Bea MADDOCKRichard BUTLER, We live in the meanings we are able to discern Enlarge 1 /7
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Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 1934 – Launceston, Tasmania, Australia 2016

  • England, Europe 1959-61, Canada 1978

Richard BUTLER

Australia born 1958


We live in the meanings we are able to discern 1987 Description: seven panels

Collection Title: We live in the meanings we are able to discern
Place made: Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, pigment wash, charcoal and encaustic on canvas and cibachrome photograph within wooden framework; seven parts Support: canvas and cibachrome photograph

Primary Insc: Signed and dated reverse of each panel, fibre-tipped pen "Bea M '87".
Dimensions: overall 115.2 h x 527.1 w cm
Acknowledgement: Gift from the ANZ group to the Australian National Gallery on the occasion of Australia's Bicentenary 1988
Accession No: NGA 88.378.A-G

Bea Maddock’s work has ranged across printmaking, photography, sculpture and painting, often merging these disciplines in ways that are subtle and uncontrived. An important aspect of Maddock’s work is her interest in the written word, drawing upon diaristic references and extracts of poetry, prose and philosophical texts. Implicit in her adaptation of language is the suggestiveness of the sounds and the multiple meanings of words, often questioning the nature of human existence.

We live in the meanings we are able to discern came out of a journey that Maddock made to Antarctica in 1987, at the invitation of the Artists in Antarctica Program. It is the first of her Heard Island Trilogy paintings that developed from numerous delicate sketchbook drawings tracing the topography of Heard Island. The painting extends across seven panels that are in turn divided into three distinct layers. The top half reveals a panoramic vista, referring to the traces of human occupation and the sparse expanse of a glacial wilderness. Inspired by the idea put forward by Australian anthropologist, Dr Rhys Jones, that ‘Heard Island today must be like Tasmania was in the last Ice Age’, Maddock incorporated Aboriginal place names from south-west Tasmania through the centre of the composition.1 Stretching across the base are compartments containing twenty-one repetitions of a single photograph of a glacier in subtle, shifting tones. This repetition of elements has a filmic, hypnotic quality, in parallel with the words that are like an incantation.

The combination of elements reveals a physical and an introspective journey relating to environment and history. As Roger Butler writes,

‘The blues and greys are the colour of ice and water, but also the colour of ash – ash from Aboriginal campfires and bushfires ­– references to destruction in the past and in the present.’2

In the mutability of references across time and place, Maddock evokes absence and presence – a sense of loss, isolation and the reclamation of memory – of images and words inscribed and recalled in the consciousness that informs this intensely poetic, meditative work.

Deborah Hart

1Bea Maddock quoted in Ann Kirker and Roger Butler, Being and Nothingness: Bea Maddock, 1992, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, p.105.

2ibid., p.33.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002