Brook Andrew

Photographer Brook Andrew is a great collector of artifacts and material objects. He collects everything: newspaper cuttings, post cards, photographs, glass negatives, books, maps, textiles, films and cultural objects of historical significance. In drawing upon his own rich archive of material possessions to constitute his own installations and to display them in curiosity cabinets and purpose-made sculptures, he recalls and re-appropriates the practices of the European Dadaists and Surrealists while experimenting with the legacy of the international exhibitions modes of presentation. His latest exhibition, Possessed, explores how dominant cultures manipulate later generations through the images they leave behind as “history”.

Brook Andrew’s RECENT exhibition, Possessed (at Tolarno Galleries Melbourne), continued his action of twisting historical perception and visual immersion and recalls the debates about imperial conquest that lie close to the heartbeat of his work. The concept of “possession” looms large in John Locke’s second Treatise on Government of 1690, a text often mistakenly invoked to legitimise early white settlement, Vacuum domicilium, in North America. For some of Australia’s indigenous peoples, who are notably sparing in their acquisition of material objects, “possession” may seem an especially complex term.

As Andrew himself expresses it, “The term ‘Possessed’ is firmly placed within the confusion of a psychological act of how dominant cultures manipulate power and history through the making and dissemination of photography. I’m very interested in the politics of how artists of surrealism were accused and put on trial as being communists (and many were) – setting a democracy/communism agenda but also the ways in which these artists drove creative and political events such as the Truth of the Colonies exhibition in 1931 staged by the French Communist Party, the surrealists and the Anti-Imperialist League. This exhibition exposed the crimes of the colonies. Therefore, I see the role of the artist is to expose the mechanisms of how images and events trick us, to manipulate us – beware the ventriloquist – I say.”

Brook Andrew has been influenced by the photography and surreal objects of Man Ray and the Dadaists since his student days, when he majored in photography. The Dadaists and Surrealists were his mentors, providing the very platform from which he realised his art might be made. Brook’s art continues to this day to have much in common with the fundamental ideas of Dada.

The Posessed exhibition comprises eight large-scale photographic montages of images from 19th-century colonial glass slide negatives of landscape vistas. Some of these negatives are the work of the Tasmanians Stephen Spurling and Charles Beattie, who were the Government’s official photographers at that time. Those responsible for the other plates of Victoria and Melbourne unfortunately cannot now be identified.

Both Spurling and Beattie had been commissioned to photograph the ancient wilderness of Australia in order to promote tourism. Andrew regards these images as representing an essentially western way of looking at the landscape, as typically found in early colonial art. The critic Tim Bonyhady has noted in the work of Tasmanian painter, William Piguenit, a tendency to exaggerate the size of mountain peaks and cloud formations in order to instill a dramatic sense of the sublime, an effect then fashionable in European art.

For Andrew himself the Western vision is conveyed through another characteristic: the habitual presence of a horizon line, that he considers projects a Western-dominated view, suppressing alternative views of the world. “The horizon line must shift,” he declares, for “the horizon line represents patriarchy, dominance in the way of looking at other possibilities, diverse cultural readings, at women, at men, at the body, at human evolution, animal evolution; for me it is fundamental. The horizon line as an aspect of male conquest and dominance is problematic, so the first thing I think of is smashing – subverting – the horizon line.” In removing the horizon line in his own montages, the artist shifts the dominant European reading of picturesque landscapes into images that can be read from many perspectives, and are open to multiple cultural and political hierarchies.

Brook Andrew, like Man Ray before him, wants to explore the infinite possibilities of photography, moving freely from old to new techniques, from structural relations to deconstructed images, from historical and sociological orientation to personal concerns. In ‘Possessed 6’, the images in the original slide negatives are transformed into a surrealist dream-like vision of elements of reality and unreality, of movement and stillness, and of colliding energy of fatal consequences. Equally ‘Possessed 7’ – although less abstract, being a clearly readable image of rock-like clouds floating over a harbour scene – belongs to the surreal world of imagination and reality.

Less definable as a surrealist work is ‘Possessed 1’, yet this photo-montage enters the surrealist world by its magical occult nature that holds the hidden dimensions of the place, the mysteries of the land. The grandness of nature, with its cascade of luminous clear waterfall framed by luscious verdant foliage, is that of an unchanged, resplendent Australian wilderness, a paradise reclaimed. Yet Andrew says, “The work does not aim to continue romanticism of the land, but to be trapped within its beauty and uncontrollability … for thought to be firmly placed within the surrealist and Dadaist motivations to dislodge and re-form again and again – to displace and replace – to keep everyone accountable for possibilities allowing the landscape to devour itself, us and civilisations – to confuse our own perspectives on reality in order to turn itself inside-out. Possessed is essentially reviving the mystery, stripping it back to where the land has power again of the human and animal domain, the machine of man and its problematic expedient endeavors exist no more.”


Space & Time
3 June – 2 July, 2016.
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

28 May – 23 July
Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris Cloître Saint-Merri, Paris.


Courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne.

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