31 Oct - 23 Nov 2003
BROOK ANDREW | KALAR MIDDAY
"The Space of Dreams"
Exhibition Text by Marcia Langton, 2003
Those who see these photographs will feel that they have wandered into someone’s dream-world. Here are potent imaginings of bodies and landscapes, beings both human and animal, of love and desire, and of the unconscious. Indeed, it is not an overblown claim on my part to say that Brook Andrew has invented, in the suite of six photographs he calls Kalar Midday, a new space—not a colour and not merely a technique—but a space where we can imagine that dreams are held: the deep black space of unconsciousness into which our dreams flow and vault, leaping across the mind’s eye, never still and never real; the deep black space where peace and tranquility live, and which we crave. If we were to compare this deep blackness that suggests, but is not, the immense night sky, with Rothko’s work, or the darkness from which Rubens’ subjects peer, we would distinguish among them, saying, Andrew’s is a different kind, texture, meaning of black.
We all dream, and perhaps some of us dream similarly. If there were not a universal visual grammar of dreams, as Jung suggested, how could it be possible that we appear to perceive art and cinema as others in the audience do? We cannot speak of a language of dreams, because what we dream is beyond words. Perhaps the point of art is to share our dream-worlds by harnessing the power of the visual sense. The mind endows the eyes and the hands with ideas, sensations and skills that enable the making of illustrations from the thought world. I make these points to find a way to explain the unique spirit of these images. With extraordinary insight, Brook Andrew has captured from his dream-world an imaginary place and its beings and illustrated them with Cibachrome photographs.
These artworks tell the dream of ‘the land of the three rivers’, Kalar Midday, a place in Wiradjuri country that belongs to his mother. First, nestled among the branches of a Moreton Bay fig tree, a beautiful Aboriginal girl gazes at the night sky, the full moon tinting clouds in the aurora glow of fair weather to come. The moonlight glistens on the girl’s black skin, and her rapturous upturned face sparkles with starlight, drawing our attention to the enchantment of the night, the pure balance of deep black space, bright full moon and her taut expectant iridescent body outlined in silver. Here is romance and longing, as melodramatic as the great myths in which the gods themselves are transformed by love.
Second, a powerful, poised Aboriginal male squats in the fork of the giant Moreton Bay fig tree, tensing as if to spring higher up into the tree. His face is turned to the camera and his eyes have the gaze of one caught unawares for a moment by the observer. The moonlight casts a blue and silver glow across his body and the tree branches. We sense in the dark image the enigma of calm and yet strained tension that unites the man, the tree and the moon. The calmness incites a shiver, as if the man in the image himself is watching, and his moment of high tensile poise is about to end.
Third, another beautiful woman is standing among the buttress roots of the fig tree and her upright stance is languid, her arms and shoulders slightly drooped as if in a state of relaxation. She appears contemplative. Perhaps she is waiting. Her body shimmers in the moonlight, the curve of her muscles outlined in light against the deep black night.
I am struck by the power of the images to convey ideas of a world beyond our human senses in which an ecology of night, moonlight and fig tree host the most perfect beings. In each image, the physical perfection of the three characters enlivens the idea of a night sky or a dark landscape etched out in moonlight. The firm bodies hint at the gently, quietly pulsing life that the Kalar Midday beings share with the trees in which they live.
If this is all too melodramatic and romantic, perhaps the works can be read in a more cerebral way as ideas about love, sexual longing, superb physical beauty, the human form in the grace of the moonlit landscape, and the seduction of the night—ideas not usually associated with Aboriginal people in the settler’s mind. But this is to anticipate.
These images are redolent with the idea of well-known Aboriginal traditions remembered in stories, ceremonies and images that hold that special places are more than just places, as Catherine Berndt (1981, p. 10) put it:
People believe that something special happened at each one of them, at the beginning of the world, and the myths and stories tell what this happening was. It could be that some character became immortal there—‘came into Dreaming’ is one way of translating the Gunwinggu words. Even if his body took some other form, maybe a bird or a fish, he is still there in spirit. He is part of that country. And usually some outward shape is there too as a sign to mark the place.
We almost expect that the beautiful people in the fig tree in the Kalar Middaysuite could create a mountain or a river, or even, as sometimes happens with these originary beings, that they might be transformed into the everlasting physical features of the landscape, sleeping forever in a hill, or a rock, or in the moon. Gaston Bachelard (1994, p. 72) inThe Poetics of Spacewrites, ‘All great, simple images reveal a psychic state’. His study of ‘intimate immensity’ neatly describes the realm of day-dream, dream and imagination that Brook Andrew playfully brings to bear in his meditation on the power of Aboriginal mythology to transform human characteristics into the gigantic effects of the supernatural ancestors who created the mountains, the stars, and the rivers. Bachelard (1994, pp. 183–4) writes:
One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity ...
In analyzing images of immensity, we should realize within ourselves the pure being of pure imagination. It then becomes clear that works of art are the by-products of this existentialism of the imagining being. In this direction of daydream of immensity, the real product is consciousness of enlargement. We feel that we have been promoted to the dignity of the admiring being.
