Judy Watson

the scarifier
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville

In 2016 Judy Watson may well have had the busiest year of her career. She launched ngarunga nangama, calm water dream, a major new public artwork at 200 George Street, Sydney, prepared two solo commercial exhibitions (Milani Gallery, Brisbane and Tolarno, Melbourne), and exhibited work in exhibitions in Australia and overseas (Harvard, Monaco, and Utrecht). Her work also has been acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in partnership with the Tate Gallery, London. This line up of exhibitions, public art commissions and international opportunities was topped off by the announcement of her selection for the Queensland Indigenous Public Art Commission, to be in place for the tenth anniversary celebrations of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art in December 2016. 

Watson is an artist at the peak of her powers, but this does not suggest the fulfilment of her potential: she has an uncanny ability to rise to a challenge. Approached early in 2016, Watson created, for TarraWarra Museum of Art, an exhibition/installation titled the scarifier. TarraWarra (established 2000) is a privately funded, public art museum located in the Yarra Valley outside Melbourne, on a property which also hosts a working winery. The purpose-built gallery, which opened in 2003, houses a collection of major Australian paintings acquired by Marc and Eva Besen.

In 2016, director Victoria Lynn and curator Anthony Fitzpatrick curated Panorama, an exhibition responding to the strength of landscape paintings in the TarraWarra collection, and influenced by the environment within which the gallery is situated. Judy Watson’s commission to create work that referred to the local landscape and its Indigenous histories sat adjacent to Panorama (such a large show that it was mounted in two parts). Victoria Lynn wrote, ‘Our project is not to suture these events and exhibitions into a seamless narrative, but to find the interconnection of actions and processes, the assemblage of voices and interpretations, in our continuing exploration of the natural world through the artistic gesture.’2

What emerged in walking amongst the Panorama landscapes, painted over some sixty years, is the sensitivity to the environment and its aesthetics expressed by artists such as Peter Booth, Fred Williams, William Delafield Cook, Mandy Martin, Rosalie Gascoigne and Clifton Pugh. These are inspiring paintings of the Australian landscape, both local and national, which underscore the changing land and its rhythms like a hymn to loss. The rigours of climate change and its inexorable progress across the country are also writ large here. 

Judy Watson’s the scarifier, named after the farming tool which followed the plough and carved productive lines into the earth, emerged as a discrete and contemporary complement to this painted Australian landscape tradition. Watson’s installation, in contrast, offered movement, shimmer, sound, and homage to and recognition of the Indigenous histories and people from the nearby Coranderrk Aboriginal Station (which operated from 1863-1924 at Healesville). Lynn chose Watson for this commission given Watson’s interest in local Indigenous histories, and the installation ‘invites the viewer to delve deeply into minute detail, with a global perspective but a local story’.2

Standing in front of the large window that frames the landscape in this room are a ‘V’ of hop ‘trainers’, long sticks used in farming hops. A successful hop plantation was located at Coranderrk and run by Aboriginal residents on highly arable land. But tensions emerged as covetous farmers sought to close the station and acquire the land for their own use. Watson used the hop trainers to symbolise the imposition of bureaucracy, regulation and control over Coranderrk’s campaign for self-governance. Gently moving air in this space saw the poles shiver, and hung within them were reconstructed garments made from calico and other historic materials, adjacent to photographs of the individuals themselves. 

The use of unmediated objects in this space—the clothing, folded woollen blankets on a timber box, a cow skeleton arranged over a heap of dirt, the printed ‘minutes of evidence’ arranged in a cross in the corner, and old fence posts wound around with barbed wire located by Watson on the Coranderrk site—are backgrounded by a soundscape created at the local Badger Creek. This noted the importance of water to the agricultural enterprise and its historic connection to a relationship between Coranderrk Aboriginal leader William Barak and Victorian politician and later Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin. It also added another layer to the evocation of land. On each of the walls was a series of Watson’s landscape paintings, loosely hung canvases that laid an emotional response over the topography of the local mountains. They were displayed around the edges of the space in a way that spoke to their geography and Coranderrk itself. 

Coranderrk successfully made its case against the government and institutional forces. Barak led a sixty-seven kilometre walk from Healesville to the Victorian Parliament to petition for self governance (1878, 1881, 1886), and this was represented in the pages of evidence printed to create a cross, with a video presentation making legible the litany of difficulties imposed on the Aboriginal community. 

In the context of the layers of landscape and views of rolling hills and mountains that drew the viewer’s gaze out the window, Watson’s paintings became a luminous foil that ameliorated the disturbing subject matter. They spoke to a transformative interior life, conjuring the voices of history and remnants into a past and present continuum. Mt Riddell (2016) is a particularly bright painting: it shines from within, its spirit unyielding, a topography traced with gentle resonance. This exhibition had a sensibility that was hard to resist and it expressed what Paul Carter described independently in an essay in the Panorama catalogue, evoking, ‘the topography of gesture… Where there is a relationship between the unseen, and the sound that comes through the body. Where there is also a sense of presencing, of what is past, and therefore coming on the wind, taking you into the future’.3

Judy Watson, the scarifier, 2016. Installation view, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville. Image Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. 

Judy Watson, mt riddell, 2016. Pencil and acrylic on canvas, 240 x 148cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. 

Judy Watson, the scarifier, 2016. Installation view, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville. Image Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. 

Judy Watson, the scarifier, 2016. Installation view, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville. Image Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. 

notes: 

1. Victoria Lynn, ‘Art+Place: Director’s Foreword’, Panorama, TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2016.

2. Victoria Lynn, telephone interview with the author, 6 July 2016. 

3. Paul Carter, ‘Language Awry: sounding the depths and the heights’, Panorama, catalogue for the exhibition curated by Victoria Lynn and Anthony Fitzpatrick, TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2016, p.12.