Ray Cook


My name is Ray Cook, I live and work in Brisbane, Australia. I teach art at a local university. I’d never planned on becoming an artist. As a young man I wanted to be a chef but we all live life at the whim of chance so I ended up making photographs.

Though I'd not been formally trained, I started taking pictures in the late 80s as a sort of parlour game I played with my friends when we were drinking.

When HIV began to affect my personal circle of friends I made pictures to process the experience of dread we felt.

This became more urgent as some of our number got sick and even more so, for me, when I received my own positive diagnosis in 1989. Since then I've tried to use images to talk about the shifting realities of queer life beyond the expected rhetoric of the press and populist activism.I’ve tried to use pictures to ‘work it out myself’ as best I can. Making photographs lets me still a feeling, a sensation, to pin it out on a table for a while so I can see it more clearly, dissect it, poke it with a stick.

For the sake of ease, I call the early pictures from the late 80s and early 90s, Bad Luck, When My Ship Comes in I’ll be Waiting at the Airport. They were all about shock and fear and anger and grief and guilt and shame. The next pictures from the mid 90s till about 2000 I call the History of Love, it was about queer transgression and flamboyance, I borrowed from ancient history for allegorical settings. Then about the turn of the century I started to have faith that I would be a long term survivor, the new drugs were working, I was healthy and there had been fewer funerals to attend. Still I’d resolved myself to an early demise and it was disorienting re engaging with a future I thought a virus had confiscated.I’d made major life decisions on the belief that I’d die early, I had no job or savings, all I’d ever really done was art. So I made some work called At first I was Afraid I was Petrified, mostly in 2002, was about using pictures to think about our new future.

While I had been too busy dealing with drugs and side effects and all that late 90s HIV stuff, gay men had become incredibly popular on television. It seemed they were in every sitcom and lifestyle show. I should have been happy but it was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the gays on TV were familiar but also strange. Like the gays I knew but much richer—all their sharp corners filed off—sanitised, domesticated. I figured the media didn’t approve of poor or sick or promiscuous or gender transgressive queers yet, only the rich ones who helped them sell things. So I made Not with a Bang but a Whimper.

Later I began to worry about my generation’s obsolescence, I became very interested in gay lives from before my time. I wondered what legitimacy would do the gay culture I’d grown up in. If sexual preference became incidental to a person’s identity, which popular activism seemed to want, those of us for whom sexual preference is central to our identities would be profoundly alienated. I like being gay, I like that it’s different, I don’t want to be the same as straight people. I began to make a series called Oblivion.

Disclosure had been a major component of my work since the 80s, I had loudly declared my sexual orientation back when it was illegal in the state I lived and I did the same when I contracted HIV, I thought it was the right thing to do. Now I found myself unwilling to share too much with anyone—straight or gay. I needed to find ways to talk to the like-minded but not to everyone else—I wanted to be secretive. I made a series called Money Up Front and No Kissing in 2009.