Essay by Michael Desmond

Each sigh is the stillness of the shriek: The sensuous art of Judith Wright

Judith Wright’s work has the power to surprise and, perhaps, perplex viewers. Wright is known for her severe, near minimalist works. She is also known as a video artist. Wright joins cool pure abstract statement in an unlikely combination with the noisiest figurative medium, television. It should not work, but, through a calculated legerdemain, it does. But it is not exclusively through contrast that Wright achieves her effect, but something more subtle: a twist here, a tweak there, to pull each distinct element into precarious balance and counterbalance. With a ‘contrapposto’ of media, scale, and surfaces, Wright creates some of Australia’s most original and compelling works.

Before she linked video and drawing, Wright made large scale works on paper that scrutinised the texture of memory, their flat planes of scarred surfaces encrusted with the patina of time. These works fitted easily with Australian art in the early eighties, when a number of artists confronted the excesses of then-fashionable neoexpressionist painting with works that were clearly abstract yet also undeniably figurative. Fellow Brisbane artist, Andrew Arnoutopoulis, whose paintings are often thought to have the appearance of rusted steel panels, shares an affinity with Wright’s concern with surface. Wright, in her early works, favoured large-scale images layered with encaustic paint on unstretched paper pinned directly to the wall. While a minority of these were all over compositions, most showed a single, centrally placed, biomorphic form described in dark earth tones. The suite of drawings, Palm of the hand 1991, announces the typical repertoire of head and torso shapes described schematically through line or inferred through shape. Her images, despite the concrete descriptors, are suggestive and equivocal, accepting figurative or abstract readings equally.

Excluding video, Wright works exclusively on paper. Canvas, she says, is domineering, the mechanical tooth of the textile too strong for the luminous stained veils of pigment and wax that she applies to the surface. She prefers to exploit the properties of paper and has developed a virtuoso handling – staining, waxing, tearing, and layering – that generates organic, skin-like surfaces: wrinkled, crinkled, worn and torn, warm, flayed, saggy, tight. Each work is a display of won effects.

In these early works Wright established the acetic presence characteristic of her oeuvre. Her disciplined regime pares back colour and simplifies composition to iconic shapes that emphasise figure and ground or contrasts of light and dark, texture, an awareness of edges, and the play of scale. For all the severe geometry, it would be a mistake to believe that her work is driven by the tenets of formalism. Indeed, given her use of materials, method and approach to subject, the opposite must be true: Wright makes a fetish of painterly materials she employs, relishing the glaucous skin of encaustic, engineered by mixing bees wax with earth pigments and so impregnating and staining the paper support as much as painting it. Her method explores the illusion of depth that only a subtle surface can convey. She works on paper because the application of a medium immediately alters the surface properties, ‘so you loose control, allow distortion of the paper to happen, then try to control, by allowing and anticipating accident.’ While many of the conventional devices of Wright’s painting are reduced to minimalist levels, it would be a mistake to consider her art as a monument to cool rationalism or stoicism: she aims to provoke emotional sensation. This derives from the many references in her work to the body, and equally from the ‘human’ scale of each painting and its physical presence as an object. This presence is emphasised by the ragged, uneven edges and impacted and crinkled surface. Thus Wright engineers a relationship with the viewer’s body.

Wright’s imagery is personal rather than cultural. She employs a few selected symbols which are used and reused. Closed and open forms reference landscape as well as female and male identities. Hands, feet, shoes torsos and heads – the body is perennially cited. Over her career an iconographic evolution has taken place, granting these body signs greater realism in the videos and abstracting them in the paintings. This reference is unavoidable, says Wright, ‘our body is the vehicle with which we travel through life.’ The power of Wright’s work derives from the psychologically charged projections of inner self.

