It is Art Basel’s fourth year in Hong Kong and the first time it has shown Brook Andrew. Inspired by the Australia Aboriginal heritage, he intends to call attention to colonialism and its forgotten histories through this large-scale installation, “Building (Eating) Empire”. However, the actual piece fails to match his ambition.
As one of the Australia’s greatest contemporary artists, Andrew has been working with museum archives for decades, and shows a great interest in using archive materials to create art works. For this piece, he selected six images from his postcard and press photograph collection, magnified them into gigantic size and screen-printed them onto foiled Belgian linen and Alucobond.
At the top of the installation is a smiling Western baby, with “Season’s Greeting” in green neon on the side. The baby is surrounded by a group of adults from subjugated peoples and cultures. It implies that the dominant Western narrative has prevailed over other cultures and histories.
The crease on the Indian woman’s robe brings Roman sculptures into mind. When light moves over the images, the foiled linen creates the effect of disappearing and reappearing, just like memories or the contested histories. Andrew tries to show the culture variability suppressed by colonization, and the history forgotten because of dominant Western narratives. With such a grand social theme, however, the chosen images are ordinary, and the interrelation is too loose to form a whole. The work is too weak to provoke further thinking on the issue beyond the usual hackneyed narratives.
This piece has a very strong personal style of Brook Andrew. The back and white optical pattern that acts as a backdrop to the work, can be seen behind his former works, such “Intervening Time” photo exhibition, and the four soft sculptures in “The Weight of History, The Mark of Time” last year. Additionally, this is not his first time to work with archive materials. In 2014, he displayed a work named “Witness” in Melbourne, with similar materials and concept. This latest work breaks no new ground.
The gigantic size, the complex mise-en-scene, and the nostalgic, sepia-tinged colors contained in the images may be good selling points for Andrew’s new work, but the lack of strong content and powerful expression is a critical strike against the piece. Archives are places where history is stored, but many are not open to the public. If Andrew’s aim is to bring the archives to public view, then the size of the artwork does not help. Other stronger ways could be considered, concerning the stronger content and combination. Failing this, the voiceless he wishes to represent, remain silent.