48: Charlotte Watson – No Such Thing as Summer

15th Oct 2021

This edition of the City Art Reader features a snippet from the 2021 short film Confluence which focuses on Charlotte Watsons art practice, our interview with Watson and an essay by Watson. No Such Thing as Summer runs 12 October – 1 November 2021 at City Art Depot



Excerpt from Confluence (2021)
Directed by Eva Otsing @evaotsing
Music by Ji Yoon Lee @jiyoonyi
Sound Design by Weronika Raźna @popupweronik
Colourist Mars Williamson @practiceinpublic


Ahead of her exhibition No Such Thing as Summer Charlotte Watson discussed her body of work with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston.

Cameron Ralston: What initially drew you to the Merri Creek area? Is it local to you?

Charlotte Watson: At the time (I’ve recently moved), yes. I lived next to the Merri Creek for about 7 years. It’s probably one of the few green and water corridors in the north of Melbourne. As you know, Melbourne is very flat, very dry. The Merri Creek feeds into the Yarra River.

If we can go back one step, to preface this. Just before the March 2020 lockdown I came over to New Zealand and I walked the Mataura River. I walked from the Waikaia River, then where the Waikaia met the Mataura and then walked the Mataura River all the way to Waipapa Point. It took me about six days of road walking by myself. I followed the route that an ancestor of mine supposedly rode on a horse by herself to get married. The Foveaux series in this exhibition is the sunsets I would see as I walked towards the coast. I got an understanding of the edge of the land. I trained for that walk along the Merri Creek because it’s a place in Melbourne where you can walk for hours and hours. 

So, I trained at Merri Creek, spent a lot of time down there, came over to New Zealand, did this massive massive project and then came back to Melbourne and lockdown hit about straight away. The only way I knew how to cope was to keep walking. So I continued to walk for about 2–3 hours a day. It was my processing time and I’d become so used to walking as a means of thinking and doing and making and writing. 

Then I started to walk in the evenings. I would find (as I found in my artist residency in Finland) that my days were so under-stimulated that when it was time to go to bed, I couldn’t relax. So I would walk to exhaust myself. There was a lot of concurrent things happening at the time. I entered into a relationship that was quite uncertain, so there were all these layers of uncertainty coming on top of one another. That’s where the exhibition title comes from, ‘No Such Thing as Summer’, because it felt like this was going to be a perpetual winter lockdown. So that’s the context of the walking and where some of those works came from. 

Te Ara a Kiwa / Foveaux Strait (Yellow), monotype on paper, 280x235mm, 2020

When you were in New Zealand, walking the Mataura River, were you thinking that would be something you’d turn into artwork?

Just by nature of who I am, probably. But I wasn’t specifically doing it to make work from it. I was doing it because I needed to. That ancestor was involved in pulling up bodies from the Tararua wreck in the late 1880s and from what I understand, she caught pneumonia from being in the water all night and died. So the place that I stopped the walk was that lighthouse that was built after that shipwreck happened.

It’s very powerful thing to do. Is there something in the act of walking that you wanted to translate into these works?

Absolutely. It’s observation. When you’re walking you move at a particular pace. It’s trance-like. I would find in both the walk along the river or the creek, after about half an hour to an hour I would find I could just go on forever, which is sort of like a flow state I get in the studio. There’s quite a lot of research around this, walking and thinking are highly conducive to one another. A lot of writers have been walkers. I guess I’m also interested in walking from a gender perspective. That story was told because she was a solo woman travelling by herself. To other people, the farmers around me, I was a marvel because I was a woman travelling by myself. The responses I got from men, as opposed to the responses I got from women, as I was walking were significantly different. Women would be like ‘Good on you, go for it! I wish I did something like that when I was younger’ and then the men quite literally told me not every Kiwi is a nice bloke. The Merri Creek is similar. Walking in the evening, particularly as a woman – people get murdered down there. It’s not a safe space. But somehow during the lockdown, because there were less people out there, I would flirt with walking at dusk a lot more. It felt safer, or maybe I became emboldened more. 

