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Julia Robinson



Works chronology  
misc misc OneToRot Goodfellow Goodfellow  
Structure for Navigating an Afterlife - by Joanna Kitto

Across time we have created elaborate narratives and rituals surrounding death as a way of demystifying our own mortality. A discomfort with the finality of death has led to a belief in some form of life-after-death or reincarnation. Julia Robinson’s most recent work, Structure for navigating an unknown afterlife, explores the spectrum of this very human reckoning with our inevitable fate.

Taking her cue from religion, folklore and myth, the Adelaide-based artist’s sculptural installation proposes a possible funerary housing or monument, carrying with it a multiplicity of notions surrounding death and rebirth. In the artist’s studio, she shows me an illustration by William Blake, The Descent of Man into the Vale of Death. The etching depicts spirits descending through a maze of winding tunnels, before Hope illuminates a possible path to an eternal home.
Like Blake, Robinson suggests multiple paths from death towards the great beyond. Linen and ashen cedar-clad tunnels branch out from the body of her looming structure, similarly recalling the entangled shafts of Ancient Egyptian pyramids created to allow the soul to find safe passage to the afterlife (and to prevent thieves from disturbing their journey).

The balance between above and below is seen across various belief systems and mirrors the eternal cycles of nature. A tree rises upwards in life and returns to the Earth in death: decomposition, in turn, leads to renewal. Christian thinking suggests the soul ascends skyward, to the heavens. The Old Testament sees Abraham and Moses climb mountains to meet their God, who passes on laws and decrees to carry back down to the Hebrews. Altaic shamans of Siberia follow line-drawn maps that lead them towards the supreme heights of their Upper World without getting lost.

Structure for navigating an unknown afterlife sits within a history of bodily casings that have long been part of death ceremony. Bodies have rarely been left exposed. Instead, they are wrapped or encased before burial or cremation. The practical motives behind this custom have too been obscured: in the idea that covering the body protects it from evil spirits and facilitates travel towards the next place.

Robinson speculates that funerary housing plays a dual role. She says that they are not only a resting place for the dead, but also a vessel of transition, conveying the soul towards the uncharted territory beyond. Perched atop tall haunches, recalling the goat and deer familiar in her practice, Robinson instils the inanimate structure with anthropomorphic traits. She evokes a figure ubiquitous across theologies surrounding death: the psychopomp. Guiders of souls from the realm of the living to that of the dead, psychopomp have been depicted as anthropomorphised entities; stag, raven, even the howling wind. The enduring cult following of the Grim Reaper and the jackal-headed Anubis demonstrates our deep fascination with death and dying that is echoed throughout Robinson’s work.

Towering over her audience at nearly three metres in height, this is Robinson’s most ambitiously scaled work to date. The title, assertively didactic in nature, positions it within a history of museum displays; exhumed relics and reconstructions viewed behind glass encasing.

Robinson’s interest in mortality arose from the debris of her strongly held religious beliefs, a collapse that saw her begin to build a new ideological framework around death. Structure for navigating an unknown afterlife suggests an attempt ‘to trace the untraceable, to chart a path between worlds, the exact dimensions of which remain unknown’ .

Robinson draws on a myriad of influences to create a vernacular that is truly her own. Rather than commenting directly on superstition or faith, she harnesses their narrative power to draw our attention to contemporary societal responses to profoundly human concerns: life, death and fear. Structure for navigating an unknown afterlife presents a possible model for moving on from death. And like the rituals from which it takes its cue, moving on is not reserved for the souls of the dead.

communication with the artist, September 2016
- Joanna Kitto, 2016
The Song of Master John Goodfellow - by Jenna McKenzie

Resonating with the bawdy ebullience of Early Modern festivals, Robinson’s most recent work, The Song of Master John Goodfellow, explores and subverts the socially-laden taboos of sex and death. Taking its title from Francois Rabelais’ notorious series of satirical novels,Robinson’s work draws our attention to a fascinatingly formative period in Western history, one that still exerts influence in many ways today.
Written in a climate of increasing religious oppression in the build up to the French Wars of Religion, Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel pentalogy was censored for obscenity. The works, which presented the adventures of two giants and became popular for their licentious, scatological, and vulgar content, abound with the same intelligent wordplay and punning that is a hallmark of Robinson’s works.

