29 Apr 21

Ben Quilty on 150 year, Rorschach 2019

150 year, Rorschach, 2019, is a seven-panel panoramic landscape painting by leading Australian artist Ben Quilty and generously gifted through the Felton Bequest. The third work by Quilty to enter the NGV Collection, it is one of his largest and most ambitious paintings created to date, depicting a landscape familiar to Quilty and his son from regular bushwalks in the NSW Southern Highlands. It is structured to resemble a Rorschach psychological test, designed to tease out the unconscious thoughts of a subject, who provides free-form associations in response to amorphous visual forms.

Simon Maidment: There are two catalysts for making this painting, 150 year, Rorschach. The first being your research into the Gundangara Indigenous language group, who are the traditional owners of the land that you moved to in the NSW Southern Highlands, and the second being an event of accidental discovery. Could you tell me a bit about what you learned about their story, the Gundangara people?

Ben Quilty: The Gundangara Community went almost from what’s now Lithgow over the Blue Mountains right down to the Illawarra Escarpment and Goulburn, encompassing huge valleys skirting around the Nepean and Hawkesbury rivers; it’s a very dramatic landscape. There are no recorded massacres of their people but, where we live, on the old Throsby Estate, which was previously thousands of acres, there were some very violent skirmishes as part of its frontier history. There’s an interesting piece of literature that I found through the University of Wollongong, while researching the Gundangara Community, which details that one family group from around the area completely disappeared without a trace. That’s one of the very rare times in human history that this has happened to an entire family group with no recording of where they ended up. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable stretch to imagine that they came to a grisly end at the hands of one of Throsby’s workers who were very rough, often ex-convicts, or still serving convicts. The violence is not a unique story, it happened everywhere. But, as I research I’ve come to realise that communities up on the other side of Sydney around the Hawkesbury – probably all the way to Newcastle and this way –on the edges of fertile land suffered probably some of the most violence, and often undocumented violence, towards them due to the proximity to the early colony.

SM: Following researching and discovering an eradication of history, and the lack of documentation both around the violent ends that many people of that language group met, formed a backdrop to the second event that inspired this painting. That knowledge would have accentuated the outrage – and disbelief, I guess – that you felt when you came across a plaque in the national park with your son, a plaque which contributes to a rewriting of the history of the area, and an institutionalised amnesia that has been perpetuated. Can you tell me about coming across that plaque and what it said?

BQ: I talked to Aunty Val from the Gunadangara Community about possibly making work about one of the waterholes on the northern end of Kangaroo Valley. A group of them in particular are incredibly beautiful, surrounded by tea-trees and there are high tannin levels in the water, which I had heard was a common feature of birthing sites. These are deeply important locations; thousands and thousands of years of thousands and thousands of births of little people – so profound. Aunty Val gave me permission to go and start researching those places. I’ve been going there for a long time; in fact, when I first moved here fourteen years ago, we swum in that particular waterhole depicted in the painting. I think it’s important that I keep the European name out of the discussion of this waterhole. I don’t think that we Westerners visit those sites with sufficient respect. All of the rocks on the walk to the waterhole are covered in graffiti that’s been chiselled into them over 100 years and, to me, that shows the lack of respect for that place.

SM: It’s graffiti by visitors, interlopers, who are carving their own names into the surrounding rocks of an important, if not sacred, place of the peoples that came before?

BQ: Yes. And now, all the rocks, all those surfaces, are covered in white people’s initials carved into the rock, or ‘Dean loves Julie’. It’s appalling. It’s absolutely appalling. It was on the last visit there that I took my son. There was a reverence to our visit; it felt to me like a great responsibility to try and imbue my son with an understanding of what these places meant. And not only an understanding for him of what it meant, but also to give him the tools that I think he needs, to have the level of respect that I expect in all of us. And he does; there’s no doubt about it. When we were leaving the waterhole, he started reading the National Parks and Wildlife sign there. It was early in the morning; we’d got there before the sun had risen and I was impatient to leave. He started reading and the text says the location has been a favourite gathering place for locals for more than 150 years. With beautiful ferns and moss-covered rocks, it provides a quiet haven for swimming or just relaxing in the cool, quiet surrounds. I was so … I was so angry and so devastated to read that the National Parks and Wildlife in 2019 would think that that’s a sufficient explanation of such a profound site. To entirely ignore the history, not even mentioning the Gundangara, the people who used that space for so many thousands of years. Walking around the site, looking over it from above the waterfall, it’s easy to imagine camp sites where people lived, where people probably had dwellings built. The meaning of that site is totally lost on us and totally lost on the people who graffitied their names into the rock.