Nightwalk I, monotype on paper, 430x345mm, 2020

You capture a lot in the works – the light, the flickering edges, the movement of the bats, overlapping layers – it feels like there’s a lot of mystery in there. I’m wondering if that’s an emotional space you’re depicting?

Absolutely. I was walking the creek for all sorts of reasons. I think to process the walk that I’d done in New Zealand. To process this weird relationship I was in. To process this lockdown. It was all happening at once. Like a lot of people, I really went through peaks and troughs emotionally last year. Some of them were quite bleak. 

The bats were a consistent point. They come out at the same time every night. They fly up these green corridors eating the nectar on their way through the trees. It is definitely a psychological space down there because I knew it was risky but I kind of needed to do it. 

Merri Creek (Canopy), monotype, 355x275mm, 2020

I’m interested in the methods you use to capture the vibrancy of the night air in the monoprints. I notice in the edges of objects there’s some gestural strokes and the bats have quite a lot of movement. Is that quite a deliberate thing on your part?

I think that painterliness is something that makes monoprinting appeal to me. It is drawing. I’m a bit of a cowboy when it comes to printmaking, there’s lots of rules when you meet a printmaker who does things a certain way. But I’m like ‘Yeah, whatever’. So, some of the prints in the exhibition have gone through the press 4 or 5 times. They’ve got layers and layers and layers of ink. They’re much more complex than the prints I did for The Small Hours exhibition. In those layers I can start to get depth and mood. Each layer that I make is reflexive to the layer that’s come prior. I use a clear plastic plate and I will create the next layer, hovering it over the previous one or two layers so I can see roughly where it’s going compositionally. So much of monoprinting is guesswork because you never know the final outcome. At the time that I was making those prints I couldn’t go to my own studio. I had a sneaky studio in the gallery that I ran which was just a room with no windows where I would just print and print and then just drop everything, walk out and come back the next day. But psychologically it was like being in a cell. In the process I became quite technical and proficient. I think I made 100 and something prints last year, the rate of attrition is quite high. There was a lot of experimentation going on. And with those prints especially I was mixing my own colours. 

What was the relationship between you being at the place and then bringing that back into the studio?

I would print during the day. I would sneak in, because technically I wasn’t allowed to be there. I would run there and then run home – I had a change of clothes at the studio. Then I would walk at night.

Nightwalk III, monotype on paper, 430x345mm, 2020

Are you depicting actual scenes that you’ve come across or are they more your response to the place?

I’m depicting my response, and I think that’s true across all my work. You have to know something really well to then abstract it. They might be referencing a specific plant or general scene but they’re completely from my head, not from drawings. It’s all happening on the press at the time of making. Same with the ceramics I’ve been doing, there’s no preplanning. 

I guess the linking thing between all the works is dusk. It’s that turning from day to night. There is something about that time, and I must use the word liminal. What I think I really like, and still love, about it is that you have to see in a different way, quite literally in terms of your eyes adjusting. As I was thinking about a title for the show I was looking up what happens with your eyes at night time and talking about purple cones. It’s also a different way of knowing which I think is more broadly what I’m interested in. Such as different cultural ways of knowing or understanding things from a plant or animal’s perspective. Other ways of being in the world. The bats didn’t care that we were in a pandemic, they just went about getting their fruit and nectar every night. I had less freedom than a bat did. It’s that turning of time and almost having to disconnect from our usual way of navigating the world or our automatic way of being and having to use peripheral vision which is stronger at night. In part that’s a survival thing – at night I was always listening for someone coming around the corner or snakes on the path.

Is there something spiritual and ethereal that goes on in that time of day for you?

I think so, I really lean into it because it feeds my healthy respect for the unknown. 

It is a time of heightened senses and with the bats there must be something magical going on.

I still find the bats quite awe-inspiring even though they’re a daily occurrence. 

I saw some bats in the United States and it’s seared into my memory the impression they made on me. Though my eyes couldn’t quite keep up with them it’s still vivid.

Were they in a mass?

