A retrospective of work by Australian photographer Pat Brassington at Te Tuhi reveals a strange David Lynch-fan world. Ashley Crawford reports

Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Pakuranga is hosting A Rebours, a retrospective show by acclaimed Australian surrealist photographer Pat Brassington. The touring exhibition, from the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, and the first extensive gathering of Brassington's 30 years of practice, explores her aesthetic, inspired obliquely by literature and cinema.

In our jaded times, "surreal" has become over-used. Everything is "surreal", from over-lit bureaucratic offices to planes thundering into tall towers. But real surrealism comes from the mind, circa art and writing and performance.

The word surrealist, coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1903, was seized upon by Andre Breton who, during World War I, had trained in medicine and psychiatry. He served in a neurological hospital where he made use of Freud's psychoanalytic methods with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic shock syndrome. The aesthetic concept of surrealism flourished in those shadowy post-war years, rapidly becoming a full-flown cultural phenomenon.

How much of this can be attributed to Freud as opposed to Apollinaire or Breton (or Dali, et al) is arguable, but it is impossible to deny that some of the strange realms of the unconscious Freud delved into arise in the odd tableaux of Brassington's underworld.


In one series an albino rabbit emerges from heaped cloth; a teddy bear-faced alien hovers over a rural field; nubbed, deformed fingers clutch a heart-shaped braid; a doll-headed dervish gazes benignly into the distance; an eldritch witch gazes towards ancient gods; a child vomits ectoplasmic sperm.

She has created an entire world and peopled it with creatures from her own id, strange, deformed and beautiful.

In the "real" world, Hobart-based Brassington has had a good year. She has just won the prestigious $25,000 Bowness Photography Prize for Shadow Boxer, taken from the Quill series, depicting two cactus-textured alien figures in some form of amorous embrace against a stygian background. She was the subject of a critically acclaimed retrospective at the Australian Centre for Photography - the same exhibition that is at Te Tuhi - and held a number of solo exhibitions around Australia, including her latest series, In Search of the Marvellous, at Contemporary Art Spaces Tasmania.

Brassington says that with Quill she had in mind "creating a series of tough and uncompromising images that could still be considered beautiful. I aim to pitch my images just off the verge of normality, into those dense patches where the commonplace goes awry.

"The process can be a difficult journey or certainly a contorted one. The primary source material suggests possible directions and bits and pieces are added, sometimes only to be discarded. I will repeat this trial and error approach until I get as close as I can to what I have pictured in my mind's eye."

Unsurprisingly, Brassington admits to a bizarre array of influences behind Shadow Boxer, ranging from Magritte's surrealist masterpiece The Lovers to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and David Lynch's Eraserhead.

But if there are influences within her vision they are largely unconscious. Of Magritte's The Lovers she notes that "attending to the vast body of visual art some figurations seep into the subconscious". But she also raises the image of a still from Magritte's 1960 short film, Le Loup Rouge (The Red Wolf).

If there is an aesthetic genealogy at play, it would have to be Lynch's monochromatic masterpiece Eraserhead. "I am a David Lynch fan and not likely to forget my first viewing of this film," Brassington says. "I remember being ambushed by repulsion and endless fascination. In Search of the Marvellous is a chase after a little of the Lynch quality, I think."


Like Eraserhead, Brassington's works have often been read as carrying a theme of alienation.

"When working on a series, themes and directions emerge, some are even unexpected," she says.

"Working on a group of work is a journey that takes various twists and turns. I don't proceed with a tight rein. I let the images I'm working on talk with me. Of course there is something of myself in the result, just as the viewer brings something of themselves to their experience of the work. But I don't think I look around with downcast eyes."

Having said that, Brassington has never turned away from the bleak. Her 2010 series A Perfect Day openly took as its inspiration Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic masterpiece The Road - one of the few times she has admitted to a literal source of inspiration.

Brassington is a true surrealist in terms of the earliest definitions of the term, a no-nonsense individual who allows her visions to come to light without hesitation. Like Breton, there's a hint of Freud throughout.

"Years ago I read Freud's Totem and Taboo. If I think about it, it must have been a catalyst for me in some ways.

"It was Freud's musings on 'the unconscious' and the 'return of the repressed' that fuelled my desire to probe into some aspects of surrealist practice. The fascination is still with me.

"It's not that I want to travel down the same road but it is a lantern in the window."

This feature was first published in the Australian Art Collector magazine, issue 35.

What: Pat Brassington, A Rebours

Where and when: Te Tuhi, 13 Reeves Rd, Pakuranga, to February 9