visually exacerbated through trompe l’oeil effects. The mural (painted by the artist), sculptures and costumes (replete with Wiradjuri text and pattern) will provide a lively interaction with film projections. The project aims to question the way in which representations – or pictures of those around us – are produced, digested and reproduced. By manipulating film footage Andrew aims to address the politics of representation – and the ever-present confusion of who can represent whom – in order to encourage the exploration of how we view history and who has the right to comment, argue and own that of the past.
The commissioning of this ambitious work, comes at a significant moment in Andrew’s career following his current exhibition 52 Portraits at Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, a current Sidney Myer Fellow, his return from the major commission mountain home – dhirrayn ngurang in Australia House at the Echigo Tsumari Triennale, and his curated show, Taboo at the MCA in Sydney.
About The Cinemas Project An ongoing research platform established by curator, Bridget Crone (with artist, Sam Nightingale), The Cinemas Project that explores the history of cinema in regional Victoria. The Cinemas Project provides a framework for producing new work by contemporary artists working in relation to the spectral sites of cinema.
Rowena Scanlon, Communications Manager
National Exhibitions Touring Support
T: +61 3 8662 1525
Please note I work Mondays and Fridays
For general enquiries regarding The Cinemas Project:
Bridget Crone, Curator
T: +61 (0) 467 404 062
- The Age newspaper, Australia.
- July 10, 2013
- Robert Nelson
0n 52 Portraits. Brook Andrew at Tolarno Galleries
Among the more loathsome scientific pastimes of the 19th century was the collection of bones from indigenous people. It was well understood that the subjects feared and detested the desecration of their remains.
To collect the bones for analysis and display was an immense insult, as the Aboriginal people would not only be subject to degradation in their life but humiliation in death. By having their body parts stripped, dismembered and boiled, they were doubly cut off from the traditions of their ancestors.
This repugnant practice is brought up by Brook Andrew at Tolarno Galleries, where the centrepiece is a large vitrine called Vox: beyond Tasmania. It has a disconnected skeleton on the upper level; below, there are scientific files, anthropological literature and examples of early implements. A hole is cut into the glass in front of the skull; and on the outside of the case, an enormous wooden megaphone is positioned, as if the skull still has something to announce to the world.
This theatrical installation is framed by the 52 portraits which give the exhibition its title. Drawn mainly from old photographic souvenirs, people of various marginalised ethnicities are shown in exotic remoteness. They are sometimes adorned in obscure decorations that may reflect a fantasy on the part of the colonial photographer rather than authentic indigenous costumes. The display includes Caucasians.
The photographs are superbly printed by Stewart Russell, who has clinched a moment where the raster of dots in the reproductive technique delivers further effervescence to the reflectivity of the surface. The visual result of these otherwise dull photographic records is scintillating.
The unwilling skeleton who screams in the middle of the room has an audience of unwilling live specimens, whose beauty still radiates from their photographic prison of stereotypes.
Sad and angry, the exhibition nevertheless adds conceptual sparkle to a bitter lamentation. The lusciousness of the prints brings an almost grotesque festivity to the ”parade of primitives”; and the attractiveness of the people is enhanced by the bubbly visuality.
And here the paradox emerges, that the exoticising impulse of the colonists is beguiling and seductive. We have to consider that earlier generations who were close to animal husbandry – forever cultivating their horses and hounds and improving their livestock – were obsessed with breeding. For them, the later Darwinian theories about sexual selection would have held few surprises.
In the wild, Darwin clinched what Europeans felt since antiquity, namely that different strains of people have bred themselves into various shapes, colours and behaviours that they consider ideal. Evolution by favouring partners with an ideal appearance or disposition is not the same as natural selection. You are the result of your breeding because your genes have long been in fashion; and this currency is inclined to perpetuate itself, like the biological precipitate of prejudice.
If there’s any truth to this theory, the sexualised encounter with other ethnicities has a positive side to it, because it goes against millennia of biologically ingrained racism. If we can find the Other sexy, it’s the first step in the defiance of biology. If we can’t find the Other sexy, we are the prisoners of our parochial cosmetic DNA, horrified by a flat nose or bulbous lips, because these features don’t match our congenital templates.
In this way, the circulation of pornographic exotica was the genetic counterpart to the promotion of free trade – the biological GATT of the 19th century – which might have propagated an enduring resistance to racism if only it didn’t fortify our unconscious eugenic conceits.
What would they speak if they could?
Marcia Langton, Ian Anderson and Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe talk with Brook Andrew on his exhibition 52 Portraits, the musical score and related themes on the history of body snatching and Australian history
104 Exhibition St, Melbourne, Australia
Professor Marcia Langton AM is one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal scholars. She holds the Foundation Chair in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.
Professor Ian Anderson is Foundation Chair of Indigenous Higher Education; Assistant Vice Chancellor (Indigenous Higher Education Policy); and Director, Murrup Barak Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development, University of Melbourne.
Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe is an Australian composer. She was commissioned by Brook Andrew to create Illusions on Self Motion, a new work for Harp and Contrabase Recorder, to accompany 52 Portraits.
Above: Brook Andrew Vox: Beyond Tasmania 2013 Detail view
Photograph: Christian Capurro
Images from the public talk on Saturday 29 June, 3 to 4 pm.
Photography: Christian Capurro & Olivia Radonich
Brook Andrew, Marcia Langton and Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe
Ian Anderson, Marcia Langton and Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe