Judith Wright in conversation with Hannah Hutchison, Art Gallery of NSW.
Movement and the body play an important role in your practice, particularly the movement of bodies in relation to each other. Is this informed by your background as a dancer?
Yes, definitely. My dance experience has been very influential in the formation of my art practice. Movement and space – the intimate spatial connections between two bodies – are crucial, as well as the wider spatial relationships of dancers on a stage. These spaces are negotiated through movement.
You were a dancer with the Australian Ballet Company in the late 1960s. After you left the company, you started to attend life-drawing classes. What was it that attracted you to drawing?
I have been interested in drawing since childhood, making portraits of my school mates and, later, my fellow dancers. I was bemused by the models in my first life-drawing class: one rather large and very curvaceous, the other very tall and thin. Both were different from my then concept of the body beautiful.
I soon realised my lack of experience and understanding. Classical ballet requires a certain body type – long-limbed, fine-muscled, slim. Those models were the exact opposite of both that body type and each other. I learnt how wonderful it was to draw such contrasting lines and curves.
Would you say that through drawing you came to see the body in a different way?
The imagery in your work resides somewhere between figuration and abstraction.
I think that the space between figuration and abstraction is the most fertile, the most open to interpretation. Figuration can provide a way into a work, while abstraction can allow for a more multifaceted reading.
Significant Others marked your return to large-scale paintings on paper following a ten-year period in which you focused on sculptural installations. Why did you decide to make a return to painting?
While the installations were my main focus, I did continue to make works on paper and videos during that time. I tend to go from one to the other as a way of keeping the work fresh, as each requires a different way of thinking or approach. There is also a kind of compulsion to explore.
Can you speak about the materials you used in Significant Others?
Japanese paper is my preferred support – it’s tough and flexible and more humble than canvas. The scale of the work mimics the span of the extended body. I apply beeswax after the work is finished. The wax provides protection and adds translucency. It is also evocative of skin.
The delicate finish on your work is suggestive of skin and makes for a tactile surface; we almost want to reach out and touch it. Your works on paper really do evoke the idea of human connection through touch.
My aim is to engage the senses of touch and smell, as well as sight. These senses are sometimes more evocative than sight. Again, I can refer this back to my experience in the ballet company, where touch is fundamental to communication.
I am interested in this idea of engaging all the senses in your work. Is that why you also like to use beeswax, as it adds to the sense of smell?
Initially, but the smell fades, like a memory.
Memory also plays a compelling part in your practice.
Memory plays a crucial role in the work. Visual recollection, sound, smell, for instance, are powerful stimulants for memory. Collectively they adhere, holding together the experiences of what it is to be in the world –the joy, the sadness, the vulnerability, the tenderness and the tragedy, all become part of the current fabric of our lives through memory.
Are there any specific memories at play in this work?
While the head forms don’t evoke specific memories, they symbolise thoughts and feelings about people close to me; the basic human need for communication and connection with others.
The forms in your works on paper are at once familiar but never certain, flickering on the edge of perception – possibly the profile of a face, perhaps the curve of a shoulder?
It is crucially important that the imagery in the work is completed in the mind of the viewer. While we each have individual life experiences, there is surely a correspondence between maker and viewer. It is in this connection that the real value of the work must reside.
Often the imagery in your works on paper has been inspired by stills from your video works. Is this the case with Significant Others?
Though I use my significant others – friends, sons, a grandchild – in the making of videos, this particular work does not refer to a specific video work. I’m sure that the way I look through a camera shares something with the way I look at form, but it could equally be the reverse. As a series, this work allows for small shifts and tonal adjustments to occur across the five sheets of paper, which is more difficult to achieve in a single work.
Layers of wax and pigment and the recurrence of abstracted body shapes are present not only in Significant Others but across your oeuvre. Is accumulation or repetition an important theme in your works?
Yes, I think repetition with some variation allows an openness, a resonance, a richer dialogue between my works.
That’s true about the dialogue between your works. Although spanning diverse mediums, they are often linked or connected in some way to form larger bodies of works. What do you think leads you to create in this way?
