Invasion is Michael Cook’s most ambitious photographic series to date. It required a cast of 50, technical crew of 20, five days in the studio and eight months in production to create his technically complex narrative about an alien incursion into the heart of London. Louise Martin-Chew talked to Cook about his need to extend himself, to ask questions, and show people the many colours between black and white.
Louise Martin-Chew: Invasion is a combination of a ‘boy’s own’ adventure and a horror movie. What are its aesthetic influences?
Michael Cook: It started with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds. Initially I planned to include birds in every single shot, but it changed direction into more of a B-grade movie aesthetic. It has an unrealistic look about it, almost comedic. The movies in the 1960s have clunky props and heightened drama which was taken seriously then, but now technology is so much better and more convincing. These B-grade movies are tacky to our contemporary eye, they used plastic dinosaurs, fake lizards, etc. However, I wanted my animals to look Australian, so I shot them at the zoo. They are real goannas, kangaroos, birds, etc.
LMC: Your photos capture the apocalyptic mood of now and use cinematic tropes from 1960s movies. What are you trying to say?
MC: The 1960s was a period with a lot of political and other change. I was born in 1968. I love the style and fashion and vintage look from that era but I had a lot of questions as a little kid. My work asks questions. I want to show people that there are colours between black and white. A lot of people don’t really understand the position of Indigenous people, even today.
I thought about Indigenous people and what they endured 250 years ago. They had been living on the land for thousands of years. Then, ships pull up. It was the first time they had seen white skin, muskets and the kind of violence that saw people die beside them. The clothing, music, everything that came off those ships would have been completely shocking. In today’s society we have so much stimulation. I thought about what would freak us out to a similar level and that could be UFOs and an attack in our cities. I wanted to create empathy around what Aboriginal people experienced.
LMC: This series takes violence, aliens, and Australian animals into the heart of London, and attacks its iconic buildings. As an Indigenous man, are you taking ownership of the ‘mother’ country by force?
MC: I used London because our whole history in this country, the last 250 years, is largely based on what the English brought with them during the colonisation and settlement period. It had a pretty heavy impact on Indigenous people, and happened in so many other countries.
LMC: Invasion (Laser Girls), 2017, depicts lasers firing from the invader’s breasts. Physically used for nurture, breasts have softness, they can be sexual, yet here they are a source of violence. What are you suggesting?
MC: Laser Girls come directly from the 1960s B-grade films. In that period there were strong women’s movements. I like that image in this context because it portrays a strong female figure who knows what she wants.
There is also a point to be made about nudity. People may be offended by it now, but 250 years ago, before religion and the colonisers came to Australia, no-one had a problem with it. Women didn’t wear tops unless they were cold! In contrast, breasts are sexually loaded these days.
LMC: For this series you had a cast of 50 and spent eight months in production. Why take on such a large project with this level of technical difficulty?
MC: I am always pushing the boundaries. I didn’t know if it was possible to achieve something like this. I had a production manager available to me, and so I took on the challenge. The budget got completely out of hand, but once we started we had to keep going.
No-one has a reason to make work like this: art photographers may not have the technical background to take it on, and commercial photographers don’t have a reason to pursue it. I am in a unique position because I focus on identity in my work, and history that a lot of people are interested in, and I have the technical background.
LMC: Your segue into art from a previous career as a commercial photographer in 2010 brought you rapid success. What led you to cross over?
MC: I was always pushing the boundaries to get to a level that I felt, within myself, was successful. I was being offered overseas weddings for international celebrities, but working at that level meant losing control of the quality. So I quit.
My partner had seen me working on a series about those questions that had been in the back of my mind as a kid. I started putting the elements together and knocked on gallery doors. Andrew Baker took me on and within a week sold the complete set of that first series (Through My Eyes, 2010) to the National Gallery of Australia. In 2010 I also made Undiscovered and Broken Dreams. The NGA bought my first three series.
LMC: How do international audiences respond to your work?
MC: The turning point was Mother, 2016, which was shown at Art Basel Hong Kong in that year. The audience started asking me questions, not to do with Australia and Aboriginal culture, but telling me their disconnection stories about having to leave families at an early age and adoption issues. Mother was inspired by the Stolen Generations in Australia, and then it was read internationally in terms of disconnection and adoption.
I realised I could keep the Indigenous storyline and make it appealing from a different point of view, make connections to other cultures and perspectives. If you keep your own story but do it really well with a strong aesthetic, people will understand it.