SM: It’s interesting you mentioned this knowledge and awareness that you were active in passing onto your son, trying to understand and being open to what’s come before. But also, it’s a sense of learning how to look, to see things in front of you in a different way, with many layers over the top. There is a discrepancy between European colonising institutions looking and only understanding the site in terms of modern or contemporaneous swimming, relaxing and the contemplation of the sublime, while other profound and long-lasting relationships with that site can be seen; they should be obvious, but require a completely different way of looking. This idea of looking at the same thing and reading something different is paralleled in the painting with the incorporation of the Rorschach test, created as a psychological test. The psychologist holds up an ink blot to a patient and asks, ‘What do you see in this?’ It becomes about projection and interpretation. So, there’s an incredible parallel here, despite having worked with that form for more than a decade in your paintings, in this work there is a parallel with this knowledge that you’re asking, not only your son to consider, but also the audience for this painting to consider.

BQ: There is a war of recognition in Western civilisation, a totally narcissistic reading of history by my people, a flaw that explains the covering up of histories of people that have been here for far, far longer – and some would argue in a far more sophisticated, peaceful way that ensured longevity of the human race than today. I feel like the creatures in the 150 year, Rorschach painting are symbols of our culture blocking out the truth, of obscuring the view. I think about this work in terms of gremlins crawling on our psyche.

SM: There’s the insertion of these gremlins in the form of introduced species, symbolising a wreaking of havoc, the destruction of the native flora and fauna. But there’s another symbolic figure, representing the havoc and destruction of introduced humans. It is a white ghostly figure; what is the source of that figure in the landscape along with the fox, the toad, the goat and the cat?

BQ: The white ghostly figure, which is as close as you get to a figurative self-portrait, is a drawing I made of one of the last sculptures that Auguste Rodin created, of Vaslav Nijinsky, his ballet dancing friend. The figure is fittingly misplaced in 150 year, Rorschach – it’s a totally incoherent placement of that image on top of a landscape. For me, it is engaging quite directly in that conversation about Western civilisation being better than everyone else; an ugly narcissism in my opinion, for any culture to believe they’re better than anyone else.

SM: In this painting you placed those figures onto the canvas first, using a reverse stencilling approach and protecting them before painting the landscape and creating the Rorschach. And you are creating a real Rorschach, you’re not painting something that resembles one, but you’re painting an image and while the paint is still wet literally pressing the canvas together after and pulling it apart against the tension of the huge globs of paint that you use. So, there is a kind of violence and physicality present on the canvas that’s the result of a physical intervention, working with the painting as an object as much as a pictorial surface, that resonates with the hidden violence of the histories in the landscape.

BQ: They’re the biggest single panels that I’ve used like that. I wanted it to appear like a Japanese screen, to make it feel like it should be a decorative, beautiful thing. In a sense, it is a decorative, beautiful object, but with a really dark meaning. For me, that’s when painting works the best, when it lures an audience in, which by the nature of ‘Rorschach-ing’ is what I’m trying to do: to lure my people into a confronting sense of truth, into a reassessment of our place in that landscape, or in that symbolic sense of landscape. The only landscapes I have ever exhibited use this act of ‘Rorschach-ing’. My engagement in the conversation is manifest by destroying the landscape that I spent time building, an act that I hope leads people to consider our brief history here, rather than to merely celebrate how beautiful a place is.

SM: You’re among a number of people to publicly draw attention to the lack of memorials for that kind of violence in Australia. But this painting, being a painting for your people, I think acts less as a memorial for this violence and amnesia affecting the site, but much more as a provocation to ask our society, ‘What do you see when you look at these sites?’ Is that how you see this particular work – as more of a provocation than a memorial?

BQ: When I look back on my painting Fairy Bower Rorschach, [2012, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney], from about ten years ago, I think that was a celebration of beauty to make people think, ‘This is so pretty’. They would then read the wall text and discover, well a massacre happened here. So, how do you think about it now? That painting is more of a memorial. But, you’re right, this painting’s a provocation and there is a level of anger; there’s no doubt about that. There’s no bigger issue for me if I’m going to stay living in Australia and calling myself Australian, than confronting those issues. It’s absolutely a provocation and I’m happy to have a discussion about it with anyone. But does it do anything? Well, yes it will, if the NGV put it out there for people to see, then yes, it will.

This was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 23 Jul–Aug 2021.