One work suggests another and requests a different material response. The imagery follows a circular pattern rather than a linear one, in the way that memory loops around unexpectedly, ambushing you from the unconscious.
Although commanding in scale, Significant Others also has a feeling of quiet intimacy or vulnerability to it. Tell me about the role of contrast in your work.
Yes, contrast has always played an important role in my work. I try to find a balance between extremes – an in-between space – abstraction/figuration, strength/vulnerability, joy/sadness, the impermanency of life/the certainty of death.
Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture, Arched figure 1993, is displayed near your work in the exhibition. Like Bourgeois, you have created a deeply personal visual vocabulary over your career. How important is autobiographical exploration in your work?
I make work about my own experience of life. That is all I can be certain of. It is all I am qualified to do. I am honoured to have work installed near that of Louise Bourgeois, whose practice I deeply admire.
Shadows and shades
It is said that shadows, and shades, gave birth to European art. The Greek philosopher Plato recounted how shadows dancing on a cave wall first prompted humans to make representations of themselves and other beings; and the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder tells how the daughter of Butades, a potter of Corinth, was impelled to trace her lover’s shadow on a wall, so she could preserve his memory while he was away from her.1 From ancient memorials to modern photography, this sense of loss, this desire to recall those who are absent, is a powerful motive for making art.
Judith Wright works within this long tradition of love and loss. In A wake 2011, emphatic shadows accompany the figures of 15 fantastical musicians — variously eccentric human and animal or bird hybrids, one even closely resembling a spider. They serve to evoke a departed loved one and every shadow cast onto the walls is a ghostly refrain of that original loss. Furnished with beautiful antique instruments, this company is assembled to make music to accompany, with appropriate pomp and ceremony, the passage to the afterlife.
Who is the person loved, lost and now recalled in A wake? For whom has Wright convened this motley orchestra? This funerary celebration, with its inevitable burden of joy and bitter tears, is staged for her only daughter, who died shortly after birth many years ago. The mother of three sons, Wright never ceased to grieve for her daughter, and coming to terms with this loss has been the key emotional motivation for her work over several decades.
A wake marks a new development in Wright’s long meditation on this loss: previously, she made drawings, installations and videos that often depicted, or were shadowed by, an absent body, even a group of diminutive quasi-bodily bronze sculpture, Proposition 2010, but this is her first major figurative installation.
Each road-stained companion in this impressive troupe has its role to play in this transit. Appealing to the rich historical imagery of tatterdemalion actors and musicians, every aspect of the work is unabashedly theatrical: one stiff-limbed ballerina in a pale-pink tutu presides over a bronze temple gong; a bird-featured creature adorned with peacock feathers brandishes a trumpet; and an intent little mouse-like personage strums a zither. The entire busy ensemble is presided over by an assertive seated presence in a long rosy-red tutu: clearly she’s a force to be reckoned with. Gawky, speciously glamorous, even wry, this company is fragile but resilient. None of the instruments they flourish actually makes a sound. However, Wright says that she is drawn to old instruments precisely because they no longer make music — their sound, too, is absent, only a shadow of its former presence.
It is as if the orchestra is ready to make an other-worldly din, a glorious clashing cacophony that will accompany the girl on her long journey to the underworld.
With its rich panoply of masks, costumes and props, this work relates to seven videos Wright made between 2003 and 2009, commencing with One dances and concluding with Desire5. In a suite based on the idea of the seven stages of man, these works imagined what the life of the lost child might have been. Through appearances by performers including the artist’s third son, the actor Luke Wright, noted dancers, Grahame Murphy and Janet Vernon, and the octogenarian Dame Margaret Scott6, among others, Wright staged encounters between the persona of the lost girl and various ‘family’ members, calling her into being but also, eventually, reconciling Wright herself to this irredeemable loss.
