Glass House Mountains: Judy Watson and Liza Lim

Soft night falling: Lilla Watson and Tim O'Dwyer
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane
21 July – 27 August 2005

It was the soundscape that immediately propelled you forward past the bookstall and entry desk at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), so at odds was it with Fortitude Valley’s traffic and street noise. Composer Liza Lim and visual artist Judy Watson joined forces to address the unique geological formations to the city’s north, known as the Glass House Mountains. These are a series of ancient eroded volcanoes which are familiar signposts of the hinterland to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. The multi-part installation by Lim and Watson was accompanied in the back space of the IMA by a simpler (yet no less successful) collaborative work by Lilla Watson and Timothy O’Dwyer, with the evocative title Soft Night Falling.

Glass house mountains was presented by the Queensland Music Festival in association with the IMA and the music ensemble ELISION (of which Lim is part) and it draws attention to collaborative works where sound is not incidental to visual imagery or the reverse. While Glass house mountains inspired Lim to compose pieces such as Beerwah (for cello and electronics), a superbly realised musical transcription of a surveyor’s contour map of the largest mountain in the group, O’Dwyer sourced his soundscape for Soft Night Falling more directly from the natural environment around Dawson River in Central Queensland. Both aural components of these IMA projects bled into and enhanced one another.

An obvious feature of these meditative and sensory mappings of Queensland experience is the intent to prolong and slow the pace of a viewer’s attention. It is as though they are a reproof to Paul Virilio’s rhetoric of ‘speed’ and rapid change as a leit motif of late 20th century life. Installations like these at the IMA do not dispute the continuation of this undeniable aspect of contemporary life, rather, with quiet and compelling insistence they encourage us as participants to suspend our habitual anxieties and engage in contemplative journeys.

In Gallery 1, Glass house mountains established the pineapple as part of the popular imagination pertaining to this area, with rows of this fruit sprouting from mounds of volcanic soil. Surveyor’s boning rods from the 1930s were hung like spears above, with their inevitable connotations of colonial exploration, appropriation and mining of Indigenous land. Lim brought in kookaburras and crows at dawn and cicadas at noon as part of her score for this opening space. The two larger display areas adjoining it were intentionally less immediate in their message, unfolding through discreet yet interconnected elements. For instance in Gallery 2, Watson re-imagined Beerwah (‘mother mountain’ in Aboriginal legend) as a white silk taffeta tent form, illuminated within by reddish glowing lights. On the floor near-by was a projected video image of axe-grinding grooves in rocks covered by rainwater. A cello (for a time performed twice daily in the space) rested with its paper score on a low plinth.

It was the centrally located Gallery 3 where the viewer could take stock and absorb the total environment. From here you could see the shimmering video floor projection in the distance of the space to the left, mirage-like, and you could also imagine the luminous Beerwah as being indeed a ‘glass’ mountain. Of immediate impact, however, was the large slow moving video on the back wall. Here, satellite photographs of the Glass House Mountains transmogrified into more immediately recognisable film footage. The latter showed the hinterland with its distinctive backdrop of irregular bell-shaped rock forms filmed from across the channel near Bribie Island. The abstract play of scientific aerial views in tandem with the prosaic use of the camera from the vantage point of a traveller was extended to the way Watson blended topographical contouring into her painted floor canvases.

Watson used nine canvases to indicate the character of these mountains. Emulating Indigenous ground painting, ‘they echo the European geological description in their contours while their colours acknowledge the blood stains of history and the red volcanic earth of the mountains’.1 Lim’s composition for this room was named after one of the mountains and had a dark descending vibration as though moving through the shadow cast by the rock formation.

The capacity for visual electronic technology to work in dialogue with handcrafted mark-making and natural materials was superbly resolved in the Glass house mountains installation. Yet it was Lim’s compositions that created the necessary emotional depth and lasting resonance for one to appreciate its entirety. Her processed field recordings in the Tibrogargan piece, led the visitor seamlessly into Soft night falling. This was where Lilla Watson’s triptych of burned images on paper, filmed to resemble the branding of a country on the psyche, slowly shimmered and faded as dusk arrived and O’Dwyer’s recordings of sounds around the central Queensland town of Theodore, gathered momentum.

notes: 

1. Louise Martin-Chew, ‘Glass house mountains’, in exhibition brochure, Institute of Modern Art, 2005.