Essay by Julie Ewington

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.

Julie Ewington