Brook Andrew: ‘I was challenged to unwind the histories that were told to me because I didn’t believe them’
History, identity and race dominate the Australian artist’s work, as he challenges stereotypical ideas, uncovering neglected and often conflicted histories, particularly relating to the Indigenous people of his own country
by JANET McKENZIE
Brook Andrew, who was born in 1970 in Sydney, Australia, questions the dominant narratives associated with colonialism and modernist histories. Australia is placed at the centre of the investigation that takes place in the form of museum and archival interventions. Challenging stereotypical ideas of history, identity and race, he uncovers neglected and often conflicted histories, and encourages his audience to consider alternative interpretations.
The current survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Brook Andrew: The Right to Offend is Sacred, presents work from the artist’s high-profile career. Over the past 25 years in particular, many Australians have recognised the deplorable actions of colonial forebears against the Indigenous population, and the extreme cultural condescension used to impose European methods of living in an alien environment. In the process, they have begun to understand the unique and multifarious culture of the Indigenous Australians, including complex language systems, many fragile or erased due to persistent massacres and frontier wars. The death of language is, like marginalised aspects of society, “the death of an entire worldview”.1 Andrew’s art practice, like that of Susan Hiller’s, seeks to draw attention to such fragile aspects of culture, and to address the erasure of intelligentsia and spirituality deemed less valuable within western hegemony.
Andrew’s immersive, museum-like installations challenge received wisdom and conventional history. His projects confront the underlying premises of our intellectual heritage, namely a white, male, English-speaking, cultural hegemony. His appropriation of anthropological research (the archive material) is used to scrutinise the motives of 19th- and 20th-century western attitudes to other cultures and to enable the audience to understand the impoverished condition of contemporary global culture, and the danger of ignoring alternative perceptions of life.
Studio International spoke to Andrews in Melbourne.
Janet McKenzie: Your anthropologically inspired process of collecting and cataloguing, and the restaging of cultural artefacts as collage elements within paintings and art installations help an audience to understand (or construct) the reality of past and present. How did you come to use archive materials, such as photographs, books, found objects, postcards, newspapers and other media in your work?
Brook Andrew: I see my process as more sifting through the debris – the debris that’s often pushed aside as unimportant to, or less focused on, a dominant narrative. From a young age, I was challenged to unwind, untwirl, the stories of histories that were told to me. This is because I didn’t believe them. It started at Sunday school when the priest said Moses turned a staff into a snake. I was sent out for disbelieving him. Then it happened again when I was 13 years old and my biology teacher said that only a few Aborigines were surviving in the central desert of Australia. I immediately knew something was wrong with this world; my collecting is inserting back alternate views, but also an action to position disparate views together in one space. This is a deliberate action to create new spaces in the mind for alternate interrogations. Also, when working with museum collections for interventions, I cannot always use the objects or documents I would like, so I collect my own.
JMcK: Using a combination of objects from museum collections has in common the methodology of an archaeologist or anthropologist. Has Susan Hiller’s art practice been an influence on your work?
BA: I remember viewing Susan’s work Witness (2000). It was magical and expansive. Language empowered me, surrounded me with possibilities of beings that I firmly still believe exist in the universe and have been watching us for a long time. I see “them” as the witness, not us. I wouldn’t say that Susan’s work has inspired me to a great extent, although Christian Boltanski, Oscar Muñoz and Jenny Holzer have inspired me through their straightforward engagement.
JMcK: Where did you grow up and where did you train?
BA: I drew as a child. My family admired me for that and I enjoyed it, but I studied marine biology and science. I think it was because I was trying to sort myself out and then I studied fine arts at Western Sydney University at Kingswood, having grown up out there, but I also wanted to escape from there. It was only years later that I returned. It was good because we had people such as Chris Fortescue and Anne Graham, Eugenia Raskopoulos, Geoffrey Batchen and Vivien Johnson, and a whole batch of people – lecturers and artists – who loved being in the west of Sydney because it was not tarnished by international trends. They could experiment because it was away from Sydney’s city centre. In saying that, I was influenced by conceptualism and questioning it, trying to unpack that. As well, in the early 90s, it was very much about post-colonial texts. I did photography and was very interested in language, the Wiradjuri language, my mother’s language, and feeding that into more tongue-in-cheek theoretical texts and history and looking at the absence of my mother’s history. I wanted to focus on my mother’s history because it was not part of a dominant narrative. Like many people, I have multiple identities. From an international point of view, there is some confusion because there are so many groups within the Australian Indigenous population. Recent culture has focused on Central Desert art, for example.
JMcK: You have a major survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria and an exhibition at Tolarno Gallery in Melbourne. What works will be at the NGV?
BA: There are quite a few; it’s a museum intervention project (rather than a survey). It includes Sexy and Dangerous (1996) and another artwork made at the same time, [Dan]gerous (1996), the Gun-metal Grey series (2007) and new sculptures. My Sexy and Dangerous works were really my introduction to the history of ethnographic histories. When I first saw that image, I thought he was a Papua and New Guinean man but he was Aboriginal, although I did not know from where. It was important that it was visible, right in front of me. The words Sexy and Dangerous refer to [people’s reactions] when they find out that I am Aboriginal. I was treated with racist remarks. (For example, when I got into university, I was told: “Lucky, your father is white, otherwise you would not have got in.”). We cop racism just as much as anyone in the world. I was only 25 when I made those works: they were made using digital imaging, and involved the repositioning of those romantic and racist ideas. They are images of how Aborigines are seen within a capitalist aesthetic and the debris of colonialism – which is arguably one and the same. It’s not sexual: although he’s handsome, I did not want to turn him into a pin-up guy, although I absolutely wanted to make him visible and to tear down the doctrine of primitivism and the violence of the colonial gaze that still operates today.
