Essay Suhanya Raffel

One Dances

In a hospital room, a woman gives birth to a perfect baby girl. Her life is not a long one, measured only in days. She continues to be a part of her mother, as do all her children, and exists for her mother regardless of the fact of her sudden death. Her mother is not allowed the time to mourn, to mark her arrival and passing. The child’s tiny body is taken away from her mother, quickly, and buried.

The journey of rediscovering what happened to this child’s body is a whole other story. It takes her mother thirty years to seek out the plot of land in which she was laid. It is a place that is shared by one other who was also a baby girl when she died in 1919, fifty-three years before her. Her mother now knows where this piece of earth is. *Judith Wright was a dancer in the Australian Ballet before she dedicated herself to being a visual artist. This earlier discipline provided her with an acute sensitivity to engaging movement as an integrated part of a visual practice. Her painted books are made so large that to see the drawings on each page necessitates the drama of a grand gesture. You lean into the book and move your arm across an arc of space as you turn each page. The books themselves are of abstracted images of faces and bodies pared back to elemental form. These drawings are made using thin hand-made Japanese paper, saturated with wax to make the paper tougher and to accentuate the inherent transparent qualities. Wright paints on them using acrylics, and occasionally also bitumen. On first opening these great big books you see the drawings stacked together, the translucence of the paper revealing the blurred shapes beneath, as though the images are touching and then separating as the pages are turned. A certain intimacy is revealed.

Wright also makes large painted drawings that are pinned to the wall. The scale is such that they vibrate with subtle movement when looking at them. The movement of approach makes the drawings ripple, responding to the shift in the air. They breathe in tandem to this movement, a tiny animation in the otherwise still experience of looking.

More recently, in the past ten years, Wright’s painted drawings have transpired through her video works. The relationship between how one sustains a related integrated, practice in both drawings and moving images is not necessarily obvious. Yet Wright belongs to a select group of contemporary artists who are committed to exploring this potential. William Kentridge and Nalini Malani are two others who come to mind. Each of these artists has developed intertwining practices in which drawing and moving images are vital. For Wright, an obvious first correspondence is through her interest in performance, but more profoundly, acknowledging that life requires breath and registers as movement. Video gives her the potential to capture the time-based nature of movement. Nearly all her video works seek out personal day to day, often intimate, activities – bathing, swimming, breast feeding, dancing. When looking at Wright’s work, one way of considering this relationship between drawing and video, is how both groups of work articulate aspects of movement as kinds of light. Video and film register gradations of light, degrees of exposure on objects to make form. The abstractions that Wright arrives at in her drawings are distilled shapes of parts of the body, broad surfaces in which the detail has fallen away to form singular contours through their extreme exposure to light. In her ‘Blind of sight’ 2001-02 series of works, which includes video projections and drawings, the latter are elegant minimalist expressions of white light on a whitened face.

‘One dances’ takes on at least three forms, as a colour video, a black and white film and as a set of three drawings. The opening shot in the video is of a shadow cast across the floor. It takes a minute before it coalesces to form into the back of a young man holding to his body the stiff limbs of a reticulated life size wooden doll. This heavy object is awkward to hold and the dance is slow and melancholic. The video is made up of five sequences, each of them a single take. The lighting adds to the sense of drama and staging, as a single spotlight casts deep shadows while lighting up the gleam of eyelash, the fine fur of hair on a cheek and the smooth glow of painted wood. The first take is of the shadow on the floor and the second is an extreme close up of the two faces of the dancing couple. The third moves to their feet and the fourth is a mid shot of the two torsos. The final take is the full length of the two bodies with the video ending as the young man walks out of the frame, carrying the doll, to leave the circle of light. Although the video work is in colour, the lighting of the dancing man and his marionette partner is such that it is the play of light and shadow that is remembered. Sound is literal, with the drag of the doll’s wooden feet on the floor or the slap of her wooden hand as it falls against her thigh. The two figures are bathed in the spotlight so that they cast shadows on each other, walking, dancing, in and out of light and darkness. In watching the work, it dawns on the viewer that the dance is not only between the two figures in the spotlight, but also includes the holder of the camera. Often the movement is the camera responding to the two figures, creating a dance that acknowledges this third presence.

In a number of Wright’s video and film works the artist collaborates with her sons. They frequently perform in them or work behind the camera with Wright. The young man who dances with the marionette in ‘One dances’ is the artist’s youngest son while her second son is the cinematographer with Wright. In many of the works that Wright has done with her children, their presence on the screen is marked by the way light saturates their forms. Often the images focus on fragments of their bodies that glow with the warmth of light and life. In the moving images of ‘One dances’ this aspect of her film work is most intense. The camera joyously records how the light picks up the fine face in profile, the lithe shape of a back, the modeling of feet in contrast to the skeletal body of the marionette.

The choreography in ‘One dances’ is very minimal. Wright has chosen the most intimate of dance forms – the simple embrace of two figures. This concentration of gesture belies the impetus of its making. ‘One dances’ came to Wright at the culmination of her thirty-year search for the body of her deceased daughter. In this work, the light is not diffuse. It is a focussed, single spot that enfolds the two figures. The marionette is held most obviously by the young man but also by the beam of light and the camera in a three-fold embrace, paralleling the experience of the dance. Light and shadow form the rhythm in which they perform. The beckoning of this other child wells through the work in the entangled patterns of light. *When light is lost, life is lost.

Suhanya Raffel, September 2003