The Influence

Judy Watson has been enchanted for almost two decades by the lightness and ephemerality of Pat Steir’s Waterfall Mirage. By Maddee Clark.

Judy Watson

Pat Steir’s Waterfall Mirage, and Judy Watson (inset).
Credit: Irish Museum of Modern Art (above) and Tim Birch (inset)

Judy Watson is an internationally celebrated Waanyi artist whose work reveals hidden stories within Country. She works from location and memory, revealing Indigenous histories, following lines of emotional and physical topography that centre on particular places and moments in time.

Watson has recently been working on a collaborative group show, Final Call, with Aunty Helena Gulash and Tor Maclean, for the Sunshine Coast’s Horizon Festival. The show can be toured online, as can her major work, Tow Row (2016), which has just been launched as an immersive digital experience at QAGOMA, Brisbane.

For The Influence, she has chosen to discuss Waterfall Mirage by American painter and printmaker Pat Steir, as she paints in her studio in Meanjin/Brisbane.

What was your first meeting with this work?

I had an Australia Council residency in Italy in 1992, so I went to the Venice Biennale and documenta, which happens every five years in Kassel, Germany. I remember staying with Gordon Bennett and Leanne Bennett in France, where they had the Moët and Chandon fellowship. Gordon Hookey and Dale Harding and Bonita Ely were in the most recent documenta, and 1992 was the first time I’d been.

I just remember walking along a path through some trees, and Pat Steir’s work was floating mirage-like out of the trees. It was simply done. In fact, I was dismissive of it to begin with. But it stayed with me. It was ephemeral, very light and gentle, and I’d seen some other things at documenta which were pretty much the opposite of that.

Do you think she made the work on site?

No, I think she would have made it in another space but imagined it there. Maybe she made a number of works and then figured out which one she wanted there. I like that it’s ephemeral – you can’t see it anywhere now, except online – but it’s stayed with me like a glancing thought, something you catch briefly.

I’d seen the Sydney Biennale of 1982, when I was a student, and that was incredible, and I’d also travelled overseas before in 1987. But I really hadn’t seen anything like documenta or Venice. It was a real eye-opener, to see all this different work. After that, in 1993, I went to an artists’ camp at a glacial valley in Norway, where I was working with other international artists, and we were all looking at the idea of placing works in different locations.

It gives an artwork more locality and authenticity when it comes from site. When I was at the artists’ camp in Norway I was finding ochre, I was taught fly-fishing with trout and using things like fish blood, I was using glacial mud. So everything from the surrounding environment then embeds itself into the work and becomes part of it.

I loved the playfulness of that, the way it becomes a mystery to try and locate the artist’s work and to respond to site, that’s what documenta does really well.

I love the way you could just stumble across this piece in the bushes.

Yes. I think it was just the lightness of the work amongst the trees which, to begin with, that simplicity and the purity of it is really lovely.

So when I was thinking about Final Call in the Maroochy [Regional Bushland] Botanic Gardens, I was thinking about working on material and floating it in the trees after going for a walk through there.

There’s something mesmerising about a work which captures the light but also allows the light and the air and the breeze, wind, the sun, the moon at night, to interact with it in an outside environment. Final Call also has that ephemeral, magical nature of works floating in the forest.

Have you seen the apron forms wrapping around the trees? That’s a bit of a gift too, to people coming through. It’s a very nurturing place, the botanic garden. The trees are the ones dealing with the CO2, providing oxygen. Placing the domestic’s aprons on them, which also carry data about climate change, is in a way a domestication, but also a recognition of their hard work.

We used a few different types of materials, the very long, flowing one was a liner material. It almost looks like silk, and it’s been dragged through the mud in Maleny.

There’s the projection of the sun on the back of the works, and shadows which fall across the front. There’s the wind energy constantly pushing and pulling the work up through the trees, so that in a way the sustainable energy is doing all the work.

I can see the strings tying Pat Steir’s work into the surrounding greenery – there’s a connection between that and what you’re doing in Maroochy gardens.

Yes. Steir’s work seemed to catch the light. I really like the interaction of the natural world, with the projection screen that has been strung in that area, the difference between the dark of the forest and the shimmer of the pigment that she used.

In a way it’s like the Tow Row work I made outside of GOMA. I wanted a veiling where you could see the river and the whole country and landscape around it and not just have it like a heavy blank form imposing form that blocks things out.

I also made spectrograms printed on paper which were stuck onto water tanks in the park. The spectrograms were made using language words. Aunty Helena Gulash, who is from the Kabi Kabi/Gubbi Gubbi nation, chose some words from her language to speak for the creation of those. So as well as collecting those words as a typed image, which had then been cut out to be stencilled onto parts of the site itself, we also collected the language as spectrograms, which have been projected and traced over the top.

The project has been given the title of Between a K and a G, because it’s not an easy translation between the Kabi Kabi/Gubbi Gubbi and English, and it’s between the letters K and G that a slippage occurs in English. So our title refers to that in-between space in which many of us live. Aunty Helena was saying when she came to have a look, it made her tingle all over. For the traditional owner who gave us the privilege and power of her language to use to have that response, that’s all you can hope for.

It must be special for her to see those words in the gardens.

The spectrograms are the embodiment of language. The idea of embedding language in the water tanks as well as in the structure of the walls, and the floors, that’s the way of doing a deep impressing. I like the idea that maybe it’s seeping through into the water itself, the concrete will breathe and suck in, like it sucks ochre into the sandstone or the cliffs and goes in deeply. That gentle lapping of water through the language and the spectrograms, you might hear that sound if you’re out there.

So both Waterfall Mirage, and those Between a K and a G works, are ephemeral – the show in Maroochy gardens is only going to be up for two weeks then it’ll come down again.

Both the works are living, breathing, moving, and are embedded in their sites.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Judy Watson".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.