It is hardly surprising then to learn that Wright worked as a dancer with the Australian Ballet for a number of years before turning to fine art. She brought to her art a performer’s sensitivity to the body, an appreciation of the spaces that frame it and a distinctive sense of theatre. Wright’s acknowledgement of the relation ship felt between art and viewer is particularly evident in her 1993 installation Silence echoes in the hollow of the hand 1992 at Galerie Lunami, in Tokyo. Wright places an oversized book and an inverted French horn on the floor in front of a dark painting showing what could be read as two confronting heads, a conversation reiterated in the dialogue between the three components of the installation. Book and horn appear as actors before a backdrop, although the performance begins only when the viewer turns a page to open another scene in an unfolding drama. Nor is the performance exclusively visual: the reader is conscious of the smell of the bees-waxed paper, sound accompanies the turning of each page, fingers sense the weight and texture of each sheet, and the action of turning produces a tactile breath of air as the page swings past the face and drops into place. The images in the book echo the hierarchical heads of earlier work, now with the notion of an album of memories, with friends, places and times recalled. In this work, significantly, the artist exerts control over the viewing sequence.
A painting, drawing or sculpture captures a single moment in time, with the capacity to trigger outside associations. Many artists have attempted to create works beyond the ‘frozen moment’ of art. Wright’s strategy is to emphasise the formal composition and reduce detail to imbue each work with a ‘timeless’ quality. In that sense the works appear at first to accord with the Greek sculptor Myron’s predilection for a pose that summed up the larger action. An example closer to Wright’s theatre background might be the heightened inaction of actors in a Japanese Noh play who hold their pose for the few seconds it takes the audience to register that this is a significant moment. In fact Wright does not believe that a single work can hold the moment and do justice to an idea. There is no ‘hero’ image, instead a work is made of many in sequence. ‘I couldn’t do what I want in one image’ says Wright. Not that each image is a sketch, a pensée, but rather the artist envisages her work filmicly, as a temporal sequence. Her works have always been produced in series and read as a series.

Wright’s bookworks clearly articulate a narrative, but the works on the wall are also intended as unfolding sequence. Body trace 1995 provides ready insight into this, with its earthy, rounded forms making a rhythmic progression across multiple sheets of paper. While in Calcutta during a residency in 1995, Wright became fascinated with the variety of painted facial decoration worn by local women. These ‘traces’ and the associations of art and artifice, beauty and time formed the basis for a body of work. This suite evokes a strobe-lit dance caught in the frames of an animated film. Sweeping curves and rhyming organic shapes in tan and ochre undulate from one sheet to the next, creating a syncopated pattern of movement across the series of panels. While no one image depicts the body, all suggestively carry the imprint of breasts, buttocks, calves, thighs and belly: body traces as vivid as motion snap-frozen into silver gelatine by Eadweard Muybridge. Together, the images of Body trace describe (a choreographed movement but above all the passage of time.

One of the pages in the book, Silence echoes in the hollow of the hand 1992, is inscribed ‘the patience of shadows’. The phrase speaks eloquently of Wright’s attitude to time, her premise being that there is no penultimate work: each is part of a larger enterprise and the works, while independent of each other, have a collective quality. Each work informs the next. The pigments inevitably extend to the edges of the support, as if able to continue outside the image. The viewer is encouraged to understand the relationships between works as describing a continuity. The pages, either in a book or pinned to the wall suggest each sheet as ephemeral and not the grand statement. Wright’s forms are neither elaborate nor overly ornate. She uses the strength and simplicity of archetypes – arcs, lines, curves and organic shapes – as a means of triggering associations in the viewer. The French horn although silent now, conjures up music past. Wright attempts to convey an awareness of time by evoking mood as disturbingly patient and sharp as the black shadows in Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings. Her installations particularly mine this mood of displaced time. Image of absence 1995, consisting of an artist’s book surrounded on three sides by racks of shoe lasts, is a notable example. The population of lasts, different sizes for different feet, works as a roll call of missing individuals. The carved, wooden feet will never move – it is the cruel fate of art to parody life – but just as the mute horn evokes sound, so the immobility of the lasts calls up the clacking steps of moving people. Sober and sombre, the preternatural stillness of this mortuary installation paradoxically declares tempus fugit – time flies. The sad beauty of reflection in this work is tempered by personal experience: the shoe lasts are, in fact, survivors from the artist’s ex-husband’s shoe factory testify to another life and absent others. It is also tempting to see the shoe lasts as reminders of her former career with the Australian Ballet, as images of regimentation, rhythm and the dancer’s private pain. Wright’s iconography includes images of heads and torsos, references to shoes and feet, eloquent hand gestures, dance and the physical presence of the body, suggesting a grander project of an autobiography through art. While this must apply to all artists to a certain extent, as personal impressions are always the foundation for an authentic art, Wright steers clear of diaristic intimacy and mawkish realism.

