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.