Disquiet and resistance in the art of Julie Gough

Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria Judith Ryan surveys the complex and inventive art practice of Julie Gough who is concerned with "developing a visual language to engage with the unsettling space between conflicting and subsumed Australian histories."

Julie Gough's brilliantly inventive, multi-disciplinary practice is concerned with developing a visual language to engage with the unsettling space between conflicting and subsumed Australian histories. An obsessive historian and an experiential researcher, she works like a forensic scientist, scouring primary sources and government records to tease out instances of historical deception and injustice buried in fragmentary and incomplete colonial records. From these puzzling and unpalatable truths and murmurings of Tasmanian Aboriginal frontier history, located in place, time and actuality, Gough constructs, embroiders and conceptualises assemblage works that confront the viewer and challenge conventional and lazy accounts of our history.

Gough works with the organic materials of cultural objects, the names of individual ancestors and words from lost Aboriginal languages. This attempt to memorialise the missing signifies the profound dignity and poetry of her Trawlwoolway way of being. Her works are holistic, multi-layered and oscillate constantly between different understandings of how Tasmanian people have existed since colonisation. They may be lamentations in two or three dimensions of painful events, policies and practices that whisper and cry out from her ancestral past and shadow the present. Yet, works such as OBSERVANCE (2012) also render palpable what has been disrupted and stolen, the untainted beauty of her homeland, the power of its customary culture and the lyricism and precision of its languages. Gough is humble in her reverence before country, culture and art-making, being open to different iterations and constant changes of medium, scale and location.

In recent years the focus of Gough’s work has shifted dramatically away from a confined, kitsch formative phase in which she was interrogating general ideas of Aboriginality, its visibility, control and containment. She is now concerned with more personal, introspective musings about intangible states of being directly associated with the history, landscape and culture of her maternal Aboriginal homeland, Tebrikunna. Moreover, the locus of her methodology and the materials of her installation works have moved from indoors to outdoors: the direct result of her Arts Tasmania Wilderness Residency in 2001. In considering the trajectory of Gough’s oeuvre and the particularities of her work, how it operates conceptually and visually upon the viewer, I will discuss important elements of her life history, landmark group and solo exhibitions, and seminal works.

It should not be forgotten that Gough, who was born and grew up in St Kilda, has concrete memories of the attitudes and social mores of 1960s and 70s inner-Melbourne, tangible in the polished fragments of colonial bric-a-brac and racist op shop kitsch that she obsessively collects. From deep inside the jaws of Luna Park, the St Kilda funpark, Gough cultivated her relish for the absurd and surreal, by stepping into the Giggle Palace or riding the Big Dipper. She also was part of an amorphous population in which holocaust survivors lived on the same streets as intravenous drug users. This difficult terrain packed with competing stories, absurd contrasts and vivid experiences of films such as The Sound of Music and Hitchcock’s Psycho are immortalised in her trio of whacky constructions growing out of suitcases Luna, Julie, Psycho (1994).

Many of Gough’s earliest works are constructed from incongruous remnants of an ugly and ignorant Australia, wickedly juxtaposed in installation pieces, such as Imperial Leather (1994) which flowers darkly in the imagination of the viewer. This work with its alarming assembly of Aboriginal trophy heads hanging from nooses on a red terry towelling Union Jack, emblematic of British invasion and of blood, savagely invaded the space of her first solo show Dark Secrets - Home Truths in 1995. Cryptic and intensely visual, the work occasioned in me images of oppression imagined by the Romantic poet William Blake in London: "the mind forged manacles", “chartered streets” and “cries of woe”. Blake’s poem was published not long after the landing of Governor Phillip in Botany Bay. Phillip’s incursion imposed similar strictures upon the original inhabitants of the Great South Land. The visualisation of a succession of trophy heads, contained by the flag of the invading power, repeatedly signify the whitening, erasure, caricaturing, silencing and stamping out of another culture, screamed at me then and now, far more definitively than any accompanying text or slogan. This arranging of multiple objects to activate a surface or space optically has become a hallmark of Gough’s practice.

Gough’s Medical Series (1994), exhibited in Perspecta the following year is a clinical installation of ten welded tin and galvanised iron suitcases, with images and texts from scientific journals silkscreened on the inner lids and found objects assembled inside. These 'case studies’ reconfigure the supposedly scientific physical evidence that posits racial difference as indicative of inferiority. Gough allowed different aspects of the body – brain capacity, intelligence, eyeball weight, ear-wax consistency, body-odour – to speak of the ways in which they had been tested and probed in scientific experiments. This method of assembling objects was pivotal to Gough’s future development of works incorporating and eliminating text, and in establishing her trust in the redeployment of extraneous materials to tell stories beyond words.

In 1993 Gough moved from Perth to Tasmania, a homecoming that was crucial in redirecting her gaze towards her family’s experience in Tasmania. She continued to work as before in indoor locations, using schools, archives, hospitals and museums, as sites of interrogation for subversive works such as My tools today (1997).

In 2001, the iconography and materials of Gough’s work changed radically when she undertook a Wilderness Residency at Eddystone Lighthouse, in Tebrikunna. Here, living alone in a tiny cottage for an extended time, she was able to commune deeply with the spirit of place and work with materials gathered from around Tasmania including Lake St Clair (Leeawuleena), where Auntie Muriel Maynard, Lola Greeno and Vicki West were also making cultural objects. Gough felt past, present and future converge with shimmering congruency, resulting in an immersive body of work exhibited in Heartland in 2001. In Leeawuleena (2001) numerous bird-like forms composed of driftwood washed up from the lake are attached to a sloping gum tree branch, casting shadows against the wall that engender in the viewer a sense of the ancient raw power of Tasmania.