Like Robinson, Mikhail Bahktin was drawn to Rabelais’ work for its significance in reflecting a social system’s balance between permitted and not permitted language. In Rabelais and his World (1965), Bahktin also identified two subtexts that made the Gargantua and Pantagruel novels so subversive during the French Renaissance. Firstly, they presented what he termed the ‘carnivalesque’, a period of collectivity, disillusion of normal social structures, and heightened focus on sensual, material, and bodily unity with nature associated with Feast Days and festivals. Secondly, the novels presented the carnivalesque in the mode of ‘grotesque realism’, whereby bodily changes connected with death and renewal (such as eating, sex, and evacuation) are given prominence.

Like Rabelais, Robinson invokes the carnivalesque by means of grotesque realism in The Song of Master John Goodfellow. Overtly phallic gourds are at once concealed and revealed in an intricately smocked covering or an elaborately collared prophylactic sheath. And in a masterful act of inversion, two communing gourds are presented within an elegant stage-like structure – their top ends partially hidden from the viewer in an act of modesty, their copulating nether regions exposed for all to see. By deploying devices of corporeal cunning, Robinson imbues inanimate objects with anthropomorphic qualities.

Robinson’s work stems from an enduring interest in the varied responses humans have to sex and death, that are registered in ritual, religion, folklore, and fear. In this new body of work, Robinson deftly explores and exposes how we react to these phenomena. At one end of the spectrum we respond with celebration and openness; at the other, with concealment and repression. In The Song of Master John Goodfellow, Robinson reminds us that this dynamic of polarization is not something new.

During the 1500s Europe underwent the major changes of religious, political, intellectual, and cultural upheaval heralded by the Renaissance and ushered in by the Reformation. The advent of the printing press had permanently altered the structure of society and enabled unprecedented mass communication. As the feudal structure of the Middle Ages gave way to the mercantilism of the Renaissance, Sumptuary Laws regulating dress standards and reinforcing social hierarchy were issued in Elizabethan England. Popular feasts, such as May Day and the Winter Revels, were also outlawed in favour of puritanical observance of Christian holidays.

By using the vernacular costuming of the Elizabethan period, Robinson transports her audience to a time when England had begun to bid farewell to the time-honoured popular festivals that framed the natural cycles of the year. That act of censorship and control resonates across an expanse of 500 years, inviting us to reflect on how we are censored, how we censor ourselves today, and what is lost in that process. Perhaps the most significant revelation inherent in this latest body of work from Julia Robinson, however, is that art need not be a forum for merely representing carnivalesque experience, it can be a form of Saturnalia itself.

- Jenna McKenzie, 2016
Heresy and Butchery - artist statement

The mystification of death and our emotional responses to it, forms the conceptual realm of my practice. While the ‘afterlife’, the ‘occult’, Satanism and witchcraft have been recurring themes, the mythologised devil, often represented as a goat, forms the starting point for this body of work.

The work in Damn your eyes extrapolates the form of the goat into bawdy and bizarre configurations suggestive of rituals, unnatural acts and mutations and thus subjects it to quiet acts of malice and butchery. Despite the 'sinister' overtones, humour is never far from my mind and I aim to tread a line between the macabre and the comical, perhaps erring more on the side of a visual pun or cruel joke. In Booth an overt sexual allusion is present as the half priest, half witch-like form, positions the face and the arse end of a goat together in a lewd union.

The game of substituting parts becomes a process of material surgery. Using found or fabricated objects in lieu of body parts I become a sort of butcher, slicing off bits deemed irrelevant or redundant. A lamp for a head, a tripod box for legs and body, skewers for tongues - these are all in a state of material make-believe - mimicking the thing they replace yet still retaining their authority and identity as discreet objects.

In these composite forms fabric becomes a signifier, denoting animal parts; hence a lampshade covering seems more skin-like and a kindle of firewood is suggestive of both branch and limb. The works as a whole attempt to evoke both the domestic and the barbaric, suggesting a world where firewood could easily incinerate a heretic, or simply light a home fire. Ultimately, it is this push and pull of gentility and brutality that both spurs me on and stays my hand.

Julia Robinson

[essays should not be reproduced without permission from the authors]









