Essay by Candice Bruce

In Praise of Darkness: Life and Death in the work of Judith Wright

Judith Wright has long been interested in the grand themes of art – Birth, Death, Love, Pain – the essential qualities that define the human condition; our humaneness, rather than our humanity, for there is a distinction, even if it is one often not made today. For humaneness concerns itself with mercy and compassion, it recognises the core of fragility in all people and makes a plea for benevolence.

For me, it is this that makes Wright’s work so compelling. In a world of increasing violence and anarchy, where so much death is random and senseless, where survival – whether physical or emotional (or even, perhaps especially, political) – makes people step over one another without even a backward glance, her work compels us to acknowledge we are more than just this. It is our relationship to others that defines who we are, a subject that has interested her in all her previous work, beginning back in 1991 with Uncovered Language. Wright has continued to wrestle with the unspoken side of language – the means we use to communicate when we do not use the spoken word – the silences, the looks, the gestures, the sighs. She describes the spaces in between these as if they are the empty spaces between words. The blank stare of shock, the moment before the unshed tear, the gasp of a realisation, the distance between a hand and the untouched arm, the bruise that forms in the pause afterwards, the ghost of silent memory.

They are moments of almost excruciating tenderness, of almost exquisite pain, told in the simplest of forms and united in a series of individual works that form a continuous narrative. They haunt us with their pure evanescence – a breath, a cell, a flake of skin, a hair – both too slight and too vast to ever be a particular head – always slipping away from us with a familiar shadow, with a trace of something unknown and unknowable.

Wright mines her own life and experiences, her own physical and emotional terrains, in the same way that a poet does – the feelings she conjures are searing in their intensity; the language is sparse, restricted, exact.

While never easy, in recent exhibitions her work has gone even deeper into the dark abyss. I would like to recall two exhibitions in particular that I think are most pertinent, before discussing this current body of work.

In Blind of Sight (2001), based on the death of her baby daughter decades before, and her subsequent unexpressed (and disallowed) grief, her parched works on paper sat pinned to the wall like pieces of flayed skin. Taking still images from her video of a mother suckling a baby, she simplified the forms until they became like unfertilised ovum in the womb – back and back through time, back through birth, back even before conception, until the baby became a pulse in the mother’s heart. That is where the grief was located and where the child lay buried, a thought so sad it could have become, in less experienced hands, overwhelming. The works, however, float like a baby’s breath and seem to tap some universal space between grief and joy, love and sorrow, a delicate counterbalancing of one on another.

Two years later in One Dances (2003) Wright drew once again upon her early and formative experience as a dancer with the Australian Ballet, though it is not the dance itself that fascinates her but the dance of life, both the video and still images drawing the viewer into a mesmeric spell in which ordinary time and space are collapsed. In one of the videos for this sequence, the line is blurred between the live body of the youth (performed by the artist’s youngest son), his pale skin shining out luminously against a dark background, and the coffee-coloured wood of the life-size marionette with whom he dances. We watch with expectation, for the vision defies reality. We know it is a doll but we still wait for it to speak. They move eerily, the boy and the marionette, in a frozen embrace; their shadows, bent by the light, blend into one black form which casts itself on the fragile membrane of white paper, both alone and connected.

For this current exhibition, In Praise of Darkness: Conversations with the Father, there are two videos – conversations with the mother and conversations with the father – in which the real and the surreal are juxtaposed once again. In the first, the camera opens on a close-up of the white-grey hair of the son (bizarrely similar to the artist’s own distinctive grey hair). The camera shifts then to the face of a doll – a living, breathing doll – whose exhalations are both fascinating and repellent. The mouth opens to display a set of perfect teeth, while the eyes, curiously hairless, remain closed. The boy is asleep on a pillow, and we watch while he wakens, a slight smile forming around his mouth. For the next few minutes nothing, and everything, happens, while a clock ticks faintly in the distance. It is what every mother does at some stage to her child. We stare in awe at the life we have borne, at the sheer enormity of what has been created, at the person the child has become.

There is no need for conversation, for everything is understood.

In the second video, Conversations with the Father, a boy’s hand reaches out and takes the wooden hand of a doll, its articulated fingers held together with iron nails. When the camera pulls back to reveal the fair shining hair of the youth, the effect is immediate and shocking. For here, the doll is revealed as a dressmaker’s dummy, with a carved wooden knot for a head and a truncated torso that finishes at the waist. The camera pulls back again to reveal them standing in a strange room of polished chrome and mirrors and we watch as the boy leans against the back of the dummy’s torso. It is a moment filled with almost unbearable yearning, a scene of heartache and longing, of a desire for connection that can only end in disappointment.

As before, Wright has painted a series of works on paper Relative Conversations, that, while they compliment the videos, also can be viewed quite separately. For these she has used various shades of red and black, departing from her usually muted tones of white, brown and black, to literally paint the visceral. She has gone to the innermost depths, to blood and tissue, to nerves and intestines, to the deepest, darkest recesses of the body and the mind. It is as if we have travelled down an artery through to a beating heart and look out to the world from inside this red pulsating organ.

And here is the nub, for it would be a mistake to think that the artist’s work is only about the fragility of life. There is also resilience in these works. Robustness. Survival.

There is Death, but there is also Life.

Dr Candice Bruce is a Sydney art historian and writer.