To create and hold a moment of reverie, a time outside of time, measured by ‘the patience of shadows’, is equally the enterprise in Second stage, also 1995. In this work two old-fashioned shop mannequins stand to attention inside a spot lit circle of coloured light. While ostensibly devoid of personality – one is simply a torso on a stand and the other a headless body – an intense relationship is inferred from the differences in size and build, and from the confrontational and dramatic placement. A video sequence of a head, wrapped or bandaged, is shown in concert with this tableau. The play of stilled life and moving pictures heightens the viewer’s awareness of a subjective time played out against the meter of real time, the present/past of filmic time, and the ineluctable decay of objects. Memory and materials mesh and elide in the installation.

Since 1995, Wright has developed a powerful corpus of video-based work. She always uses this temporal medium along side her paintings, books and found objects to extend the range and meanings of her work. Central to its reading is the way Wright consciously shapes the viewer’s experience of time. ‘My primary interest in time’, says Wright, ‘is in the cessation of it – the arresting of it or at the very least the slowing down of it.’ Wright acknowledges it is impossible to still time, but employs a number of stratagems to put the brakes on the rapid viewing and quick understanding of her works. Blind of sight I 2000-02 combines a number of large painted sheets of paper pinned to the wall with a grainy, almost monotone, video of a hand dabbing at a face. The paintings are profoundly abstract, consisting of broad curved areas of warm earths, scumbled pale and muffled creams. The forms in the paintings respect the volumes in the video. There is a resonance between the mediums, but it leads to alternate readings. It is difficult to identify the video image at first, such is the effect of the close up and the texture, but it becomes clear that it shows the application of makeup or beauty crème to a woman’s face. From the ‘painted lady’ the parallel between beauty and art is drawn, with the subversive notion of artifice as a foundation. Blind of sight II 2000-2002 is a similar work, with the relationship made here between paintings and a video of a suckling baby. Again the paintings use broad organic shapes, with the muted earth colours veiled in soft chalky layers to a near white on white surface. There is some notion here of a milky zone of maternal bliss, of starched baptismal gowns and of new life; just as there was its opposite in the hint of the whitened sepulchre in Blind of sight I. Both series convey compelling images of physical and spiritual regeneration.

Logically, the greatest risk to these cool, sensual, paintings is the contrast with the ‘hot’ mechanical video images. To ensure equal weight in the partnership of painting and video in her work, Wright scales down or distances the video screen, slows the screen images to a dream-like slow motion, emphasises grain and texture and chooses near monochrome or crepuscular lighting. Her subject, be it the bustling marketplace, bird-filled air, landscapes, sleepers or lips, eyes and hands, provokes consciousness of the world encountered through the senses, rather than the intellect. The videos provide atmosphere rather than narrative, a mood of sensual awareness that accords with the experience of the paintings. The video images are generalised rather than specific, equivocal rather than heroic. The artist describes them as ‘not dictatorial’, but like a ‘sideways glance’, an equivalent of the way we unconsciously absorb information of time, place and space to provide the background in interpreting personal histories.

