A huge amount of what we do as artists is think. Our biggest obstacles to this are ourselves. To create confidence in our own ideas can lead to an overwhelming sense of pressure—to be creative, to keep improving, to dig deeper. Even with success, there’s even more pressure to create something better than the last. I remember after my series Majority Rule in 2014, I thought ‘how can I top that’? I also took a two year break after I made Invasion in 2017, not because I wanted to, but because it was such a big and involved production, I thought that the only way forward was an even bigger production. But I didn’t want to do that—I needed time to collect my thoughts. It was then I truly realised that for me being an artist is not about the production of the work at all. It is all about the idea.
So this is how I spend most of my time—contemplating ideas and figuring out what I think is worthy to put into production. The production is just a matter of having a good plan of attack and knowing how to adjust along the way. Easy! My Action is about the time I spend thinking and working through ideas to get the perfect image. I’m going to give you an insight into the steps of my process by revisiting works I have made over the last decade.
Michael Cook is an Australian art photographer who was born in 1968. He worked commercially in Australia and overseas for twenty-five years before he began to make art photography in 2009, driven by an increasingly urgent desire to explore issues of identity. He is of mixed ancestry – some of which is Indigenous – and works from an Australian base.
Images are unusual in their construction, created in a manner more akin to painting than the traditional photographic studio or documentary model. He begins with an idea, using photographic layering to build the image to provide aesthetic depth and each series explores an enigmatic narrative. His images unite the historical with the imaginary, the political with the personal.
Recent major exhibitions include at the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, the Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve, Switzerland; National Gallery of Singapore; AAMU Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, The Netherlands; the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. Exhibitions have included Personal Structures – Crossing Borders at Palazzo Mora during the 56th Venice Biennale; Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilization at The British Museum, London and Mapping Australia: Country to Cartography at Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Netherlands. In 2020 Cook was selected for the Emerging Photographer sector, Paris Photo New York, New York (online). His first major survey exhibition titled Michael Cook: Undiscovered was launched with a hardcover monograph at the new University of the Sunshine Coast University, Queensland (2020).
Cook’s photographs are represented is in all major Australian collections and in significant international collections including the British Museum, London, The Museum of World Cultures, Netherlands, Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Utrecht, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, USA. Cook is represented by Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane and This is no Fantasy, Melbourne
Through My Eyes Bob Hawke, 2010
If our colonial governments and Prime Ministers embraced Aboriginal Australian perspectives, what would the past, present and future of this country look like?
Each step she takes equals one day in her life. The empty pram holds the memory of her adopted child. Never knowing what happened but always wondering what could have been, she walks towards the pram never getting any closer.
Identity Andu—Son, 2015
Andu means son in Bidjara — the language of the Country that I am biologically connected to through my father, though I have never been there. I was adopted and grew up knowing I was indigenous, but I never felt blak or white. I just felt like me. This is a self-portrait. I have overlaid a picture I found on the internet of a family member from my father’s side, family I have never met - maybe it’s my way of connecting?
Slavery can be blatant — people bought and sold like objects. But it can also be less conspicuous like the indentured labour that Aboriginal and South Sea Islanders people suffered in this country. Money, status, power and pet dogs in diamond collars treated far better than their masters ‘objects’.
Majority Rule Court, 2014
There is power in numbers, or so the saying goes. Colonisation stole power and opportunity from Aboriginal people and I wanted to give it back. In these images Aboriginal people are not just equal they are the Majority again.
Invasion Telephone, 2017
I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) as a child. It scared the hell out of me. I often wonder what it must have been like for Indigenous Australians to see white people arriving on our shores 250 years ago. It is hard to imagine, but I wanted to bring that same sense of terror that I had felt as a child to this series only in reverse. This time Aboriginal Aliens, Giant Birds and Giant Lizards invade the streets of the mother country.
Livin’ the Dream Welcome home, 2020
In observation of Aboriginal people Captain James Cook wrote that they appeared to be ‘far happier than we Europeans’. It is a phrase I think about a lot. Maybe it is a product of getting older but recently I’ve found myself questioning what makes me feel fulfilled. Are my dreams really my dreams, or are they a product of conditioning? And how much are these so-called dreams controlling my life?
Natures mortes Blackbird, Flora, Aliment, 2021
Colonisation and the industry and practices that have come with it have brought so much damage to Aboriginal people, our culture and the natural environment of this continent. In these images life stands still.