Julia Robinson (b. 1981) is based in Adelaide, the city in which she was born and raised. Her works of art explore universal themes of growth and decay but through the particular lens of European folklore. Robinson is fascinated by curious social behaviours surrounding morality and mortality, such as superstition, ceremonial rituals and the customs of cautionary tales.

Robinson’s sculptures and installations reflect these interests in a material sense too. She frequently borrows from European historical costuming and Elizabethan-era sewing and pattern-making techniques to create her sculptures. The results are highly detailed, fastidious and labour-intensive installations that combine elements from ceremonial costumes with references to animals and plants or abstracted forms that allude to the human body.

Beatrice

detail: Julia Robinson, Australia, 1981, Beatrice, 2019–20, Adelaide, silk, thread, felt, steel, brass, gold-plated copper, foam, cardboard, pins, fixings, dimensions variable; © Julia Robinson/Hugo Michell Gallery.

Robinson’s installation Beatrice defies categorisation. Is it a plant, an animal or a fantastical beast?

The inspiration for Beatrice combines two allegorical figures. The first is the mythic Greek sea monster Scylla. Having once been a beautiful sea nymph, Scylla was transformed into a treacherous sea monster by bathing in poisoned waters. With writhing tentacles, a female torso and a ring of barking dogs at her waist, Scylla is described as a chimera – a creature combining two or more parts of an animal. The second figure is the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter, written in 1844. Rappaccini, the father of a girl named Beatrice, was a scientist whose botanical experiments were barbaric and seen to contradict the natural order of God. This meant Rappaccini had tampered with nature. He had created a garden full of deadly plants. Beatrice grew up tending the poisonous jewel-like purple flowers of her father’s garden, making her resistant yet toxic to others. For Robinson, the figures of Scylla and Hawthorne’s Beatrice are twinned; both women are the making of a malicious creator and both are the embodiment of death.

Robinson’s Beatrice is a chimera of its own. The writhing tentacles of Scylla meet the poisonous purple plants of Rappacini’s garden. Robinson becomes a Rappaccini of sorts, she is the creator of a new species, splicing together a hybrid creature that defies the rules of nature.

Look closely at Beatrice. What do the forms, colours, and textures of the sculpture remind you of? As a class make a list of all these things. Are there common observations? Which parts most remind you of an animal, plant or vegetable?

If Beatrice was alive, how might you think it would move? Would Beatrice be friendly or do you think this hybrid would be one to avoid?

Superstitions often prevent good or bad actions, for example breaking a mirror may bring you seven years bad luck. Research other superstitions designed to bring good or bad luck. Invent your own unique superstition.

  • Robinson is a creator of new species, splicing together a hybrid creature. Beatrice is a chimera, an organism that is made of cells from two or more organisms. Draw your own chimera by joining two organisms together. You might combine a plant and an animal or join two different animals or two different plants together. Create a 3D version of your chimera using textiles, clay or plasticine. What is the name of your new hybrid? You may like to make your new creature using recycled materials, plasticine or textiles like Julia.
  • Make a ceremonial costume that celebrates your natural environment.
  • Robinson draws inspiration from belief systems including myths, fairy tales and European folklore. Select your favourite fairy tale or book and create a work of art inspired by the moral in the story.
  • Beatrice represents the two allegorical figures, the Greek sea monster Scylla and the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter. Robinson has included symbols such as the purple fabric to represent the poisonous purple flowers in the narrative. Select an allegorical figure (a character who represents an important moral or ideal). Create a sculpture which illustrates the key elements of this figure’s story, rather than a literal representation.
  • Grafting is a horticultural technique where tissues of plants are joined so they can continue to grow together. Beatrice features lots of grafting cuts in the “stems” of the tentacles, leaving open the possibility of the installation to be further hybridised. Complete some observational drawings of plant species in the Botanic Garden or in a garden of your choice. Draw additional stems or tentacles that could be added to Robinson’s sculpture.
  • Robinson is inspired by Elizabethan-era sewing and pattern-making techniques to create her sculptures. Investigate Elizabethan-era garments and other historical textile techniques. You might like to begin by observing works on display in the Gallery, take note of the attire worn by people in historical paintings. Sketch these details and use them as a starting point for creating your own work of art.
  • Beatrice represents the two allegorical figures, the Greek sea monster Scylla and the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter. Robinson has included symbols such as the purple fabric to represent the poisonous purple flowers in the narrative. Select an allegorical figure (a character who represents an important moral or ideal). Create a sculpture which illustrates the key elements of this figure’s story, rather than a literal representation.
  • What does mutation and hybridisation mean? Are these good or bad?
  • Investigate grafting techniques used in nature. What are the benefits of tampering with nature in this way?
  • Create a written response to Beatrice. You may like to write from the perspective of the sculpture or imagine Beatrice has come alive and is in search of an environment to live. What are its predators? What does it eat, how does it move and what sounds does it make?