Wright’s motifs derive from images generated in her videos. She does not make drawings as such but ‘takes notes’ from the screen as her video plays. These graphic comments are formalized into the ideographic compositions of her paintings. While this process abstracts incident to archetype, Wright’s final composition also accommodates a succession of readings. The relationship between painting and video is complex and ambiguous: in some ways a hyperaesthetic pairing of aleatory moment and acetic recording, yet clearly a form of symbiosis between two art forms rather than the more traditional vampiric association between reality and its wraith-like double. The differences highlight the intervention and interpretation of the artist, throwing into relief the perceptible decisions made in creating each work. Dabs, wipes, traces and pentimenti evidence Wright’s tremulous struggle to draw out and crystallise an emotional perception.

The notion of pulling order from chaos is heroic, but it is the heroism of the everyday. Wright’s work offers no epiphany, rather a gradual revelation and completion. Perversely, her use of austere, near-minimal, forms in the paintings should be grasped as rapidly as a diagram but instead creates a gestalt that is absorbed progressively. The perceived lack of incident across the picture plane or in the video prompts greater scrutiny and a measured scan of the surface. This search for ‘enlightenment’ creates a heightened awareness of nuance and can induce a mood of gentle lyricism and poetic contemplation. T. S. Elliot identifies the importance of such lacunae in time when he states that ‘history is a pattern of timeless moments’.

Wright’s palette has changed from the dark earth tones of early works to the pallid chalky pastels and white on white of contemporary paintings. White is conventionally understood to signify purity, illumination and a spirituality beyond the quotidian world. There is nothing of the searing whites of Howard Taylor in Wright’s works, though both artists aim for sublimity. Taylor is, in the end, more austere than Wright, more dependent on formalist principles and, in striving for a sublimity that is awe, vastness and power, perhaps more ‘dictatorial’. Wright’s large white works are not minimal in the conventional sense, but always anchored to time and the body, inevitably as crinkled as an Eva Hesse sculpture or weather-beaten as lead sheet in a work by Anselm Kiefer. Wright calls on the modernist abstract formulas but works around high modernism’s serious purpose favouring the sensual over the intellectual to avoid being didactic or rhetorical. Learn about life, says her work, not with the eyes but sensually, through the skin. Trace 1998, in which a video is projected onto milk in a metal pail illustrates this. The image shows a woman’s head repeatedly plunging into the milk. The white liquid conjures up a number of powerful emotional responses with its associations of nurture, cleansing and beauty. Cleopatra’s bath in asses milk is evoked with a frightening, obsessive edge that is, nonetheless, strangely beautiful.

Wright creates an equivocal yet luminous poetry, in which solitude, eroticism and sadness are consoled by haunting white noise of the French horn. Hers is a world in which the senses grope and reach out beyond the blindness of sight to search for essential truths. She offers a troubled and contradictory illumination of self, constructed with memories that flutter and slide as surely as the afterimages that follow a flashbulb. Wright’s sublime is transcendence and bliss, in which ‘each sigh is the stillness of the shriek’.

Michael Desmond

Judith Wright – Each sigh is the stillness of the shriek, first published in Art & Australia, Autumn Vol.40 No 3, 2003


Continue reading ...

Essay by Ruth McDougall

Tactile Spaces

When we first spoke, Judith Wright and I, it was to discover a shared love of space and its potential eloquence. For both, the movement of one’s body through space and across space is a language or way of understanding. Perceived by most as silent and mute, the body holds coiled within its movements a range of memories; pain, desire, fear, boredom, fascination. To those who have been encultured within the West’s philosophical and religious doctrines, the potential of the body to be overwhelmed by these emotive memories is often frightening. The body is perfidious; it leads one astray with its base instincts and diversions. One cannot trust ones body, one must silence and tame it. But, as psychoanalysis has gone to great pains to elucidate the body’s memory cannot be mastered by the intellect. Something flows over, cannot be repressed.

Physical memories of the maternal, of being small and vulnerable are often things we experience when we are ill, scared and alone. There is a sense of moving inwards, of losing focus and objectivity. In an attempt to curb this we often seek the horizon of the outside world, but its enormity and busyness only reinforces the sense that we are outside, boundaryless and lost. Small bodily processes and sensations grow louder and draw our attention. These processes are real, present, defining.