Bachelor of Visual Art, (Honours) Adelaide Central School of Art, Adelaide
Currently Lecturer, Adelaide Central School of Art, Adelaide
2016 Structure for Navigating an Afterlife, Art Pod, Adelaide City Council
The Song of Master John Goodfellow, GAGPROJECTS
2015 One to rot and one to grow, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia
2013 Pinch wood, Fontanelle Gallery, Adelaide
Some to stone, Anna Pappas Gallery, Melbourne
2012 Some to the stone, Latrobe Regional Gallery
2011 Damn your eyes, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
Slumber or perish, Anna Pappas Gallery, Melbourne
2010 The Sound of the Beast, Anna Pappas Gallery, Melbourne
2008 Here’s to my sweet Satan, Anna Pappas Gallery, Melbourne
2005 Howling around your kitchen door, Studio Gallery, Adelaide
Food goes in here!, Grote Street Library, Adelaide
2004 eat, wolf, the Project Space, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide
2015 More love hours, Ian Potter Museum of Art
do it (Adelaide), Samstag Museum of Art
2014 Dark Heart, 2014 Adelaide Biennial, Art Gallery of South Australia
Melbourne Art Fair, Greenaway Art Gallery at Royal Exhibition Building
Inner workings, Greenaway Art Gallery
Be Consumed: Creative collaborations from the Barossa, The Jam Factory
2013 Neck of the woods, Adelaide Central Gallery
2012 End of the World, Fontanelle Gallery, Adelaide
New Work, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
Deep Space, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
CACSA @ 70:Members Exhibition 1, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia
Pass it on, FELTspace, Adelaide
Heysen Sculpture Biennial, The Cedars
2011 Imagining Interiors, The Jam Factory
Third Impact, Light Square Gallery
2010 CACSA Contemporary: The NEW NEW, The Gallerie, Adelaide
Flyblown, FELTspace, Adelaide
Nameless Cylinder, Dianne Tanzer Gallery, Melbourne
2009 Between us, Adelaide Central Gallery
Nameless Cylinder, Seedling Art Space
2007 Infernal Cake, Anna Pappas Gallery, Melbourne
Maladies and Remedies, The Project Space, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia
I am afraid, Anna Pappas Gallery, Melbourne
2006 Sensible Shoes, Adelaide Central Gallery
Maptacular, Downtown Art Space, Adelaide
Things will be great, MOP Gallery, Sydney
2005 Petrified Nature, Downtown Art Space, Adelaide
Superstructure, West Space, Melbourne
2004 Primavera, Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney
Thousand-Fold, 151 Hindley Street

Further Doings, Downtown Art Space, Adelaide

2016 The Advertiser Contemporary Art Prize, SALA Festival 2016
2015 Arts SA Independent Makers and Presenters, Project Development Grant
2013 Arts SA Independent Makers and Presenters, Last Minute Presentation Grant
2011 Australia Council Grant, New Work
Arts SA Independent Makers and Presenters, Project Development Grant
2008 Arts SA, Independent Makers and Presenters, Project Development Grant
2007 Arts SA, Independent Makers and Presenters, Project Development Grant
SAYAB (South Australian Youth Arts Board) Project and Development Grant
2004 SAYAB (South Australian Youth Arts Board) Project and Development Grant
2015     Varieties of Religious Experience, Ken Bolton, The Dark Horsey Form Guide, Vol 15.3
             One to rot and one to grow, Kirsty Darlaston, Artlink, Volume 35: 3
             Dancing and Dying, Lisa Slade, Broadsheet, Volume 44.2
2014     Curating the curative: talismanic tendencies in contemporary art, Lisa Slade, Das Superpaper, March 2014
             Jump cuts, John Neylon, The Adelaide Review, Issue 415
             Conjuring up a dark heart for modern art, Brett Williamson, 891 ABC Adelaide
2013     Bodies cast in a state of sexual ambiguity, Robert Nelson, The Age, March 13th
             Playing the Fontanelle, Wendy Walker, Art Monthly, No. 265
2011     Sympathy for the Devil, Jennifer Kalionis, Artlink, Volume 31:4
             Death Becomes Her, Sinead Stubbins, Melbourne Weekly, August 31st
             Oh my Goth, John Neylon, The Adelaide Review, Issue 376
2010     CACSA Contemporary 2010: The NEW NEW, Lisa Harms, Artlink, Volume 30, No 4
2009     Satan and Friends, Inga Walton, Textile, Issue 1, No. 93
2008     No ifs or butts, Ross Moore, Sightlines Galleries, The Age, October 3rd
             Two Adventures in Three Dimensions, Megan Backhouse, Art Guide Australia, September/October
             Dante’s just dessert, Inga Walton, Profile, Fibrearts, September/October
2007     The Infernal Cake, Inga Walton, Craft Culture, March 24th
2006     Maptacular, Stephanie Radok, The Adelaide Review, Issue 290
2005     Petrified Nature, Sera Waters, Artlink, Volume 25:1
             Primavera 2004, Alex Gawronski, Broadsheet, Volume 33.4
2004     eat, wolf, Sarah Quantrill, dB Magazine, Issue 339
             Petrified Nature, Sera Waters, dB Magazine, Issue 344
Art Gallery of South Australia
Private Collections in Australia