Man made

Victoria Kyriakopoulos

March 9, 2007

Artist Brendan Lee rebuilt a Holden Commodore and visited country pubs for his latest work exploring Australian manhood.

There can't be too many artists who quote Chopper Read and spend their art money on cars and beer. But tapping into Australian popular culture and identity is an obsession for video artist and photographer Brendan Lee.

For his latest work, Lee rebuilt a VK Commodore from parts he bought on eBay, meticulously assembling the body in his tiny studio, two steep flights above a King Street takeaway shop. The installation, Proving Ground, will be featured at the emerging artists showcase NEW07 at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.

A commentary on 1980s cultural history, Proving Ground shows the Commodore bursting from a mountain of car tyres, meant to conjure up Pentridge prison. A 25-minute video is part of the installation. Lee describes the pub scene in the video as a "Wake in Fright meets Chopper showdown of booze and blokes".

The acquaintances he inveigled into appearing in the film had to look as though they had been drinking at a pub for hours, so Lee ran a tab on the bar. "It was that 42.1-degree day," he recalls. "When I shot them they were really pissed."

Of the Commodore, he says: "I chose this model because it's the last of the Australian muscle cars. It's the last Australian car with any iconic identity. It's a real trophy car."

Lee, who grew up in Footscray(sic), relishes immersing himself in the underbelly of Australian culture to explore film and literature. To research Proving Ground he went on a quest to learn about Australian car culture and the pub as a shrine to Australian machismo. The 32-year-old visited rough country pubs all the way to Dimboola in the Wimmera, absorbed car lingo and legend, and explored the old Ford versus Holden debate. There was even a surreal encounter with drag-racing petrol heads when he was trying to film a cavalcade of Commodores for the installation.

Car culture has long been an influence on Lee. "When we were growing up it was all about 'Is your dad a Ford man or a Holden man?' and fights would break out in the school yard."

And Lee has long been fascinated by film characters, film folklore, and the desolate locations used for Australian movies such as Mad Max. "My parents and grandma used to take me to places where Mad Max was made when I was a kid." For past works, Lee has filmed fans who regularly return to Mad Max locations such as the spot on Ripley Road near Little River where Max was run over.

That spot is the only new patch of road in the area. "They have to keep redoing it because people wear it out doing burn-outs and donuts," says Lee. "People take on the drive and enthusiasm of the film and that's what interests me."

Next year, Lee will make a feature-length film for video about the ganglands of Melton. But he says: "I'm not a film-maker. My interpretation of the film is the art."

NEWO7, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 111 Sturt Street, Southbank, March 17 to May 20