Why is it precisely the middle space, the link between feeling boundaryless and focussed, between an expanse and the detail that is missing as we move through the space of Wrights Blind of Sight? The constant movement between abstraction and detail in Wright’s paintings and videos undermines the middle ground and the ability it provides the gaze and subsequently the intellect to master her subject. Wright’s space is a tactile space in which we discover, like a suckling child through the memory of our body’s sensations, only the edges of what is happening.

I start in a dimly lit gallery, in which 12 large square paintings hang, pinned like blankets to fall softly from the wall. The gallery is large and the paintings, all the same size and tones, appear like portions of a larger narrative or landscape which I only grasp in part and at what seems like an oblique distance. Because of the dimness of the light and the softness of the paintings forms I feel drawn to move closer until the individual paintings are much larger than me and there is no way of establishing edges without moving my head or body. I have the sense as I move from one painting to the next, forwards and back, that I am moving across an expanse and that when I reach the last painting that I will have no better sense of the start and finish of the work, its edges, than when I began. Indeed there is the sense that the paintings will continue like a path in the desert, the further I walk, the more that will open up in front of me.

“The matrix has no center, it constantly slides to the borderline, to the margins. Its gaze escapes the margins and returns to the margins. Through this process the limits, borderlines, and thresholds conceived are continually transgressed or dissolved, thus allowing the creation of new ones.”

The adjoining gallery is much darker than the first. Projected on the far wall is a large black and white image of a woman’s face appearing and disappearing beneath hands moving white facial cream in long sensuous strokes. The white cream is deliciously opaque and appears cool and wet like paint straight out of a tube. The woman’s face remains still and inert whilst the action of the hands are compelling and rhythmic. I stand entranced sensuously soothed with a growing feeling of horror and discomfort at the absolute stillness and vulnerability of the face. The use of black and white and cropping out of any detail frustrates my desire to place what is happening in front of me in any particular time and space. The image hangs at once persistent and fleeting.

“What finally frightens you and throws you into disorder is the knowledge that desire sometimes makes you a victim, you become flesh, without identity and without meaning”

To one side, near the door is a much smaller projection. Warm in tone and very soft in focus this projection feels more familiar and intimate in its scale and its presence. Soft washes of flesh tone merge into darker shadows, as gentle curves and forms appear only to blur before I can grasp the meaning of their shape. The more I concentrate the more the sense that I know this image slides away. Then almost with a shock the forms sharpen and my senses flood with the recognition of a baby pushing its head into flesh, mouth open searching for its mothers nipple. I am no longer standing looking but awash in my bodies memory.

“Concerning that stage of my childhood, scented, warm, and soft to the touch, I have only a spatial memory. Not time at all. Fragrance of honey, roundness of forms, silk and velvet under my fingers, on my cheeks. Mummy. Almost no sight – a shadow that darkens, soaks me up, or vanishes amid flashes”

It may seem incomprehensible, at first that the paintings in Blind of Sight are edits from a short video of a mother breast feeding her child or that a woman having a facial could have any connection with this most symbolic of acts. However what emerges the longer one is with the work is a realisation that Wright is not interested in representing breastfeeding per se; rather that this powerful event acts as a trigger for other layers of experience which have often been repressed visual representation. Indeed, the iconic image of a mother suckling her child is found at the very heart of Western representation as both a symbol of the ideal transcendence of the body and the repression of an archaic all encompassing pleasure (for both mother and child).

The function of the maternal, as symbolized in the figure of the Virgin Mary with child acts within the history of painting as a mark of the sacred and unnameable. But it does not succeed in doing this “without relying on the feminine representation of an immortal biology” . That is this representation gains its power through the memory of another unnameable experience – childhood before language in which there is no link between different sensual experiences and the maternal body is a source of pleasure, bounty, safety and trauma. That and the repression of the female body, it’s many sourced pleasure and way of knowing the world. In the image of the Holy Virgin and Child we are provided with a way of visually consuming and mastering what is otherwise unnameable and ungraspable.

