Moira Roth and artist Judy Watson discuss a joint fascination for Goya’s Black Paintings and Watson’s upcoming work for the 18th Biennale of Sydney. Read the following email exchange.
Email: Moira Roth to Judy Watson, 9 October 2011
I have spent the day reading about you and browsing for material on the Internet (videos and websites). It has been a fascinating and inspiring experience to immerse myself in your vast worlds of art, writings, travels, and international exhibitions, which include the first Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (1993), the Venice Biennale (1997), art + soul, Art Gallery of New South Wales (2010-2011), and 2011 exhibitions: waterline, your first U.S. solo show, at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and Out of Australia, the show of Australian prints and drawings by sixty artists at the British Museum in London.
I was riveted by the extraordinary book Judy Watson: blood language, published in 2009, which you and Louise Martin-Chew collaborated on. Its table of contents evokes so poetically and mysteriously the materials and themes of your work over the years: water
dust and blood
I read about your family background (your Aboriginal Waanyi-English mother and your Australian Scottish-English father) and how, as a result, you see yourself as ‘indigenous and non-indigenous: I fit somewhere in between. I embody the notion of two cultural frameworks occupying the same cultural space.’
Turning the book’s pages, I stare at the map of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Map from Judy Watson: blood language, p. 12
I read about the transformations in your art and your thinking after a 1990 visit with your family including your Grandmother to Waanyi Country in northwest Queensland.
Judy Watson, grandmother’s song, 2007 pigment and pastel on canvas. Courtesy Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
‘In 2007 I lost my Grandmother, my mother’s mother, Grace Isaacson. She was an amazing woman. She still inspires me. The stories she shared with me as a child allowed me to learn from the ground up – to feel the power of the land under my feet that resonates through my body and connects me to Country.’
I think about your life, from your birth in 1959 in Mundubbera, Australia, through your college education (at the University of Southern Queensland, University of Tasmania, and Monash University in Gippsland) to your prolonged engagement as an artist (beginning as a printmaker) with Australian history and culture, and with its lands and waters. I am also struck by your wide-ranging interests and travels outside Australia, including your fascination with Goya’s Black Paintings (a deep interest of mine, too) and your connections with Paris, including a Moet et Chandon Fellowship there in 1995 and two permanent works commissioned for the Musée du Quai Branly in 2006.
I think, too, of your current stay in the United States and reread the email you sent me on October 6 concerning our future Gleanings exchange. You wrote saying that you have been spending time ‘at Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia’ and that you are ‘researching some of the history of enslavement in this area. The harvesting of the wheat was a big factor on plantations here, so ‘Gleanings’ is perfect. Jefferson called the slaves that went out and worked in the fields as “going into the ground.” An interesting term.’
I stop reading and listen, equally transfixed, to you talking in your Brisbane studio in 2011 about your life and art:
And then I hear you in 2009 describing your art residency on Heron Island, which inspired you to make art in various mediums about the experience:
Could you tell me a little about burnt vessels, created from the charred remnants of scientific equipment that you found at the new Heron Island Research Station – a series that will be installed in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) for the 18th Biennale of Sydney?Email: Judy Watson to Moira Roth, 12 October 2011
I went to Heron Island as an artist-in-residence in February of 2009. The previous University of Queensland Marine Research Station had burnt down in 2007. My visit coincided with the launch of the new station.
The recent Victorian bush fires were still a strong memory. I had them in my head when I was looking at the burnt remains of scientific instruments, some of which were on display at the new Marine Research Station. I was given access to boxes of this material, which I chose to lay out and display on glass shelves with strong light casting deep shadows through their forms.
The burnt scientific objects were beautiful, transformed, resembling the marine organisms that they had previously examined. They are delicate, resilient survivors of trauma. To the scientists who lost important research and data in the fire, they are heartbreaking reminders of this catastrophe. Delicate, organic vessels from an archaeological dig, they resonate their history, shivering within their fragile, burnt shells.
Judy Watson, burnt vessels, 2009 (detail), found objects, glass shelf, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photograph: Carl WarnerEmail: Moira Roth to Judy Watson, 17 October 2011
May I ask you, in conclusion to our brief exchange, to write a paragraph or two relating these burnt vessels to the Biennale’s theme of ‘all our relations’?Email: Judy Watson to Moira Roth, 17 October 2011
Given the history of colonisation of Australia, burnt vessels, heron island could be a metaphor for the resilience and survival of our mob. My Aboriginal family (all my relations) have had a tortuous history. We have survived massacres, brutality, assimilation tactics under the guise of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897 (Queensland).
The work also can be read as the tenuous nature of the survival of the environment, under threat from natural disasters (fire) and international issues such as global warming, acidification of our oceans, coral bleaching, lack of sustainability for marine populations, and the impact on human populations.
These burnt vessels are like organic life forms writhing in pain trophies from a ravaged fray,
lying ‘in state’ on their glass slides.
their shadows envelop and mesmerize
haunting and compelling artifacts
they lead the viewer beneath the water
to a deeper place of memory.