Brook Andrew: seriously playful

Christine Nicholls

Brook Andrew, Buuga-Buuga, neon

Brook Andrew, Buuga-Buuga, neon

Brook Andrew, Buuga-Buuga, neon

“…we are in the digital era—this is our future.”
Brook Andrew

In RealTime 51 and 52, I discussed the impact of the world wide web and new media technologies on contemporary Indigenous artists and their work, with particular reference to questions of appropriation. After surveying some recent educational initiatives in the area, notably a successful workshop of the National Indigenous School in New Media Arts (NISNMA) in Adelaide in 2002, I looked at the work of the inimitable Rea and rising stars Jenny Fraser and Christian Thompson.

Leading Wiradjuri conceptual and multimedia artist Brook Andrew is probably best known for his provocatively titled 1996 series Sexy and Dangerous, in which he critiques stereotypes of male indigeneity. Andrew figures prominently in the vanguard of artists challenging colonial, post-colonial, and neo-colonial assumptions.

It’s mainly white men, self-cast as the true cultural heroes who have historically produced visions of Australia as a ‘nation.’ Andrew frequently deploys Indigenous masculine figures and icons in his work—for example, spears, boomerangs, shields—expressing his artistic vision via the language of pure spectacle, using words from his own and other languages, and re-imaging the Indigenous body as sexy, not savage. By these means he successfully critiques the limitations of narrow imaginings of Australia, past and present, and its position in the world.

Andrew achieves this by combining web-based projects, drawing and installation with judicious use of the written word, performance art, installation, digital photography, video, sound effects and especially neon, for which he has a passion. In an email interview, Andrew writes, “…neon…is a striking colourful medium that for some reason is really successful in human sell-sell culture. it’s beautiful. have u seen the neon heart by Czech artist Jiri David, installed over Prague Castle?”

Andrew exhibits in many Australian galleries, public places and spaces, including the forecourt of Sydney International Airport which features wilbing (to fly). At the walama (to return) forecourt are 22 animated neon boomerangs made from aluminium and high-tension wire. Often his exhibits are the culmination of painstaking historical research, for example, into the specific ceremonial clan designs on particular boomerangs or shields, or the minutiae of carved spears.

In many works Andrew deploys words, sentences or fragments from Indigenous languages, specifically Wiradjuri, Ngarrindjeri and, more recently, Sindhi (a Pakistani dialect) and Hindi as an implicit critique of the imposed, colonising language of English. Language has been a significant instrument of empire, resulting in the suppression of many Australian voices. Sometimes the artist teases his audience with his use of Wiradjuri text. In one case, he writes, audience members misread a Wiradjuri expression as “‘get fucked’, whereas the text actually reads “you don’t share.” (The neon artwork says “buunji nginduugirr AMERICA.” “Buunji” means ‘bludge’ and “nginduugirr” means ‘you’ in the collective sense.) He writes: “it’s the ambiguity and cheekiness of some of my work which i like…”

Often, in ironic, po-mo mode, Andrew refashions ‘traditional’ Indigenous weaponry in postmodern garb, simultaneously mounting a biting social commentary on the cannabilistic consumption of Indigenous art and identity by contemporary capitalism and the advertising industry. Examples of this include his neon boomerangs and massive phallic spears (Seven Spears) created from Australian timbers, LED lighting and bronze for the Arts Program at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. There is always a sense that even his most playful work is deadly serious. As Andrew writes, “…life is politics…i say, we are not innocent people here in the west. we are all complicit with [those in power]. Take, for example, John Howard’s message about anti-terrorism being to ‘preserve our way of life’.”

Describing himself as a conceptual artist, Andrew is drawn to the new technologies (as well as neon) partly because of their surface appeal and seductiveness. At the same time he cleverly deploys capitalism’s and the advertising industry’s own techniques, media and stereotypic imagery, as weaponry against them, commenting on contemporary global and local cultures by borrowing from their own language and grammar.

The sources of Andrew’s artistic eclecticism become apparent when he cites his most important influences: “fred williams: his paintings drop me in the middle of those imaginative landscapes…tracey moffatt: for her guts in artistic navigation in dealing with an at times bitter and jealous aboriginal art world and at times a gutless and parochial australian art scene. i’m not talking about her ‘super star fame’; i’m talking about her ability to survive as an artist…louise bourgeois: her installations transport the mind and body to breathing high with short breaths…andy warhol: because i love to hate the obvious nature of his comments […] & curators and arts lovers who genuinely love art for the sake of it, not because they think they understand it.”

Andrew cites a currently untitled work-in-progress as his career highlight. It involves large neon text works that combine installation and audience participation: “It’s a large spiral red, white and blue neon that is also a cone shape…5m in cone length and 2.5m diameter…and it spins horizontally within an internally mirrored room. Outsiders can see inside the cone. The piece is a performance interactive piece where an audience member (with hospital style white tunic) enters a dark labyrinth. This takes them to 2 ‘workers’ who are covered head to toe in white chemical style suits. Their heads are also protected. The audience member is strapped to a horizontal morgue-style bench and then is slid into the spiralling neon. Indoctrination takes place. Then the audience member is removed to a white bright room and then exited.”

Like many of his works, this one relies on collaboration: “i do use new media mostly through collaborations… like working with the tin sign writers in new delhi…[during an Asialink residency]…i think collaboration is a wonderful way for artists to get outside their own medium.”

He is currently working on, “a new body of work i’ve created through an australia council fellowship which is re-imaging the blak body in a dark enchanted scary forest. the series is called kalar midday—people can guess what it means—i don’t like to give away too many secrets when it comes to my use of language. one of the series has made it into the art gallery of NSW inaugural australian photographic art prize to be opened in a few weeks.”

Essentially, digital new media is a sharp instrument that is easily blunted—but not in this artist’s hands. In his visual arts practice, Brook Andrew is concerned with questions of how a more socially and morally just society might be achieved; how one might address social inequalities and reflect alternative epistemologies and ways of being-in-the-world. The effect of his work is a significant challenge to dominant and oppressive ways of thinking, some would say a politicisation and indigenisation of western history. He achieves this not through being didactic or ‘preachy’ in his approach. Sassy, bold, cheeky, and impudent, Andrew’s work, while politically committed and often hard hitting in its political message, exists in a third space that doesn’t rule out the carnivalesque, the camp, the popular and even sometimes, the garish. Instead it means having a lot of fun and above all, having the guts to stand out as different: “i think artists just spit out what we can when trying to make sense of something either personal or public, aesthetic or political etc. i think the most pressing problem in the world at this moment is a disease which has always cursed humanity, this is the disease of superiority, ignorance and greed. humans are a culture of sheep. i can’t even wear a fish-net shirt in sydney without death looks for god’s sake!”

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 28

© Christine Nicholls; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003