What Wright seeks in her mobilisation of space, shifts between mediums and abstraction is to introduce a system of different viewing distances and conditions, which provide vastly different experiences. Here “especially haptic qualities are demanded of the viewer; not to follow optically the line of ideas and see only the representation proper, the surface, but to probe with eyes the pictorial texture and even to enter the texture and probe below the texture” . Such “touching” with the eye does not provide the grounded sense of having touched something with ones hands. Unable to project ourselves we feel disorientated and without a position in which to secure the act of looking. We are thrown back on our bodies – the vulnerable and unruly body resembling early childhood.

In Blind of Sight, the space of our bodies is a space of vulnerability and a certain degree of anxiety. There is however a rhythm to this work that reminds me of Oliver Sachs description of his experiences of a phantom limb, in which he moves from the feeling of being unable to connect to his leg, absolutely at the mercy of his body to discovering a rhythm within his body in which to move. Wright’s Blind of Sight provides a space in which, not able to trust our sight we are encouraged to stop and listen for the presence of a different mode or rhythm for being in the world.

“It seems that there has long been a connection in our culture, or a least in our psyches, between the loss of sight and the loss of self”…And yet it might be that the connection is in fact the other way round: that a dimming of sight, a changed condition of seeing, and therefore a change in our social relations, forces us not into a loss of self but into a confrontation with the self.”

Ruth McDougall

Tactile Spaces, first published in exhibition catalogue Blind of Sight, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2002.

Continue reading ...

Essay by Vivienne Webb

A sensual aesthetic: the art of Judith Wright

The substance of Judith Wright’s art practice is to be found not only within the individual elements that constitute her work, but between them. A distinctive aesthetic governs their creation and selection, their placement and presentation. Refined and spare yet rich with patina and history, the drawings, books, found objects and, more recently, films are arranged and presented in a carefully calibrated environment. However the visual experience is not an end in itself but rather contributes toward the creation of a felt aesthetic.

The body is central although always obliquely so. In many works the structural configuration of the installations involves the physical movement of the viewer between and among elements, within controlled lighting and atmosphere. This compositional device has been compared to a stage, calling on Wright’s previous career as a classical dancer. In this construction the viewer is placed in the position of the performer, yet the result is not outwardly performative. An atmosphere of stillness and quiet, darkness or obscurity -whether in filmed or drawn images – has the effect of turning the viewer’s focus inwards towards contemplation, interior sensation or the experience of memory.

Characteristic of Wright’s oeuvre, Journeying (2002) combines the diverse media of film and painting. The configuration of the installation proscribes the movement of the viewer into an enclosed space and back out: from the immersive sound and light experience of the video installation Inferno to the physicality and silence of the worked and painted surfaces of the Flight paintings. Contained within this division is the germ of other journeys that inform and weave through the work.

One source from which the work departs is the poetic narrative by Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy. Wright’s video traces Inferno, the first part of this allegorical voyage towards God which takes the poet through the great circles of Hell, physically located within the bowels of the earth, and back out into the light.

Awareness of the body in Wright’s work is not limited to the viewer’s movement. Throughout her work fragmentary images of human shape on film, and abstractions in drawings and books, serve to evoke sensation and touch. Substitutes for the body are common in installations in the form of bellows, shoe lasts, shop dummies and stools. Wright fills the filmic narrative of Inferno with inanimate figures drawn from diverse cultures. Introduced as characters during the initial prologue, their carved, impassive features are subsequently overlaid and interspersed with images of fire, water, snow, and earth, although few of air, which amplify rather than re-enact the narrative progression.