Yes, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park there’s a cave which they emerge from at dusk where an amphitheatre has been built for people to watch. They come swirling from this cavern forming a tornado that flies out over your head. I remember the air from a bat’s wings as it flew by my face. The bats then fly out over the desert dissipating into little specks. So, I definitely understand that feeling of them where you don’t quite get a clear vision or snapshot but you get this emotional response.

Especially after you’ve been stuck inside your house for a couple of months. We normally go to a national park to have those awe-inspiring natural moments. But everyone here hasn’t had that for a very long time, so I had to look at my own neighbourhood and found that, wow, those things are amazing. I feel like lockdown suits me, part of me doesn’t want to come out because I like a slower world. I often in normal times feel at odds because I move at a pace that is too slow and observational for how people move through the world. I think lockdowns and walking allow me to have that contemplative time that I need for my practice. When the world is back to normal I can’t do that so much because there are expectations of me.

Do you think you’ll continue to have a focus on walking when the lockdowns ease?

I’m temporarily, maybe permanently, living down by the beach. So, I’ve started sea swimming. Port Philip Bay is now my new Merri Creek. I do still walk, not quite as much, but I spend a lot of time close to the water. 

Is there something about the things you put your body through that you translate into your art practice?

For me, my body and physicality are other ways of knowing, another mind. How well I treat my body will often reflect where my head is. Once you’ve been in lockdown this long is probably the most important thing. It is a way of self-regulating. The walk down the Mataura was the same thing.


Essay by Charlotte Watson

We crossed the shallow boardwalk over the darkening Merri. His shoulders moved under his shirt as he walked, the thick blue cotton a perfect match with the dusk. His voice carried over his shoulder as he strode ahead, oblivious to the hundreds of bats passing silently above us.

‘Autumn’, he remarked, ‘now winter. Haven’t we done well?’

The question hovered in the damp as I kept pace behind him. I felt my stomach tighten. Words sat in my mouth but I didn’t dare ask – I knew there’d be no such thing as summer.

———

Uncertainty carves like a glacier. Earlier in the year I had walked 115km by myself along the Mataura river. Now, it was a breach to walk more than 5 kilometres from home. It was not so much the absence in his question that carved so deep, but the slow accumulation of so many uncertainties on top of one another. By the time the fruit bats caught my eye that winter evening Melbourne had been in a rigid lockdown for over four months. The bats cruised above us searching for nectar and fruit and I wondered how a night creature could have more freedom than me.

Lockdown is never easy, regardless of circumstances. I was fortunate to work from home and was financially secure. In the first lockdown I’d learned that I could manage so long as I could still make art. After a second lockdown was announced I asked him to sneak my printing press into an empty space nearby. While I was grateful to have somewhere to go, the ennui compounded and seeped into the windowless room. Once, when the pile of ‘dud’ monotypes grew unbearably high, I dropped the roller out of my sticky, inked hand. The brass foot fell at an angle, shattering the glass that held the wattle green I’d spent all morning trying to perfect.

Cases climbed and hot spots expanded. I walked to cope and process. Life in the inner north was fairly subdued but it was tug o’ war in my head. I would lay sleepless as his pale shoulders breathed slowly on the other side of the bed, staring at the tired beige wall. On one such night I knew I needed to turn my ship around. What that ship was or where it needed to be, I couldn’t fully say.

As the weeks turned into months my need for the Merri increased. Two or more hours would be spent per day, wandering into areas I hadn’t previously been. This creek, the Merri Merri, the important Wurundjeri site that narrowly missed becoming a highway, was my lifeline. In the evenings I would steal off, emboldened by the lack of people – or men – returning on the edge of curfew, quietly weeping while the bats headed west and Tawny frogmouths breathed to one another in the canopy.

Come spring, his question rang true and the relationship ended. Perhaps trying to be magnanimous, he let me ‘have the creek’. I was hollow but down there it was September as usual. Magpies swooped, snakes woke up and the last of the wattle had bloomed. The bats, later now, soared overhead as I lay on the bridge, the concrete still warm from the day. I was altered while the world around me resumed some kind of normal.