To enter the cell is to be transformed

Brook Andrew, The Cell, vinyl with fan blower, 300 x 12500 x 600 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and Tolarno Galleries. Photo: Roger D'Souza

Before I enter the gallery space I hear the roar of the fan blower. Once inside, I encounter an enormous inflated cube emblazoned with red and white stripes, like a circus tent. I join the line of punters and wait obediently, reading the didactic gallery signage. Eventually, it’s my turn: I’m handed a hooded jumpsuit with a red geometric print. They instruct me to remove my shoes and any sharp objects I might be carrying.

Barefoot and zipped up to the throat, I get on all fours and crawl through a tunnel into the space within the inflatable. The diamond geometric pattern of my uniform inscribes every surface within this soft room. The light is different in here, shaded, and all sound is muted. It’s quite hallucinogenic; a young boy wearing a black version of the suit dives onto the floor and laughs, “look: I’m invisible!” Watching him bounce and somersault makes me feel faintly foolish, the cautious adult; I bound gingerly around the space a few times before deciding to evacuate.

Brook Andrew, The Cell, vinyl with fan blower, 300 x 12500 x 600 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and Tolarno Galleries. Photo: Roger D'Souza

Giggling, unsure of my footing on solid ground, and having read the statement about the work I wondered if it was really an effective statement about enclosure, asylum and genocide. Surely it was a bit too much fun. But to look for a straightforward reading of Brook Andrew’s The Cell is to miss the layered nature of the work, the way in which it insinuates and resonates rather than bludgeon its viewer with a specific message. Indeed, such instability of meaning is part of a strategy through which Andrew critiques the impulse towards empirical certainty that has shaped the history of Western politics, philosophy and science. Ambiguity unsettles this position.

In a practice spanning video, print, neon and installation, Andrew’s work addresses notions of race, history, power and loss. These themes have particular potency within Australia, where the legacies of colonial history continue to be deeply felt and the processing of asylum seekers has become a highly politicized issue. Like his recent work Jumping Castle War Memorial (2010), The Cell paradoxically adopts the frenzied aesthetics of the fun park within a commemoration of loss. With this work, Andrew responds to the histories of loss, asylum and genocide that belong to many in Australia. He states, “The Cell is a monument to such stories. It’s a quiet space for contemplation, disorientation and spectacle”.

To enter The Cell is to encounter a series of contradictions. Its title is evocative of imprisonment and terrorism as well as the foundation of biological life. By donning the anonymous regulation-issue suit, the viewer assumes a performative role, and yet the experience of The Cell is predominantly sensory. The space is simultaneously intimate and alienating, delightful and threatening. Dominating every facet of the work is the ubiquitous diamond pattern, evoking pop minimalism and circus tent alike, however this motif is derived from patterns traditional to Andrew’s Wiradjuri heritage. This psychedelic installation recalls histories of loss and survival and offers a utopian, shared space to facilitate reflection. Indeed, to enter the cell is to be transformed.

Brook Andrew: The Cell is showing at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts 9 July – 21 August 2011