Michael Cook: Invasion

WHEN : 21st February - 31st March
WHERE : Andrew Baker Art Dealer

I NVASION As a small boy [Woorrady1] had been transfixed by the sight of the French ships floating in from the ocean, and disgorging onto the land strange creatures just like the returned dead who had been drained of colour by the rigours of their journey. He watched as they walked about to collect water and make a fearsome sound with a stick that spat fire before returning to their floating islands. He never saw those ships again, but when he was a young man on a hunting trip to the northern tip of Bruny Island, Wooredy observed two more such apparitions of evil float into the river estuary on the mainland opposite. This time the dead men came ashore and remained there, cutting down the trees to build huts and disturbing the ground all about. Plenty more of them arrived. And the Nuenonne began to die.2

Woorrady was a senior Tasmanian tribal man and his early sense that white men were “apparitions of evil” proved prescient. The Indigenous society that he and his wife Truganini belonged to was almost destroyed by British occupation of their country. The invasion of Australian shores by European colonists is also the subject of Michael Cook’s most recent series.

Invasion is Cook’s most ambitious project to date — a full year in production, with a cast and crew to rival a small film, and a subliminal text that speaks to a narrative shape distinct from the usual storyline. What is notable about an initial encounter with this series of eight images is their chorus of detail and ironic look back, with tongue firmly in cheek, to B-grade movies of the past.

The aesthetic of the 1960s is beautifully captured, down to the muted London light, grainy skies, heightened drama, tweed suits and mini-skirts. In each image, the many (human) protagonists encounter a group of invading aliens but our focus remains with the larger, overwhelming and dominant threat; people do not command the scene. Attention is shared over each element of photographic compositions that appear painterly in their layering and visual rhythms. They are situated within a dated horror movie scenario — humanity’s loss of control to creatures and the environment — and explore animals, place and objects as much as humanity. The holistic visual embrace of the camera directs us toward all dimensions and a register of vintage-inspired detail.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and other classics of the 1950s and 1960s were (when they were released) at the cutting edge of available technologies. Yet to our contemporary eyes their heightened drama and poor special effects make them laughable. Cook channels this sensibility, re-broadcasting a similarly histrionic drama — rendering it with current technologies and using their requisite slickness to echo the tacky drama of earlier films.

Unreality is an intrinsic part of Cook’s concept. His objective was to create images that express, for contemporary audiences, the level of surreal shock that would have reverberated around the Australian continent when white people appeared on their shores in colonial times. Cook expands, “These people had pale skin, different hair, elaborate clothing and arrived firing muskets. I wondered, what could be an equivalent to that level of shock, something way outside existing experience, and even imagination?” In Cook’s narrative, Aboriginals and sci-fi scaled animals (featherless birds, super-sized witchetty grubs, a kangaroo, giant lizards and possums on UFOs) are cast as aliens. Strapping copper-coloured warriors and clouds of rainbow lorikeets arrive in urban London, heart of the ‘mother’ country, and wreak havoc.

Within these images exists a thicket of meta- and mega-stories, mini-narratives that speak to the past. Historical references tease out racist practices that were imposed on Aboriginals; however, this time, white urban residents of London are the victims. Turning the tables on history is a theme that Cook has explored powerfully in his oeuvre to date (notably Majority Rule, 2014). Invasion explores a savage attack — albeit leavened by its irony, flawless beauty of execution, retro-look and dated sensibility — with deliberately heightened drama. These elements assist its fiction, returning the brutal treatment that Australian Aboriginals have suffered, starting two hundred and thirty years ago, at the hands of British colonists. In the current atmosphere of climate change and environmental threat, the incursion of malevolent nature in the form of invading animals also channels a natural subversion that overthrows human dominance and control.

Click here for the – Exhibition Catalogue