Ben Quilty

‘Bedford Downs Rorschach’ in Ben Quilty: Live!, University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, 2009

Ben Quilty’s Bedford Downs Rorschach (2008) depicts two skulls face to face. The right-hand skull was painted directly, while the opposing skull is its inverse imprint—produced by pressing together the two canvas panels. Instead of being a perfect replica, the second image reveals cracks of raw canvas, laying bare the image’s mode of production. The allusion to symmetry relates to the psychoanalytical tradition of Rorschach inkblots: silhouetted mirror-image shapes used to prompt mental associations in patients.

The subject matter is less distinct or recognisable than many of Quilty’s other, more figurative motifs—often isolated forms on a coloured ground, or accentuated by feverish aerosol outlines—leading the viewer into an abstracted realm in which they must take an active role in decoding the shapes and meanings splayed before them. Quilty relishes the inherent process in which they are destroyed, transformed and discovered within a painted surface through the Rorschach technique. In discussing the way that the image might be ‘read’ by a viewer, Quilty ‘imagined the Bedford Downs work to really confront people with themselves.’[1] The strategy of doubling, while associated with psychoanalysis, was also adopted by Surrealism. By duplicating a symbol from reality, in this case, the skull, it becomes strange, calling into question the ‘truth’ of the original, and therefore the real world in general. Theorists consider this strategy as having the effect of deferral, rendering reality as sign: ‘in being seen in conjunction with the original, the double destroys the singularity of the first…opening reality to the “interval of breath”’[2]. In this work replicating the skull motif leaches the image of conventional narrative or symbolism: the doubled skull forces the viewer to consider its formal presence, the rhythm of its duality, perhaps deferring the contemplation of mortality and history that the work purports to relay. This fracturing of representation and perception is crucial to a reading of Quilty’s approach in general, but especially to his Rorschach series.

Recently, the skull has become ubiquitous, recurring with such regularity in art and design that it is easy to forget that it represents part of the skeletal structure we each possess. However, it does not function as a decorative or fashionable ruse in this work; rather, it is a sign of mortality. Quilty resuscitates the skull motif through the unsettling doubling of the image, forcing us to ‘see again’ through the differences that punctuate the two canvases, and also through his choice of title. ‘Bedford Downs’ is the name of a cattle station in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia, the site of a notorious massacre in which a number of Aboriginal people were secretly poisoned by the station owner, Paddy Quilty, for the theft of a bullock. The story is made more grisly by the fact that the Aborigines were forced to cut down trees and construct the pyre on which their bodies would later be burned. These events were witnessed on a nearby hill by two Gija women, whose accounts permeate the contemporary narratives of the descendants of those killed—most famously, the artist Paddy Bedford, who, in a bitter twist of irony, was given his name by Paddy Quilty.[3]

Quilty remembers being taken to the site as a child, but discovered its unhappy past much later while studying Aboriginal history at Monash University in Melbourne. This led him to explore the links between his family name and Australia’s colonial past. Although not a direct descendant of Paddy Quilty, their shared name and Irish ancestry opened an avenue of enquiry for the artist about the collective responsibility that all Australians share for their colonial past and the way that past is implicated in contemporary exchanges and conflicts. The work highlights the inherent burden of a name; the artist is unwittingly affiliated with a historical monster, and a place that will always bear the weight of its history. Quilty named the painting some time after completing it. The title could therefore be read as the artist interpreting the new vista created bydoubling the initial image, as opposed to a more contrived construction of a particular site or story.

In contemplating the implications of the last century, philosopher, Alain Badiou quotes from a poem by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam written just after World War I, in which our ‘age’ is personified as an ailing beast with whom the author must contend.

My age, my beast, who will be able

To look into your pupils

And with his own blood glue together

The vertebrae of two centuries?[4]


Badiou states that: ‘The question of the face-to-face is the heroic question of the century. Can one stand firmly in the face of historical time? Much more is at stake than simply being in the time of History … the twentieth century’s idea is to confront History, to master it politically.’[5]

The way the skulls are orientated to face one another in perpetual confrontation raises a number of questions in relation to this argument. How can we proceed without understanding the motivations of our forbears? How can we deter the cyclical nature of history from replicating past atrocities? And, perhaps, what emblem can retain its currency when death itself is rendered as sign? Quilty’s ambiguous, but no less moral, standpoint in this painting raises more questions than it can hope to answer, but the emergence of the skull insignia from a muddied ground seems to ask us to examine ourselves, and our past, as if these are revealed to us in a mirror. Perhaps Bedford Downs Rorschach operates as a veiled warning that we must remain Janus-faced: to see the past in order to foreground a future.

Clare Lewis


[1] Ben Quilty, correspondence with the author, 17 December 2008.

[2] Rosalind E Krauss, ‘Photographic Conditions of Surrealism’, in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985, p.109.

[3] See Michiel Dolk, ‘Are we strangers ion this place?’, in Paddy Bedford, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2006, pp.27-28.

[4] Ovid Mandelstam, ‘The Age’, featured in ‘The beast’ in The Century, Alain Badiou, Polity, Cambridge, United Kingdom, Malden, Massachusetts, 2007, p.12.

[5] Alain Badiou, ‘The Beast’ in The Century, p.15.