Importantly, in these videos Wright first began using found objects, ranging from antique mannequins to ballet costumes to furniture, to assist in the evocation of her scenarios. A talented and dedicated scavenger, over the years she has used in her sculptures many objects found in second-hand and antique stores in Brisbane and Sydney and, more recently, on eBay. From Japan, Italy and across Africa, she has collected many beautiful antique masks, admiring their power to evoke past lives, as well as obsolete and antique instruments, not because they have any capacity to sound, but because they embody the memory of the music they used to make. Perhaps all these strange and beautiful objects collected Judith Wright, rather than the other way round, as objects with a rich past tend to do. For, serendipitously, when she came to make A wake she found she already had many of the materials she needed, so that she now could, as the mother-impresario, present a celebratory event to remember her daughter and give her the appropriate last rites.
Despite the imposing presence of the performers in A wake, their shadows are their better selves. Wright says it was ‘the power of the shadow to conjure absence’ that directed her to make A wake. Note, too, that Wright never represents her daughter: she cannot — she is no longer here. Rather, she conjures her presence through meditating on her absence, on her shadow across Wright’s life. This reminds us that the ancient Greeks associated shadows with a person’s soul, a ‘living double, a surrogate’, as the art historian Victor Stoichita eloquently puts it in his beautiful exposition of the importance of shadows in the strand of Western art that is magical, rather than naturalistic, in its origins.7 The same holds true of Wright’s silent energetic musicians: the shadows of these performers is the soul of their music.
Finally, the title: A wake. Think of what the word means in the context of saying farewell to someone at the end of their life: it asserts the continuation of wakefulness, even watchfulness, for those of us who remain behind to remember the dead. To be awake to their memory is our duty, as it is the only way left to give life to those who are departed. Her daughter is the fugitive presence that marks Wright’s life and her art: her absence is everywhere — and nowhere. Judith Wright is completely aware that in European fable a woman presided over the birth of images. Shades, an old word for the departed, suggest that the dead persist in our memories and lives as fleeting shadows: we glimpse them only out of the corner of our eye. And we give them due ceremony.
Judith Wright: An Alchemical Journey
Judith Wright, a dancer with the Australian Ballet from 1966 to 1970, learnt at an early age both the limitations of the human body and its ability to express emotions through the abstracted language of gesture. However, if classical ballet is akin to expressionist painting, Wright’s works are more akin to modern dance and particularly the Japanese influences of Noh theatre and the post-war Butoh dance. This is most evident in her film work where movement is slow and the play of light and shadow is as integral to the work as the human body. These works do not give instant gratification but rather reward a slower, meditative approach. They are concerned with those subjects that enter your consciousness when you slow the chatter in your brain and reflect on more essential matters such as life, death, memory and relationships.
The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca spoke about the Andalusian duende, the primal force that derives from deep inside the body and is conveyed directly to others through paintings, music or poetry. Judith Wright’s paintings are touched by duende, communicating directly to the subconscious with a force that is both frightening and exhilarating.
The earlier black paintings are brooding, melancholic works that effect you subliminally, triggering your own memories and hidden feelings. Sheets of Japanese paper hang frameless on the wall or are bound between heavy wooden covers as books on the floor. The paper is impregnated with wax and dark acrylic paint, forming abstracted shapes that suggest human heads or bodies but are distorted like shadows warped by an oblique source of light. All the works are square, a universal symbol of the ideal human body, and the larger works hang low on the wall so that the viewer is enveloped by their skin-like surfaces.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung used the ancient traditions of alchemy as a metaphor for the realisation of the self, seeing the three stages of alchemical transmutation as a map defining the psychological path from confusion to self-awareness. The first stage, Nigredo or blackening, is a coming to terms with feelings of guilt, worthlessness and powerlessness, the ‘dark shadow’ aspects of the self. It is a cathartic dwelling on the darker, melancholic aspects of yourself and facing them enables you to move on.
