Single channel HD video, sound, 29 minutes
Introduced by Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Stracke
SMASH IT disrupts dominant narratives with both, humour and serious questioning. There is a lot of smashing going on—the problematics within the protocols for Aboriginal culture, the destroying or defacing of monuments as history’s most prominent markers and finally the appropriation and transformation of the Australian melodrama Jedda (1955) by Charles Chauvel. The latter was not only the very first Australian film in colour but—appropriately—also one of the very first starring Aboriginal peoples in lead roles in a story with an Aboriginal non-assimilationist message.
There is something hypnotic and at the same time slightly unsettling when experiencing Australian interdisciplinary artist Brook Andrew’s large-scale installations and videos for the first time. They are historical “Iconoclashes”.
He creates assemblages that seem to follow a pre-determined logic that is carefully embedded into his work and that seems to operate on various ends of history at once.
Brook Andrew is first and foremost an avid collector and archivist of historical artefacts, aiming to repair and broaden the representation of Aboriginal history. His growing archive of photographs, postcards, objects and written records serve like a toolbox, geared to de-stabilise the dominant colonial Australian narrative.
We saw Brook’s video Smash it for the first time as part of his installation project Stretching the Guidelines of Glue, shown at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin this spring. What struck us was a unique style of irreverent video editing and layering. Aesthetically, there are elements that may look at first glance similar to the current trend of desktop documentary, but one could immediately sense an underlying determination; a concept driven by a powerful political agenda which has been carefully translated into a recombinatory aesthetic framework.
There is a lot of smashing going on—the problematics within the protocols for Aboriginal culture, the destroying or defacing of monuments as history’s most prominent markers and finally the appropriation and transformation of the Australian melodrama Jedda (1955) by Charles Chauvel. The latter was not only the very first Australian film in colour but—appropriately—also one of the very first starring Aboriginal peoples in lead roles in a story with an Aboriginal non-assimilationist message.
We met Brook in Kreuzberg, right before he flew back to Sydney.
Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Stracke: Art critic Ian McLean has described your practice as “trans-disciplinary” and we see how effortlessly you traverse (and translate) from one medium to another, but also from one historic context to another. Can you talk about how and where your fascination with the archive began, as well as your interest in ethnographic film?
Brook Andrew: To answer that, it’s important to unpack my perspective and tell you a little bit about my background. My mother is Aboriginal-Celtic, her mother’s side is Wiradjuri and her father is Ngunawal; both my parents also have Celtic ancestry and my father has Jewish.
I suppose my obsession with history, knowledge and documentary photography has very much to do with my experiences as a child who wants to know where the images from my mother’s family are, my grandmother’s family, there were only a few—why is that? Who were the people having access to cameras in the late 19th and early 20th century? They were a lot rarer in missions, because they were policed. So the representation of my family there is very minimal.
Later on, in my 20s, I came across photographs of Aboriginal people from Western New South Wales and other parts of Australia in the State Library of New South Wales. I realised that there were hundred of thousands (or even millions) of photographs of indigenous people from all over the world. That opened up the archive for me. It gave a lot of answers and demanded a lot of questions… and also opened up the gaze of the European ethnographic lens. I had an obsession with photography, all subjects of photography, and I was hypnotized by the portrait and what it reveals.
Besides working with photography, I also started bringing Wiradjuri language into the fold with public visibility and consciousness, for seeing the world differently. I would ponder on how I share my dual complex vision, which is very normal for our community but different for the rest of the world. Western ideas stereotype First Nations people, which includes a half- or quarter-cast or that ‘primitive’ person with the spear. We have complex lives, like anyone else with a mixed ancestry. I am trying to demystify prejudice and the legacy of western authorship and archetypes.
I suppose that my interest in film work is through photography, but also through films like Jedda, which is represented at times in Smash it. I had re-scripted Jedda with a science-fiction plot in an earlier artwork called The Pledge. Therefore, my interest in film comes through this type of re-representation and satire—re-branding and making western authorship and to confront the archive.
GM&CS: It is highly interesting to compare your assemblages of photography and objects to the way you work with video. You easily flow from still image work to stacked moving images in Smash it and vice versa. For so many artists, it’s very hard to pull that off—in either direction.
BA: I use the medium of video and its editing tools like I create traditional collage or assemblage, or how I would create an immersive museum exhibition. I think that in some way I’m creating an immersive audio and visual environment through layering many media in the film project.
GM&CS: The Dendroglyph stripes are one of the most recurring element in your work, possibly “the glue” of many of your assemblages and these stripes also happen to appear on the wooden shield onto which Jedda is staring.
BA: Yes. I love that she’s becoming obsessed with the shield whilst playing the piano at a hypnotic pace and rigor. This energy is astounding and at times very humorous.
GM&CS: In the catalogue of your show at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, you ask: “Who has the power to create and destroy a monument in remembering particular histories that include fascism, and alternative revolutionary histories?” What was the motivation to attack Jedda? Did you consider it to be an Australian monument? Or do you see Charles Chauvel’s film already as an effort in itself to disrupt the Australian narrative?
BA: I wanted to create a situation where just the character of Marbuck and Jedda appear, where there is intense desire.
Even up until the 1980s and ‘90s you had non-indigenous people acting as Aboriginal characters. Most people in this film are proud. The film represents how Aboriginal people were treated on missions, as slaves, but also shows the control over Aboriginal people too. It was basically a slave camp. But also, Aboriginal people are seen as sexy, and beautiful, and it’s a love story—which rarely occurred in film.
Even though it’s complicated for so many reasons. There is still this kind of urgency regarding positive self-representation, because even up until the 1980s and the ‘90s there were journalists visiting Aboriginal communities who were taking photos of Aboriginal people without permission. These photos often represented people sick or drunk creating really negative representations.
Robert Tidawali (Marbuck character) became a famous film star… He and others became highlights in the film industry. This eventually led to the problem of directors and the film industry only wanting Aboriginal people to play Aboriginal people, which then became a problem of type-casting. When is it that indigenous people can play characters that are not indigenous?
Brook Andrew SMASH IT, 2018 Single channel projection 29 minutes
Edited by Giacomo Sanzani and Brook Andrew.
This project was produced through a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship and on residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien 2017–18 assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.