Postera Crescam Laude

Brook Andrew's 'Sanctuary: Tombs of the Outcasts'

An obviously-aged champagne cork, carefully presented in a glass vitrine, is instantly evocative of celebrations long-past. This one is part of the Ray Jones archive at the University of Melbourne. Jones was a careful archivist and collector, sending numbered letters to his family, preserving theirs in return, and collecting souvenirs throughout his four years of service during the First World War. The champagne cork is ‘a souvenir of Anzac Day 1918’. This raises questions—was the champagne opened in celebration? Or commemoration? Three years to the day since the Australian nation had entered a war on the global stage. Three years since the consumers of this wine had started seeing and causing death. But maybe it was more prosaic—troops participated in sports carnivals on Anzac Days during the war and perhaps a victor on the sporting field twisted this cork. 

The cork rests beside an African mask in the vitrine. Closer inspection reveals this to be made from chocolate. Specifically, it is a replica of a Dan mask from the Ivory Coast in 75% cocoa made by chocolatier Pierre Hermé in Paris. Apparently unintentionally, the mask embodies colonisation: the havoc wrought on local communities and cultures by western expansion in search of cash crops and other resources.

Side-by-side in a showcase, the deliberate placement of two such different objects invites reflection on the unimaginable complexity and unpredictably of consequences of historical events. This is the principle on which the exhibition ‘Sanctuary: Tombs of the outcasts’ rests: museological presentation entices us to seek connections and logic between items on display. And when this is not obvious from their form, or provided via labels, it opens up a space for consideration and reflection that might just be described as ‘poetic’. 

Artist Brook Andrew was invited by the Ian Potter Museum of Art to create this site-specific exhibition in response to the commemoration of the First World War; it is a major part of the University of Melbourne’s centenary program. Supported in part by the University and by the federal government’s Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund, the Potter sought to provoke a nuanced and open response to Australian military history. The motto of the University of Melbourne resonates with this project: Postera Crescam Laude (We grow in the esteem of future generations). It suggests both the response of the present generation to the centenary and how we will be viewed in the future; as well as how the First World War generation perceived themselves and their expectations of future recognition (it could certainly have been the motto for the Australian Imperial Force.) In response, Andrew combined material drawn from across the University’s historic collections as well as his own archive. These are presented through four galleries, starting with the wide-ranging, inchoate The Memory Archive and finishing with the precise and restrained In the Mind of Others. 

Andrew responded to conflict in its broadest sense. Given the number of exhibitions (and the vast amount of online, published and broadcast material) focused on the First World War and Australia’s involvement in subsequent wars, this is a welcome change of perspective. Rather than a chronological narrative or a formal definition of war as that declared between two or more nations, this open-ended consideration of conflict invites deliberation on its unintended and unexpected results. It allows for a broader understanding of conflict past and present, notably that of settler Australia and the self-declared wars of terrorism. 

The location within a university art gallery provides a strong framework: universities exemplify the highest ideals of society yet they too are shaped by conflict. This is preserved in their collections, a rich and complex source for an exhibition of this type. Ethnographic material and natural history specimens can map history and its victors. There are art works and photographs that depict idealised warriors or subjugated peoples. Archives that document the movements and careers of refugees displaced by war, whose new home can be determined by chance—and the profound results of providing sanctuary. 

The first installation in the exhibition, The Memory Archive (2015) presents material from the artist’s own collection on open display, pinned on the wall or in piles. With no mounts, labels or plinths, the arrangement seems almost accidental—as can individual memory. The inclusion of a Calvin Klein magazine advertisement featuring Justin Bieber seems incongruous, but the display is bookended by another magazine, open to a page of military-inspired fashion which is juxtaposed with a postcard of an Aboriginal man in uniform. Together, they discursively chart the progression of the youthful masculine ideal from soldier to brand ambassador. A newspaper is casually draped nearby, bearing a headline relating to events in Nauru; inescapably bringing conflict and the idea of Australia as a sanctuary into the present day. 

Nearby is Harvest (2015), one of the two sculptures/vitrines custom made by Philip Sticklen to Andrew’s specifications that anchor the show. Made from glass and timber this vitrine evokes old-fashioned museum showcases. The legs are carbonised Victorian red gum, and not all of them reach the floor and so they seem root-like (or perhaps like stalactites). The glass top forms three pyramids, recalling those of Giza that feature in so many First World War souvenirs (Ray Jones did not just stop with a postcard—his archive records that he collected ‘white stone from the top of an Egyptian pyramid’). The contents of the vitrine include the cork and mask, along with natural history specimens (a preserved dugong foetus, a quoll scull), a register of slaves owned by a British sugar plantation in Jamaica in 1817, the map of one of Cook’s voyages, a letter requesting permission to employ a German internee in Australia during the Second World War, and publications referring to the exploration and settlement of colonial Australia. These are displayed alongside other historic artefacts and family photographs that, combined, all serve to document the disparate personal, scientific and institutional consequences of the history of global conflict. 