In CHASE (2001) Gough infiltrated and interrogated in a gallery setting, the unfinished history between black and white Australia. Using manifold suspended sticks, she constructed a physical presence of uncleared virgin terrain. The dense tea tree forest is violated by intimations of red-coated invaders taking possession of ‘terra nullius’ and dispersing the original inhabitants. This violent and terrifying ‘chase’ conceptualised by torn fragments of ‘bloodied’ red cloth tied to the sticks, lurks in the National Gallery of Victoria subversively between Emmanuel Phillips Fox’s The landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 (1902) and Gough’s Imperial Leather (1994) symbolic of the subsequent brutal subjugation and silencing of Aboriginal people by a foreign power.

Gough often works in a state of diaspora, occasioned by career opportunities, international residencies in Mauritius, New York and Liverpool, and museum commissions. Her first macro necklace works, Drift, Seam and Lifebearer (all 2005) strung from pumice, coal and driftwood – collected in Townsville and exhibited in Intertidal (2005) – are poignant reminders of cultural objects missing from her inheritance. Compelled by the feel of coal in her hands and its connection to her maternal Trawlwoolway and her paternal Scottish family both of whom worked in coal mines, Gough made five momentous coal necklace works between 2005 and 2012. The weight and blackness of each coal necklace becomes more than personal, constituting for the artist the shared burden of Tasmanian Aboriginal history. Each is a mute memorial of grim times and an invocation to pinpoint and comprehend what happened in Van Diemen’s Land.

Underlying much of Gough’s work is her concern for the missing and the brutality of the Black Line campaign of 1831, the focus of we ran/I am (issued them with slops) (2007). Fourteen images document the artist retracing the Black Line on foot – running and stumbling. Seven pairs of the earth-stained and crumpled calico trousers she wore at key sites hang below the photographs. They have been made to resemble the trousers issued by George Augustus Robinson to his Aboriginal party. In a chilling reminder of the work’s title, Gough quotes from his diary of 3 November 1830: “I issued slops to all the fresh natives, gave them baubles and played the flute, and rendered them as satisfied as I could...Trousers is excellent things and confines their legs so they cannot run”. Here, the instinctual and desperate act of running contrasts with the cool, ordered process of taxonomy, typifying Gough’s knack of spinning together felt response and historical fact to create astoundingly astute and moving works of art that provoke unease. Also in 2007, Gough made three miniature framed works in which Tasmanian words, articulated with black crow shells on cuttlefish bones are rendered precious, signifying notions of Change, Country and Ancestral women’s names.

The following year Gough constructed a memorable and deeply personal work that contains part of her and her family, Some Tasmanian Aboriginal children living with non-Aboriginal people before 1840. In this installation she tries to account for the lost and the missing, the taken children. Unfinished, raw tea tree ‘spears’, representing children in the promise of becoming, are held captive, tamed, in a desperate act of domestication, within the framework of an old chair, whose legs are burnt. The burnt chair signifies the resistance of stolen Aboriginal women who exacted retribution on their colonial oppressors by burning the stock-keepers’ huts. Gough peeled away a section of bark on each of the spears, enabling her to burn the name of one of these lost children into the bare wood. That the work has a minimal organic restraint in its bundled containment of tea tree sticks accentuates an unnerving sense of the collateral damage of war still borne in Tasmania.

Uncomfortable individual historical narratives and their outcomes were also represented in Gough’s powerful 2011 solo exhibition The Missing. She used silhouettes and shadows to re-enact government sanctioned shootings of Aboriginal people perpetrated in the dark valley of colonial Van Diemen’s Land and that are embedded in specific places and trouble the hearts of their descendants. Many materials inviting curiosity and initially invoking humour accrue a sinister edge as the viewer reaches a point of understanding his or her caged predicament within the work.

Gough’s OBSERVANCE (2012) is a powerful and mesmeric meditation on colonial history, memory and uninvited trespass, based on her covert surveillance of eco-tourists in her ancestral homelands. She imagines herself as one of her ancestors, powerless in witnessing the uninvited intrusion upon and ultimate takeover of her lands by European colonisers. In a dramatic reversal of the millions of hours of ethnographic footage taken by Europeans of the subjugated and colonised, here the ‘Other’ holds the camera and takes the footage of those in power. Aboriginal words and translations of introduced things – animals, objects and actions of violence and encounter – that signify a story of displacement and cultural death, periodically float above the relentless walking eco tourists in the footage. Tasmanian words such as droethinner (hang by rope), linghene (flagellate) or lillerclapperlar (whale boat) invade the unsullied stillness of the Tasmanian coast and the natural sounds of winds, birds, waves and the breath of ancestors.

Gough’s oeuvre – in its manifold manifestations and contradictory trajectories, different scales and uses of medium – transcends the cynical serialisation and commodification of the Aboriginal art market. Through time and in finding her métier, the materials of her homeland, Tebrukinna, and the poetic words of her Trawlwoolway ancestors, she is discovering and humbly communicating who she is, what she has lost and also most importantly creating an aesthetic that is understated in its form and disquieting in its beauty and stasis. Like the customary objects of her ancestors it depends on a rhythmical repetition of organic materials, objects or indentations that express meaning and elucidate unease. Through these systems of shared signs and symbols, Gough addresses issues of power and identity arising from historiography. Hers is a multivalent art of unsettledness that exists beyond the written and the spoken.

Thanks to Julie Gough for her assistance with the development of this essay.