The National Gallery of Victoria has recently acquired a major installation work, Leeawuleena, 2001, by Palawa artist Julie Gough. Gough produced this work when she was staying at Leeawuleena in central Tasmania with three Palawa artists who were creating fibre works during their residency program at the lake. In a letter to the author in 2001, Gough stated:
I was drawn to the shore of the lake and was most astonished by the water’s action of constantly washing up, casting out, these forms that strongly resembled the heads of ancient birds. Birds have always followed me, and seem to speak to me in unexpected locations. I gathered these silent, bonelike twigs and put a head to each body. Several were collected whole needing no Frankensteinian attentions of matching head with body. They became enlivened and surrounded the hut’s verandah wall where we stayed. They created shadow and watched us. It seems they came through time, through the waters and decisions of the lake to wash them to near where we stayed. Something of the essence of how things were beyond my hands and yet came into my hands is the mystery or language of this work.
I have placed them walking or marching up a gum tree branch in procession as that is how they seemed to arrive into my peripheral vision as I walked the lake shore. They now march up and almost out of a gallery space: the log holds them in wax filled cavities, wax which dripped like bird droppings. These creatures’ movement from floor to wall is suggestive of a further place, a world beneath the floor and after the wall – from where they emanate from and may disappear to. I do not think they are of this time, this world, but manifestations of another that briefly spoke to me.
Leeawuleena is of seminal importance in the artist’s career, signalling a new direction for her practice, an exploration of and absorption with the materials and inner voices of her Tasmanian heartland.
Gough’s earlier works were often re-arrangements of all sorts of objects – golliwogs, coat-hangers, trinkets from cereal packets, kitsch objects from the 1950s and 1960s decorated with Aboriginal-inspired designs – that question representations of Aboriginal people. Her work drew attention to some of the more outrageous chapters in Australian history and of anthropological practice. The ludicrous became an organising principle for things that make no sense – the outlandish, the unbelievable, the obscene – giving her work an absurdist, blak satirical edge.
Here, as she explains in her detailed artist statement, the use of natural materials gathered when walking through her country has brought her in touch with the Palawa people and their spirit in the land. The tools of her storytelling today are the materials of traditional culture, resulting in a deep sense of continuity with her Tasmanian ancestry.
Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2002).