‘À Rebours’ - A photographic exhibition by Pat Brassington.
On show at ACCA 11th August - 23rd September.
Roald Dahl writes of a Big Friendly Giant (the BFG) who captures dreams with a butterfly net and stores them in labeled, glass jars in his cellar. Each night, Dahl’s BFG gently blows a carefully selected dream – through a trombone – into a sleeping child’s bedroom. Stepping into Pat Brassington’s ‘À Rebours’ exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art is like stepping into the BFG’s storeroom of dreams - for adults.
Before delving into the cocoon of Brassington’s dreaming, it is first important to clarify the meaning of the words ‘À Rebours’ in context of this review. Brassington has taken her show’s title from the French writer JK Huysmans’ controversial book ‘À Rebours’; a novel that inspired many thinkers and artists, including the surrealists. À Rebours’ provoked their inner yearnings to produce works of a licentious manner.
However, rather than concluding that Brassington’s ‘À Rebours’ means ‘unnatural,’ (as intended by Huysmans) it’s possible to resolve that a few words can be added after the title: ‘against nature’ yet coherently human. This allows for the BFG’s way in which Brassington can blow familiar ideas into our minds. Rather than presenting never seen before images, Brassington gently reminds us that our dreams are grown from the imaginings of our own conscience.
The subject matter in Brassington’s photographs are commodities that the viewers of ACCA would recognize: a coat hanger, a doll or a curtain. Yet these mindless things are reborn by Brassington’s camera and fetishized through a repetitious distortion of their legitimacy. The most dominant technique in which she does so in ‘À Rebours’ is the way she focuses a particular concept through colour. In this way, Brassington seems to mirror the practice exemplified by the Baroque master Caravaggio: chiaroscuro.
Yet not all photographs are coloured, nor are the coloured photographs placed side by side. Similar palettes of colour provide a fluid path for the viewer to wander through the three chambers of the exhibition space. Having said this, the colour palette is limited to selected areas of either pink, blue or a hue of green.
All chambers of photographs are fitted down the middle with a hospital blue wall. This colour is spotted throughout the rest of the exhibition, appearing first on a doll’s headless dress and showing up in the weave of photographed curtains or other fabrics. The blue is found in situations that could be recognized as a portrait of innocence, though there is something distinctly impossible about the content. The brain cannot rationally accept such a situation, though somehow it feels real. Radar, 2009 presents a cropped image of a doll’s body that seemingly has two feet planted on the ground. At the same time, a light globe dangles from a visible roof in replace of the doll’s head. The perspective of the roof combined with that of the grounded doll’s body is of the Cubist discipline, yet the lucid subject matter begs a surrealist affinity.
Rather than adhering to the apposition of innocence with the impossible in her blue works, it can be firmly understood that any time Brassington has used a musky pink she has paired innocence with sexuality. Brassington’s ‘Gentle’ series from 2001 epitomizes this concept. Floating and elongated tongues lick the center of their frames; female genitalia covered by pink underwear or pink silk fill up entire compositions; soft pink bubbles gently rest upon porcelain skin. It should be noted though, that all photographs with a pink dusting are of female subjects and they are all young women. This section of the dream world ‘À Rebours’ offers a commentary on the way the viewer dreams of women. Each photograph is relatable and forces the viewer into a voyeuristic position.
‘Untitled h’ from Brassington’s series ‘Cambridge Road’ 2007 holds within its frames a realm of conflictions: horror vs. fantasy, ugly vs. beauty, innocence vs. sexuality. A sickly green hue fills the photograph like gas. A green carpet fills the negative space between an empty wooden bed and a suggestion of a table. However, this seemingly negative space is the crux of the photograph. It throws the eye into a vicious cycle that draws it into a darkened space under the looming bed and quickly back out again due to the soft patch of sunlight resting on its surface. This cycle is similar to that of recurring dreams: sometimes it’s the same dream all over again, and sometimes the cycle is slightly altered, causing the viewer to notice the shadowed table before looping back to the green carpet. This constant motion suggested by an almost empty photograph is the epitome of Brassington’s ability to draw the viewer in and then send them shuddering on their way.
Whether or not Roald Dahl’s tangible dreams are strictly G rated, Brassington has found a way to capture them with her butterfly net camera. In doing so, Brassington has captured the methodology of dreaming and presented tangible dreams.
By Grace Slonim
Grace Slonim is an Australian born artist, who has exhibited in Italy and Melbourne, Australia. Grace specializes in photography and the moving image, as well as painting and undertaking installation based pieces. Grace has a particular interest in and motivation towards making art available and understandable to the general public.