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Brook Andrew’s work The Cell tempts viewers with a bulging mass covered in bold red and white diagonal lines. In its entirety, it is a 6 by 12.5 metre inflatable room that occupies the rectangular length of the gallery. To enter the work, to reveal its interior, viewers have to prepare by pulling on coveralls that recall the CSI jumpsuits worn to avoid contamination at crime scenes, and this reflects the biological connotations of the title.
Every surface of the work, the exterior, the overalls, primary colours or black, are embellished with a version of Andrew’s now trademark Wiradjuri-op pattern. A neat hole in the wall provides a crawl-through tunnel and entry to reveal an interior space covered in the same pattern. Upon entering, viewers become enmeshed in a fractured, overlapping and breathing interior space. The viewer has adopted a performative role, transforming the static geometric mass to dynamic crisscrossing opticality.
Experienced communally, the work provides a playpen for pleasure, robust jumping, rolling and just generally lounging about. As participants move about the space, patterned bodies clash and morph with the surroundings. The combinations of patterns crisscross to create sharp optical effects. Just as the boundaries between viewer and art object have become indistinct, the outline of figure and ground becomes blurry. Potentially disorienting, even producing a sense of queasiness, the network of interweaving patterns pulse and reverberate. The centre of gravity changes.
However, experienced alone, in solitary confinement, is to be isolated and disconnected within the hum of an air filled bubble. This produces an altogether different kind of discomfort. After bouncing off the walls, the enveloping plastic cocoon provides a compelling space for quiet contemplation and for one to recover the senses. Refocusing, sinking into the surrounding pattern only to become aware of the claustrophobic jumpsuit and suffer, entrapped by this forsaken place. Thus, another connotation of the title is conjured: an outcast in a padded cell.
The regulation jumpsuits also resemble the uniforms of inmates or detainees. Although in this case, enslaved participants inhabit a space that combines soft sculpture, decorative wallpaper or disruptive material pattern (DMP or camouflage), pop and op art aesthetics. Pulling on the coveralls is to adopt the skin of another. The black and white jumpsuit, in particular, has the effect of one adopting the skin of a chameleon with the most potential for camouflage and/or subversive subterfuge.
From Sexy and Dangerous (1996) to the recently praised Jumping Castle War Memorial (2010), a focal point of the 2010 Biennale of Sydney, Andrew’s work unpacks beauty, cultural and historical perception, and the limitations imposed by power structures. As in Jumping Castle War Memorial, in The Cell Andrew combines his maternal heritage with pop art aesthetics. Specifically, he adapts the Wiradjuri dendroglyph designs, lines and lozenge shapes incised into trees to indicate the burial places of highly regarded Aboriginal males and initiation sites, in order to memoralise. And like Jumping Castle War Memorial, The Cell is a kind of ephemeral monument that can be deflated, packed away and disregarded.
This sense of memorial refers to Indigenous experiences, but also echoes loss, genocide and a lack of asylum more broadly. Providing another kind of queasy disquiet, the work remembers that which is often hidden and out of sight through an uneasy mix of biology, history and contemporary entertainment culture. It provides, even commemorates, an uneasy ambiguity between uniformity, consensus and difference. It takes on this serious task with welcome lightness. Fortunately, (some) participants can leave at any time. Unfortunately, inmates are entrapped on the outside by barely tolerable limitations and consensus.
The disruptive interior space of Andrew’s The Cell assaults the senses. It packs a punch, leaving one dazed and disorientated by a pattern that can fracture a program of encoded monocultural habits. The informal monument produces an unsteady footing, shifting and destabilising the centre of gravity to create room for social and political questioning that resonates beyond its confines. The Cell suspends dogmatic structures, enabling a rebellious strike to be played out with fun and pleasure.