Just as the extremes of Inferno and Paradiso inform Dante’s narrative, so do the paintings of Flight present an alternative within Journeying. The abstracted forms allude to the angel wings in works by Renaissance painters Raphael and Fra Angelico. Facing the viewer on exiting the film, their layered and worked surfaces are evocative yet quiet and still. Journeying resonates between ascension and descent, yet within each there is interdependence. This movement is common to all journeys, not just physical but mental, emotional and spiritual.

Vivienne Webb

Continue reading ...

Essay by Daniel Mafe

The Night Stage of Memory, illumined

To read or describe Judith Wright’s work is to begin to read the silent secrets of its making. Wright’s work and practice are an ambitious and confronting mix of the concrete and the abstract. Her practice emerges from a working through of issues encountered in the everyday. These encounters are cast in the deep-set grooves of a highly differentiated and intelligent body-memory informed by Wright’s earlier career as a dancer. It is also a practice articulate about placement and attuned to context. Wright’s is not a practice that revels in the making hand. Increasingly it is a practice of the roaming eye. This eye is also a spectator and as such is ever aware, ever conscious of the role and the position its audience must play. This is why to talk meaningfully of the internal dynamics of her practice we must also describe in some detail the work’s external shape and reception.

Wright’s practice is one of installation and has over the years journeyed with sensitivity and intelligence across a large range of mediums. Drawing, painting, text, found objects, books, printmaking, video and video stills are all used and usually in combination. Her installations, which at times can appear deceptively matter of fact, read complexly as finely wrought visual assemblages or equations. This is a practice of precision. To install work is to make work. There has always been a strong awareness of the various component parts’ discrete and very concrete, individual shapes. Consequently each element becomes part of an orchestrated whole through careful consideration of its relation with and occupation of architectural space.

A number a years ago, the theatrical stage emerged as a powerful and important organising trope for the work. As a deep-seated memory, the forming-notion of the stage remade the exhibiting space from the inside out, shaping the space in its own image. It worked very subtly to reconfigure the viewer to the role of unconscious performer and thus to perform the viewer much as it performed the exhibition site. This positioned the viewer in a somewhat vulnerable place where all would seem as though re-membered or reconstituted. The work, like a detail from a larger whole, felt suggestive of some unstated abandonment. It became like a stage set, a meeting place contrived for assembling traces or evidences of memory.

Within this body of ‘theatrical’ work the ever-increasing utilisation of video projection signalled the direction of future change. These projections enabled Wright to complicate her use of image through movement, no matter how minimal. This moving image allowed for a more direct and mesmerising engagement with the viewing-remembering eye of the audience. The earlier work evoked half-lit memories of a vague and hesitant nature. Now there is also a more clearly defined awareness of sight and of looking, as well as of more varied sensations of light and illumination. The viewer is thus invited to the larger range of concerns that involve Wright as a recorder and observer of her physical and social environment. The flavour of the work has grown subtler and more complex as Wright has become even more direct and explicit in the treatment of her chosen subjects, be they the body, travel or the immediate physical environment.

While this closer exploration was made possible through the use of digital video technology, it is finally a natural development of Wright’s ongoing concerns. It means that Wright, always attentive to her environment and circumstances, social or physical, can now directly display her interaction with it. So while image is still abstracted, separated out from its immediate context, the tone of the work as a whole has continued to change, even at times to lighten, although never trivially so. For a work that once manifested a relentlessly sombre tone and weight, it now also begins to dance with and to take an unselfconscious delight in itself.

As the range of experiences and expressed contents expand, various kinds of ambiguities are explored. In this regard notions of edge, that is the articulation of defining recognitions and physical boundaries, have developed into a broader working vocabulary. ‘Bombay’, exhibited at the Institute of Modern Art in 2000 as part of a larger installation, was the projection of a view videoed from Wright’s hotel window during a visit to Bombay, India. The luminous projection completely encompassed the far wall of the gallery. At times it seemed nothing more was in evidence than the lit wall itself and this continued to be the case despite the audible, recorded sounds of lapping water and busy urban life. Suddenly, emerging from the white of the wall, now recognisable as a pale, but densely, shifting mist, was a small boat that only minutes later was to be reabsorbed back into the white. Or startlingly, a flurry of birds would appear to burst noisily from and disconcertingly cross the wall/river view. All was luminously, whitely chaotic. Edge and limit in this work engaged in a dance of mutual shifting dependencies. The seemingly solid wall would soften into clouds or would be rendered transparent, giving way instead to the occasionally explicit details of a busy river view. From an initial stance of being firmly ensconced within the confines of the gallery the viewer felt transported, almost literally, through imagination and in wonder, to that scene from India.