The viewer next has to duck under a low-hanging wall, without being able to see what is on the other side. This physical obstruction forces one to physically engage with the space in order to progress. A narrow corridor-like installation presents Black Light Memory (2015): a row of postcard-sized photographs resting on a carbonised timber ledge, illuminated by ultraviolet light. The photographs contrast historic images of soldiers with those of present day conflicts, with more being added as the exhibition progressed. Again, this intrusion of up-to-the-minute content rebuffs any attempt to view warfare as safely contained by history.

The visitor again ducks down to enter into the next gallery and finds herself in a small antechamber, salon-hung with framed prints from Andrew’s and the University’s collections. These range from prints after Rubens and Raphael, to nineteenth century photographs of Aboriginal people on Australia’s pastoral frontier. The gallery design allows for images of idealised violence, death or dispossession to crowd all four walls. This overwhelms the viewer with the disjunction between the western idealisation of classical conflict and the reality of war and colonisation. 

Crouching again to exit, the visitor enters the final gallery, containing the final piece in the exhibition, In the Mind of Others (2015), the second of the vitrines. In contrast to the array of content in Harvest, this contains only one object: but surely one that represents such significance to Australian history that it holds its own against the many meanings contained by Harvest. The vitrine is reminiscent of church architecture, a sarcophagus or the nineteenth-century temples to commerce of the international exhibitions. Under the ‘steeple’ at one end of the structure is a single brass breastplate, inscribed ‘King Charlie of Snowy River 1866’. It is uncomfortable to view this object contained within the vitrine, incorporated into a sculpture. 

Breastplates are tangible evidence of colonisation. First presented in 1815, they attempted to endow systems of European authority on Aboriginal people. By 1866, they were usually part of settlers’ attempts to establish friendly relations with a local group by distinguishing an individual believed to be the leader. This example is believed to have been presented to a Gunaikurnai man at the Lake Tyers mission (Gippsland, Victoria).1 They can be the only written record of an individual’s existence, but are often frustratingly disconnected from that person—starting with almost invariably addressing the recipient with an anglicised name. 

The form of the sculpture recalls the ‘palaces’ built for the international exhibitions, where art and culture were employed as a fig leaf over the naked capitalism on display. Frequently, this included indigenous peoples, who were exhibited along with the potential for economic gain from their land. A breastplate in such surrounds makes apparent the violence on which this system was reliant. The Victorian red gum slab that forms the ‘floor’ of this structure is from a tree some 150 years old: a tangible connection to the Sydney and Melbourne Exhibitions of 1879 and 1880, respectively. The carbonised wooden legs delve down, root-like, suggestive of a much older connection to country than that of the settlers. 

Brook Andrew, In the mind of others, 2015. Victorian redgum, carbonised redgum, glass, brass, brass breastplate. Collection of the artist, Melbourne. Photograph Christian Capurro. 

Brook Andrew, Harvest, 2015. Detail. Sculpture, Victorian redgum, carbonised Victorian redgum, glass, brass. Contents: University of Melbourne Archives; Map Collections, University of Melbourne; Zoology Collection, University of Melbourne, Ballieu Library Print Collection, University of Melbourne; Rare Books Collection, University of Melbourne; The University of Melbourne Art Collection; and the artist's archive. Collection of the artist, Melbourne. Photograph Christian Capurro. 

Brook Andrew, Harvest, 2015. Detail. Sculpture, Victorian redgum, carbonised Victorian redgum, glass, brass. Contents: University of Melbourne Archives; Map Collections, University of Melbourne; Zoology Collection, University of Melbourne, Ballieu Library Print Collection, University of Melbourne; Rare Books Collection, University of Melbourne; The University of Melbourne Art Collection; and the artist's archive. Collection of the artist, Melbourne. Photograph Christian Capurro. 

Brook Andrew, Black light memory, 2015. Neon, carbonised redgum shelf, postcards. Collection of the artist, Melbourne. Photograph Christian Capurro. 

notes: 

1. Elina Spilia, ‘Relics and Ghosts’, Brook Andrew and Ian Potter Museum of Art, Sanctuary: Tombs of the outcasts, ex. cat., Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne/Brook Andrew Studio, Melbourne, 2015, p.72.

Dr Anthea Gunn is Curator of Art at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.