The second stage is the Albedo or whitening, ruled by the white feminine light of the moon. In psychology, it constitutes an awakening, but is still tainted by idealism and contradiction. In 2001, Judith Wright started a new series of white paintings called Blind of Sight. The subtle white-on-white images derive from stills from her film showing a close-up of a baby’s face suckling a woman’s breast. Despite the subject, the resulting images never appear sentimental or saccharin as Wright beautifully balances the conflicting emotions in the joy of natural innocence beheld and the memory of her own baby daughter who died soon after birth thirty years earlier.
The final stage of the alchemical opus is the Rubedo or reddening. This stage is the marriage of opposites, the Queen/Moon with the King/Sun, to achieve the goal of the lapis philosophorum, or in psychology, the re-awakened self-awareness. The opus now complete, the individual can go on to examine their relationships with others. Judith Wright’s red paintings such as Relative Conversations (2005) and her more recent films are concerned with the part of the self that is influenced by others – parents, siblings, children and lovers. The various mannequins in her films are those forces from outside relationships that we carry with us affecting our lives, be they a burden to carry or a sweet memory to cherish.
First published by Mackay Artspace for the exhibition ‘Judith Wright: Breath and other consideration’
For the past decade Judith Wright has produced video works and paintings that mesmerize the viewer and absorb them into spaces of quiet, emotional intensity. Her subjects generally are personal and everyday activities and situations: breathing, looking, sleeping, dancing, breastfeeding. Her works transcend, however, their origin in feminine experience and have a communicative power across genders and generations. In the materially, spatially and temporally disparate mediums of video and painting, Wright’s practice is unified through its focus on minimalism, visual and performative restraint and understatement. In contrast to the reflection of a chaotic world in so much contemporary video, the serene pace of Wright’s videos draws the viewer into enigmatic scenarios that register immediately as deeply intimate and perhaps autobiographical, and profoundly evocative of basic human conditions and needs.
The video works One dances, 2003, Conversations with the mother, 2004, and Conversations with the father, 2006, are interconnected visually and conceptually through, as Wright has stated, their juxtaposition of ‘the real with the handmade, the animate with the inanimate, and an insistence on the communicative power of the performative body with the use of light’.
Before committing herself to a visual art practice, Wright was a dancer with the Australian Ballet, and it is the certain disciplines required of the performing body and a sensitivity to the exactitudes of composure and composition in classical dance that provide foundations for Wright’s art.
A study of the contours of the bodies in Wright’s video works, particularly the linear abstraction that results from close-up images of a face against a mannequin, dancing feet against a floor, the play of shadows and their distortion of the body across a surface, are the point of access into the abstract visual structure of the large-scale paintings that accompany the video works. The time-based space of video and the static space of the painted surface are distinct yet integrally connected in Wright’s practice. It is in the human scale of her painted works, and in their varying density and saturation of colour that Wright focuses attention on the potential of light and its modulation to establish ethereal or deep void-like spaces into which the viewer can be absorbed.
Wright’s video works construct and animate spaces that oscillate between reality and abstraction. Conversations with the father is an unsettling and achingly poignant video work. It is one of the several films in which Wright’s son Luke collaborates as a performer. We see in this slowly paced work the young man in an intimate embrace with a headless dressmaker’s mannequin. For most of the time we see his pairing with the mannequin – the embodiment of the father – in extreme close up, our focus drawn to the young man’s face and bare torso and his embrace. As he holds and turns the father/ mannequin it creaks with age and disuse in stark contrast to the vitality and understated eroticism of the youthful body. The diffuse light in which Wright has shot Conversations with the father contributes to its evocation of interiority, desire and a nebulous space between the dream and the real. But it is the sense of longing conveyed by the young man that is so overwhelming in this work – resting his lips and face against the mannequin, committing to or recalling from memory the potency of this or another encounter, the tenderness of his caress of the father. As Blair French has noted, in Wright’s hands ‘video becomes a medium not simply for the representation of the embodied subject, but a means by which to conduct the most tender of conversations’.
‘Judith Wright’ first published in exhibition catalogue by Jason Smith Curator of Contemporary Art
2006 Clemenqer Contemporary Art Award National Gallery of Victoria
Grant Pirie 2006