Wright’s explorations in visual ambiguity are further evident in the work entitled Blind of Sight. This is a large and ambitious work consisting of two video projections, a series of twelve, very large white works on paper derived from images taken from the videos and an additional series of video stills. The two projections exist in stark contrast to one another. One is an extreme close-up of a baby suckling; the other a close-up of a woman receiving a facial. The former is quite disturbing in its directness as we are shown the image of ruthless appetite in the innocent form of a young baby. In the latter the video is slowed down to the point where only blurred distortions abound – indeed it is hard to say just what is happening, all is a restless sea of movement, unsettling in the range of possible associations or identifications.

The white drawings exist as a strong foil to these projection works and even though they are large in scale with sharp cutting lines marking their various shades of white they are strangely devoid of revelatory detail. This is despite the fact they are taken directly from the videos. Instead they present an implacable wall of shifting and vaguely repeating shapes. They exist as silent witnesses and guardians to the work as a whole, heightening the detailed vividness of the videos and the video stills as we search amongst the component parts for clues to the larger accumulated meaning of the work. It is a deeply moving piece and one that is a strange mixture of the tender and the unforgiving.

Visible in this work, as in all Wright’s work, is her starkly reductive orientation. This is evident not simply in the individual elements of the installation but in the presentation itself. Nothing is ever explained or softened. No element simply dissolves into meaning. Text when used is used poetically, drawing attention to itself, materially, as image and as sound. All is presented simply as is. In this ‘minimum-ism’ work simply exists. Being in the presence of such unflinching and obdurate work and staying with it can generate a range of subtle and complex experiences in and of itself. In the beginning its viewing is not dissimilar to the experience of being exposed to the stark emptiness of some minimalist or monochromatic work. It is similar in that one begins to experience a sense of privation, a privation in which the safety net of external reference points is gradually winked out of consciousness.

In this space of growing privation it is easy to forget where one is and it can sometimes be difficult to sustain continuing recognition of what one is really looking at. As a result there is a surprisingly gentle and unsuspected move to a kind of helplessness in us as viewers. Face to face with such minimal work the overactive discursiveness of our minds begins finally to abate and we are left instead with a heightened awareness of ourselves as physical, material beings, as objects with mass, with volume. In this state of awareness we continue to move towards a state of rest, simply being in our breathing, feeling bodies, just existing. In this we are gently confronted with a limit. This limit is the limit of what it is to think and know – to name. It is beneath this defence of naming that the awareness of our individual vulnerability lies. With this vulnerability comes an accompanying sense of our finitude and with that a dawning realisation of the reality of our ultimate fragility, our mortality.

By surrendering to the work we can gradually surrender to the deep experiences being offered within this work and by Wright’s practice as a whole. In this practice the works have stories that cannot to be spoken because they are finally our own stories. The works harbour an unquiet silence because they are restless with our private dreams. They are as though redolent with a powerful nostalgia. It is a nostalgia that speaks of the intensity of our desire to belong, to not feel fear in the face of the unfamiliar. Thus each work appears to us as a mirror, a mirror showing what seems to be the darkened night sky. And the question raised by this encounter is, how is it possible for us to look into this darkness and to not resist becoming the dark ourselves?

Daniel Mafe

Judith Wright – the night stage of memory, illumined, first published in Working Spaces, Eyeline Publishing Ltd. Brisbane, 2002.

Continue reading ...