'An-Archival: Brook Andrew's "The Right To Offend Is Sacred"'
Art Monthly Australasia, May 2017
An-archival: Brook Andrew’s ‘The Right To Offend Is Sacred’
3 March - 4 June 2017
Excavation is a word that pithily encapsulates Brook Andrew’s practice. Created through painstaking processes of archival research, Andrew’s sculptural installations, photographs, collages and coloured screenprints bear the imprint of a close looking at artefacts from the past; a mining of history. ‘The Right to Offend is Sacred’ is a survey show that presents a select grouping of Andrew’s works ranging from 1992 to 2017. Colonial photographs, human bones, old linen-bound volumes encased in glass vitrines and ethnographic film footage materialise in atmospheric juxtaposition. The dimmed gallery lighting, shot through with luminous colour emanating from the neon components of Andrew’s installations, transforms the exhibition space into an environment of muted encounters with the past. Photographed faces loom from shadowy grounds with countenances that range from wariness to dispassion and expressions much more inscrutable.
Many of the works feature nineteenth- and twentieth-century ethnographic photographs of unknown individuals which are extracted from archives to resurface, animated through Andrew’s re-activating eye. The black-and-white photos are transformed into screenprints through an elaborate printmaking process developed in collaboration with Stewart Russell that deepens the images’ tonal contrast. Printed onto lustrous metallic surfaces (foil on cotton drill fabric), the photographic imagery pulses with unexpected drama.
52 Portraits (2013–16) presents a suite of ethnographic photographs of individuals from a host of colonised countries from Algeria to Brazil. Each of the figures (many wearing tribal headdresses) have been composed in classisising stances and arranged in a row of canvases on wooden struts alternately suggesting artist’s easels or tribal spears, their visages forming a procession of ‘noble savage’ portraits. However, Andrew’s evocative printmaking technique allows something affective, both poignant and elusive, to break through the colonialist mask. In a gesture akin to Christian Boltanski’s ‘Monument’ series – photographic installations memorialising unidentified Jews at the time of the Holocaust – Andrew’s re-presented portraits pay witness to unknown stories and nameless lives.
Andrew has researched collections such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, and the aura of the colonialist archive permeates his work. Vox: Beyond Tasmania (2013) presents a large-scale glass vitrine displaying human skeletal remains above multiple archaic volumes on the nineteenth-century pseudoscience of craniology. A wooden structure resembling an oversized megaphone creates a tunnel view onto a human skull – the arrangement’s centrepiece. The assembly conjures the violence of the colonialist anthropology; a dissecting gaze bent on racial taxonomies. The use of museological vitrines is similar to the French-Algerian contemporary artist Kader Attia who has also developed a practice based on archival research and assembled colonialist artefacts and photos. While there is a close correspondence in their modes of display, Andrew’s adjacent installations – such as Empire ruined (2015), with its huge draped canvas screenprints stretching almost six metres in height, and the lachrymose melodies sung by Mama Alto in the 3-channel video De Anima (2014) – undercut the antiquated scientism, taking his assemblages into territory that is much more elegiac.
If the melancholy lustre of works such as these – where the gaze of empire inscribes itself in its conventions of colonialist photography, simultaneously enlivened and made mysterious by Andrew’s sensualising shifts in material and medium – a different tone enters in other works. The grouping of ribald cartoons by the eighteenth-century satirist James Gillray alongside illustrations by the lesser-known German graphic artist and painter Paul Meyerheim spike the exhibition with a Rabelaisian air. Neon works such as Polemics (2000) and KILL PRIMITIVISM (2016) have the punchy abbreviated language of agitprop, magnified through blinding electric colour, conspicuously flexing the exhibition’s political muscle.
Elsewhere subtle elements bring depth and nuance: in System 1 (2016), a small photo of a woman affixed to the life-sized ethnographic figure screenprinted on the metallic surface has a caption indicating this is the Chilean writer Gabriela Mistral – winner of the 1945 Nobel Prize in Literature. Details such as this complicate the show’s more obvious meanings, signalling that Andrew’s project is much about homage as decolonial critique. In some works, such as Guardians of the galaxy: the motherhood number (2016), Andrew masks the figures’ heads with absurdist objects like a clock or a mushroom cloud. In the midst of the pulsating neon and an oversized chevron-emblazoned inflatable Donut II (2015), the tone shifts again into a strange lugubrious festivity.
Theorist John Roberts has written of photography’s productive capacity for violation as a ‘pointing to’: not so much the accepted ways in which photography objectifies the subject or exposes the mechanisms of ideologies at work in the image, but a violation in which the visible is always entangled with what is unconscious or partially concealed. The photographic image always has a supplement: the historical space which neither the photographer nor the photographed can know at the time, and it is this that gives photography a perpetual elusiveness and instability.[i] Andrew’s works tease open this space of violation in order to re-animate his sourced imagery. Through striking printing techniques on lambent grounds and the jostling of one medium against another – modern technologies such as neon next to timeworn silver gelatin prints – Andrew reveals a space that permits his archival materials to vividly surpass the constraints of their colonial origins.
[i] See John Roberts, Photography and Its Violations, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014.
Brook Andrew, Installation view of Brook Andrew: The Right to Offend is Sacred at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 3 March – 4 June 2017.
Photo: Wayne Taylor