JMcK: The way works such as Sunset (vii) are framed, in a slightly kitsch 1970s manner, is curious and slightly confrontational; they also look like the photographic assemblages of the Starn brothers.
BA: This is sapele timber [also known as African mahogany], used a lot in furniture during colonialism and is still used today, so it is the fabric of colonial power even now. It was quite a rare timber: it’s part of a regeneration project now. It references European furniture [and musical instruments]. I use this to frame postcards or photographs that juxtapose different histories. Wood frames [that belong to a] specific history, I use to envelope, to hold together.
JMcK: Your work questions the politics of representation, the manner in which images of people are created, viewed and reproduced and, in turn, how we view history. The drawn neon line is often the cohesive element and visually a strong, formal element. In these new paintings with collage that we are looking at in your studio for the show at Tolarno Galleries, you are imposing the same device, but with the paint: elements of the work are encircled, enveloped, the manner in which one might assert ownership over a collection of objects. It is a form of framing that is aesthetically pleasing but also symbolic.
BA: The works we are looking at in the studio are called The Monthly and there are some untitled works, too. I have collaged a copy of Art and Australia, from 1932, with a boomerang on the front, highlighting the cover but the absence of Aboriginal art inside. On the right-hand side, there are parts of the guide to the Uffizi, timeless artworks. That was the first museum I visited when I travelled overseas in 1996. Then there is the statue of David, an upside-down page with Adam and Eve (Christianity and purity) and, above that, from a 19th-century guide for anthropologists of skulls from Timor. It’s looking at heroic body types. There’s another page of marble sculptures, Greco-Roman perfection. Postwar Europe is referenced – up close and personal – about men’s employment after the war and also an article about how female-named hurricanes do more damage. On the left-hand side is an invite to New Zealand’s artist Lisa Reihana’s exhibition, then a Japanese film-maker. I am unpacking.
JMcK: You juxtapose aspects of our society’s visual language, photography and photomontage to enable the juxtaposition of the absurd with the profound. Can you explain how you have come to achieve the drama and speed of works such as The Monthly?
BA: It was really slow to make.
JMcK: I knew you’d say that!!
BA: It was a journey. It was not resolved for a very long time; some nuances did not work. The constellations have to work, and they didn’t for a while. The yellow and red work next to The Monthly had a kangaroo skin and a piece of plastic that were then removed. I often collaborate with silk-screeners and carpenters, and it’s really nice then to come back to my own hand.
JMcK: Memory and memorialisation are the words that are often used in a discussion of your work; you make reference to past materials, such as the African wood sapele, which used to be used on the interior of Cadillacs. What are you working on at the moment?
BA: I’m making two large sculptures called Tombs of Thought, one of them is Air and the other is Earth. I have redesigned what the planet looks like. I have reconfigured where most of the continents and islands are. That is a two-metre inflatable that inflates for 15 minutes then deflates for the same time. They are intended to house my archive that I have been collecting for 20 years now and that was used in my museum interventions in the Reina Sofía, Madrid, during the exhibition Really Useful Knowledge curated by the Croatian curatorial force WHW. I mixed my archive with Reina Sofía’s archive during Really Useful Knowledge. With these two works, I am only putting mine in. It is supposed to be the repository for my whole archive. The process serves as a great release, the ideologies built, the stories told. I don’t have to hold them any more.
JMcK: Sanctuary: Tombs of the Outcasts (2015) at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, was made on the occasion of the first centenary of the birth of the ‘Anzac legend’ in 1915. It interrogated the culturally sensitive material surrounding Australia’s commemoration on Anzac Day of the first world war and, by extension, the absence of a memorial to the loss of Indigenous lives in Australian history. Can you describe the structure Harvest (2015)?
BA: I’ve been interested in the history of circus and human display of Indigenous and others. There is only one object in this sculpture, a brass breastplate that was “awarded” to Aboriginal people from the Snowy River. The sculpture is made from an ancient Australian redgum. The legs have been carbonised. I designed it rather than made it. This is the original drawing, Sanctuary [on the cover of the catalogue Sanctuary: Tomb of the Outcasts]. It’s coffin size – big enough to lie in. The aspect of this work is to symbolise the many Indigenous and international peoples who have fallen for other nations’ wars, people affected by colonialism who still fought side by side with their colonial oppressors, to do the same thing – save their country from more invaders.
JMcK: It’s also very architectural. Can you tell me about your Australian Research Council project?
BA: A lot of my research has centred on memorialisation, the lack of significant memorials to Aboriginal loss in Australia. It’s very ambitious. The main aim is to look at international examples, specifically which countries and which governments have public memorials and how they have done it, and how we can do it in Australia. For example, monuments in existing structures such as Auschwitz, the killing fields in Cambodia, and talking to people like Youk Chhang [the executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia], where there will be a new building designed by Zaha Hadid [to house genocide-related documents]. We are also looking at community memorialisation in South America, such as the memorials created through the dedication of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina (Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo), for example. Then there is Rachel Whiteread’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (known as the Nameless Library) in Vienna, the planting of forests rather than buildings. In Australia, the Myall Creek massacre in New South Wales (1838) has been marked with a plaque. There is a national group who want to create provenance bones. I’ve been interviewing them. There are competitions that are starting up. It is a complex study. We have complex histories. South America and Canada have truth councils; there are people in Australia doing reports as to whether there should be one here, but to bring together ideas about what a national monument should be is interesting. We will be interviewing Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, later this year.
1. Susan Hiller interviewed by Richard Grayson for Talking Art at Tate Modern, London, 14 June 2008.