When we spoke on the phone in early October, Brook Andrew told me he wanted to ‘create works that seduce people’. He said he wanted ‘to remove the idea of the ugly race’, ‘to make a long black landscape, a singularly beautiful, fantastical perfect landscape’, ‘to make a romance’. Eventually, he used the terms that might appeal to an academic: ‘representations of the Aboriginal body in landscape stripped of history and violence’. In my own mind, at least, he has surpassed his goal.
Ignoratia, the image of two kookaburras, or in fact the mirrored image of a kookaburra showing two likenesses, backs turned against each other, repeats the theme of strange beings in the deep black space of dreams. The kookaburra is a museum object, a once living bird, captured to ensure for the institution a complete display of bird species, and stuffed by a taxidermist. Brook Andrew has re-invented the display bird, hiding its sanctioned museum status as a representative of its species, and endowing it with a flicker of existential drama in the mirror image arrangement. The two kookaburras cannot communicate with their backs turned to each other. Hence, one might imagine, they convey the dilemma of self and the other: is it possible for the self to know the other? Is the other always only a reflection of the self? We know the sound of kookaburras, the raucous laughing chorus in the morning, started by one and then joined by others, hailing the day. The sound is familiar to Australians, and yet, in Ignoratia, that sense of familiarity is disturbed by the theatre of dreams in which they are fated to face away from each other, silent and still.
In tensio, the image of two crows, each looking at a coiled snake, continues the theme of the mirror image, of reflection and imitation. Again, the crows and the snakes are objects removed from a museum and staged in Brook Andrew’s black space. The crow is famously—in Aboriginal mythology, at least—the antisocial creature, never sharing company with other birds. It is therefore black, completely black, whereas other birds have colour and variety. When colour spread throughout the bird world, crows ignored their fellow birds and missed out, remaining black like the inchoate world from which life sprang.
Narcissus similarly presents a mirror image; here, of a man of Dionysian beauty and form. The resonance of the Greek and Roman admiration for the male form in classical times may be misleading, for the purity of the form overcomes the sense of the statuesque and mimetic insistently conveyed in the entire suite. The light falling on the body that then takes shape in its own capacity to reflect this light, remembering the moonlight, recalls the act of vision itself, and the perception of phenomena through light and refraction.
The tension inherent in the juxtaposition of the beauty of the human form and the museum object, of dreamscape and studio diorama, of black space and light, is played out in these phantasms of Kalar Midday. Such binary opposites are the stuff of our sensual, poetic and intellectual repertoire. Here Brook Andrew’s maturity as an artist, his cosmopolitan appreciation of these matters, shines; he also disturbs the peace with his unique, vital acuity and skill.
Such innocence, purity of form, simplicity and beauty as I have described in these images are also clever feints for a darker significance. It is possible while entranced by the beauty of these images to believe that the human body and human spirit are perfect, to see beyond the classifications of race and history. But that history and violence lurk beneath the surface of our attention. It is the museum diorama, the cabinet displays of species from which Andrew has taken some of his raw material for this suite, that insist themselves into our perception. In Savage Imaginings, Lynette Russell (2001, p. 46) reveals the purpose of the museum in colonial relationships:
The diorama to a greater degree than any other form of museum display objectifies people. The fixing of the audience’s gaze on both the artifacts and the bodies of the people is something that cannot be achieved by the display of objects alone. The bodies of the Aborigines depicted in dioramas are offered to the visitor’s gaze. The body itself becomes a trophy to be displayed, the human equivalent of the stuffed animals also found in the natural history museum. The Aborigines’ nakedness is both masked and accentuated. It is masked in that the audience is expected to look beyond the subjects’ nudity and to take in the scene as a snapshot of Aboriginal life. Yet this objectification also accentuates their nakedness ... The objectified and essentially naked bodies depicted in the diorama represent civilization’s antithesis. The people are objects on display like silent specimens in a frozen zoo.
Yet, in the end, we can share in Brook Andrew’s success in rescuing his human, bird, animal and tree beings from the museum diorama. He has taken their objectified status in the official museum representation and liberated them in his dream-world, reinstating their beauty and spirit.
Brook Andrew shares with us dreams of landscapes and beings wrought from his encounter with museum objects, histories of the encounter between settlers and Aboriginal peoples, and his revulsion of the sickly sweet idea of ‘the dreaming’ and other simplistic notions about ‘the Aborigines’. These are not the essentialist constructs of social Darwinists who confine ‘Aboriginal’ people to a savage atemporal stereotype and trivialize the diverse societies with anthropological quackery. In Kalar Midday, Andrew has produced finely crafted visual and sculptural statements, which, arranged in cibachrome blackness and the dramaturgy of Andrew’s own Wiradjuri mythology, confront the ordinary perception of Aboriginal people, of being human, of being embodied, and of being emplaced. Brook Andrew has liberated his chosen creatures from the colonial prison of racist perception and re-imagined the world.
Bachelard, Gaston 1994, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas, Beacon Press, Boston.
Berndt, Catherine 1981, ‘Introduction’ in Catherine Berndt & Djoki Yunupingu, Land of the Rainbow Snake. Aboriginal Children’s Stories and Songs from Western Arnhem Land, Australian Children’s Classics, John Ferguson, Sydney.
Russell, Lynette 2001, Savage Imaginings. Historical and Contemporary Constructions of Australian Aboriginalities, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne