Six Walks Episode Three: Eleanor Jackson on art, motherhood and taking up space in the Melbourne Arts Precinct Transcript

Introduction by Annika Kristensen, Senior Curator, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art

Six Walks is a series of audio walking tours, commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), and released in the lead-up to the forthcoming exhibition and research project Who’s Afraid of Public Space?, opening in the summer of 2021–22. Continuing ACCA’s series of Big Picture exhibitions, Who’s Afraid of Public Space? explores the role of public culture, the contested nature of public space, and the character and composition of public life itself, engaging with contemporary art and cultural practices to consider critical ideas as to what constitutes public culture and to ask, and who might it be for?

Six Walks continues a rich history of artists, writers and thinkers engaging with, describing and depicting the various pleasures of walking, This program began as an invitation to six Melbourne-based writers to develop a narrative response to an area of the city that held a particular interest to them either personally or professionally, socially or culturally. These Six Walks were largely written while under strict COVID-related lockdowns – at a time when walking was one of few freedoms afforded to those of us in Melbourne. The series release has been timed to coincide the easing of these restrictions, allowing for expanded horizons and encouraging a renewed interest in our surrounding natural and urban environments and to the narratives, knowledge and histories latent within them.

Across Six Walks writers Idil Ali, Timmah Ball, Tony Birch, Sophie Cunningham, Eleanor Jackson and Christos Tsiolkas take us from the Birraung to Royal Park, from regal cinemas to abandoned military defence force bases, tracing desire lines as much as designated paths. They tackle concerns from public housing to motherhood, colonisation, migration, gentrification, restoration, surveillance, resilience, leisure and pleasure. In following their words, walking becomes a form not only of art and literature, but of thinking, observing, research, remembering, poetry, protest, mapping and making. What is revealed is a complex portrait of Melbourne as a city that is constructed from diverse, diverging and overlapping cultural, social, political, economic and historical paths.

New parents are frequently told about the importance of art in a child’s development. From fostering creativity to visual, motor and social skills, art is considered a vehicle for enriching children’s communication abilities, nourishing new thoughts, and aiding expressive exploration. But how do we locate motherhood out of the domestic space and into the public realm, particularly the worlds of contemporary and public art? In her piece for Six Walks, Eleanor Jackson considers the ways in which mothers and caretakers occupy public space, blurring and reinforcing conventional understandings of mothering – using galleries, parks, libraries and the streets in a manner not always anticipated by planners and designers – all the while performing the role of “being mothers” with all the associated complex, gendered connotations that this brings.  

Eleanor Jackson is a Filipino Australian poet, performer, and arts producer. She is author of A Leaving, (Vagabond Press), and her live album, One Night Wonders, is produced by Going Down Swinging. Eleanor is committed to developing and hosting events and experiences that showcase the diversity of poetic language, writers and audiences. She is the producer of the Melbourne Poetry Map, Vice-Chair of the Stella Prize and a Board Member of Queensland Poetry Festival. Eleanor is currently Chair, and was formerly Editor in Chief, of Peril Magazine, an online magazine celebrating Asian Australian arts and culture.

Eleanor Jackson on art, motherhood and taking up space in the Melbourne Arts Precinct:


Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 111 Sturt St, Southbank VIC 3006

The future is the past in preparation.

— Pierre Dac

I came late to art, awkward and tentative. There were no galleries to visit in St Albans in the early 80s. Not that my mother would have taken me. She liked music and dancing and food. Not standing about, staring at things on walls. Later, when we moved to Ballarat, I was shepherded past the original Eureka Flag and paintings of soft, chocolate-box landscapes, for school excursions. I remember little. Not reverence. Not joy.

Someone I knew through university invited me to be a guide for special donors and VIPs at the short-lived Melbourne International Biennial. I knew nothing about art, but I definitely knew how to be nice to important people and that I needed the money.

Between shifts, I stared at Louise Bourgeois’ marble arm sculpture, its Escher-like confusion, even stroked its cool, sensuous heft once, when no one was looking. I swooned (as only the closeted can do) over Catherine Opie’s queer family portraits, unaware that – only a year later – I would date one of the subjects photographed within: a queer punk anarchist drummer on tour with her band from Portland, with magenta hair, who liked the size of my hands, their sculpted, implied masculinity. The veins that traced them, miniature green rivers under olive skin, not like Louise and her delicate, cameo-tinted, marble limbs.

The curator of the Biennial was the gallery Director here, at ACCA, for a while. I know that much. I even got invited to an opening once, for something I can’t remember now, but she was there, with her adamant shock of metallic, brillo-pad hair, her trenchant black attire, the signature glasses. It’s always felt a little derelict down here, this southern part of the city. I wore a Crayola-Coral shift dress that night. A faux pas. At the time, at least. I’ve noticed art people wear some colour now, sometimes. Or maybe just ungodly amounts of Gorman. Times change.

A one-time lover had a work exhibited here one-time, and I attended the opening then too, watched her performance, with its stagey awkwardness and deliberate, forced formalities. She always liked things to be difficult or, at least, uncomfortable between people. She was suspicious of natural relations. Of people who laugh together easily. Sometimes I think I understand her. Other times, I know I don’t. I remember how rosy my cheeks were, after a night on gassy champagne. I think I even smoked still, back then. 

I don’t remember being that person any more.

I don’t come here much now, not with a toddler. It’s too far a walk, for not enough art and I feel awkward and aware of my body and my child’s, the surprising, purplish pink of her vulva as I change her nappy outside the imposing COR-TEN structure, the sticky of her hands, everything on me already clammy, even before I get into the building, as if she had just eaten fistfuls of fairy floss, though she’s still too young for all that.


Vault by Ron Robertson-Swann, ACCA courtyard

Well, the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. And as the… philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is— is not important.”

— United States Army General, William Westmoreland, 1974 – commander of the United States forces during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968

I have a poem about Vault. About the City Square: the City Square that isn’t there. The lightly racist mumblings of my grandparents as they pass this “Yellow Peril”, in all its pre-fab fabulousness.

The poem is mostly lies, except the part about a promise someone else made to meet them there, New Year’s Eve, welcoming the year 2000, under the twinkling marigold of fireworks, the last time I think we all thought seriously about the end of the world as we knew it.

I think about the end of the world as I know it all the time now. Stuck in my house, scrolling stupidly on social media thinking, “this is how it starts, right?” Ignoring scientists and deciding how many lives equal a livelihood.

I stand by the poem though, one line of it at least, about how love was just like this poor, scorned sculpture: love like a leap, and then a lock.

Motherhood, all its forced enclosures, notwithstanding life’s propulsive force, the love-force that cracks its own frame. The promissory nature of its painful inductions: only comprehensible from within. Not even now, on the other side of it, does it make much sense. I love my child so much; I feel almost humiliated when I try to explain it. I never allowed myself to want children. It seemed like it would cost so much. On all levels.

My daughter loves this “yellow cubby”. I tell her the sun’s rays came down too hot one day and then got stuck on the ground with the cool change. She plays hide and seek with me within in its slabbed angles. The sound of gravel crushing under my feet gives me away as I approach her and she laughs, riotous, unbridled, golden and already memory-like in the sunshine.

Queen Elizabeth II thought it should be repainted a “more agreeable colour”, but I want life maximum yellow: some incongruous, rogue, American school bus, complex and unmellow, diabolical and mad, all whistle and steam engine, warning and danger.


National Gallery of Victoria, 180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne VIC 3006

A sign is a thing which causes us to think of something beyond the impression the thing itself makes upon the senses.

— Saint Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana

Before my first child arrived, my husband bought me a two-year membership to the NGV. It was something his mother and sister did, apparently. Take tea and look at art with a baby sleeping in the pram.

Before I’d actually had a child, I had visions of myself, finally unbound from the time constraints of nine-to-five work, basking in the halo glow of new motherhood, strolling casually around this secular temple, the kind of place I go to feel awestruck, now I don’t have God for comfort or closure. I hoped maybe that friends who were working in the city would sneak out for a cheeky long lunch, to join me for a bit of art and adult company, slotting me in their diaries pretending I was a meeting with an important client.

I’ve been once.

Lying down on the oft-trod floor of the Great Hall, its magnificent stained-glass ceiling propped up on stern, black poles, I breastfed my daughter, who temporarily turned blue, teal, Moroccan in the cast of Leonard French’s filtered light. The ultimate baby blue.

I was so tired, I wished for the floor to open up and swallow me, to fold back in on me like stretched dumpling skin over ginger minced pork and then ingest me like some giant, forgiving, confused metaphorical mouth. It didn’t happen.

I simply stuffed my breast back in my shirt, praying breast-milk wouldn’t seep through my bra, while avoiding the upper levels, in case they’d brought out some Madonnas and their Children, for docile, blue-hooded scorn, for nude Cherubic Jesus judgement upon me, some completely unvirginal mother, barely capable of feeding their child in a dignified fashion, let alone sitting demurely waiting for the Magi to visit.

On our way out that day, my daughter gravitated towards the water wall, toddling unsteadily towards its liquid seduction before immediately thrusting both palms into the stream.

Later, picking up her soggy body, drenched from laying giggly, holy palmer’s kisses in the chlorinated water, I remember I meant to have her baptised, because it would give my mum a chance to show off in front all our Filipino family and friends. I’ll get around to it one day, I’m sure.


Forward Surge, Inge King, Victorian Arts Centre Lawn

If one is not half mad, how can one give birth to a dancing star? — Nietzsche

Let us surrender our palaces to the seas

Roiling, relentless, inevitable.

Despite all our clamour and discord

The ocean rises every day and every day

Subsides a little less.

In pitch-black night or Vantablack day

I look at nature’s sheer improbability

And cede to it.

The burnt charcoal of last night’s fire of beach driftwood,

The colour of my husband’s hair,

Back when we were both still young and lounging

On Sun Ribbon, lizard-like against the sculpture.

Now my child and I slide down the face of these

Sharpened waves of rolled jet steel

Where muddy footprints and skaters’ scuffs

Leave their artist’s marks upon our backs

Til we are filthy with creation, and head home

Not caring one bit about what we are all doing here

Or how long it could possibly last.


Mirka Mora mural, near Clocks, Finders St Station

It is a constant idea of mine, that behind the cotton wool (of daily reality) is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are part of the work of art. 

— Virginia Woolf

Like so many things designed to cheer one up, I find this mural utterly depressing.

Depressing because of its cheeriness, the decorative frieze, the painstaking mural, the low-relief animals and angels and strangers, all rainbow yelling at me to be cheery, to let the day’s stresses wash over me and away and down into the putrid Yarra and to ignore the crass gaming venue next door, the depressive rail workers smoking round the corner and the anguished waft of urine that always seems to linger around Melbourne’s city train stations.

It’s been years since I was a daily commuter, and maybe years again before most of us will be, but this ersatz, prismatic garden reminds me so much of wholesale art therapy that I don’t even linger, or dignify tourists who I might be accompanying through the city, stopping kindly when they exclaim “isn’t that glorious?”. If I had to gaze on this variegated cheerfulness every day of my working life, I would surely take a black paint gun to it over time.

Which feels disloyal to the city and to the artist, against whom I hold no grudge.

But who cares? Melbourne is always congratulating itself smugly for being so wondrous and, ironically, it’s exactly the kind of art I suspect I’m meant to like as a parent, charming and innocent, free and incidental, reconnecting me to whatever place we are all meant to come from.

Instead, I just think of all this as a cheerful, mocking barricade to all the complexities of life, which lays its odds at the feet of fractal, fractious gods; which smokes even though we know it kills us because we repudiate all that is good and pure; and everything natural and animal about us is leaking out of us at all times, sour as cut grass rotting in the midday sun and even then very beautiful and very hard to look at.


Fearless Girl, Kristen Visbal, Federation Square

Every status has its symbol – Advertising slogan

When my brother’s wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy, he said something to me about how sad he was to have a male child. Both he and his partner are Filipino and he was sad that his son would one day grow up to be an Asian man. “At least people find Asian women attractive, you know?”

My brother and I don’t have the kind of relationship where we can talk about these things properly, the symbols and symptoms of the world that we live in. Those transportable iconographies, the intangibles that make the tangible happen. So I let it lie, even as I can only deduce what places of hurt and self-reflexive racism his words come from.

When I held my baby girl for the first time, I cried with delight and love and unbridled hormones. A few weeks later, I looked at her and cried to consider the fact that, if every woman I knew had experienced some unsolicited harm by virtue of their gender, then what chance had I to protect my child from the world, its wolf-whistles, wolves in sheep’s clothing, the territorial packs and the slavering mouths, how would I tell her that keeping at bay at the hour of the door with the growl in the belly was something she might need to learn?

They erected a statue here, after another in New York for International Women’s Day. Just a little bronze, a young girl, hands on hips, her short dress ever-flapping in an imaginary wind. I’m not sure when they’ll take it down, but there’s the suggestion that they might. Just a little temporary fearlessness for us for a while.

While she lasts, I look at this little girl, her bold, undaunted stance, her tiny, stick-thin legs and jutting chin and wonder what it takes to have be a girl without fear. I have never been a girl without fear. Not now, not ever.


NGV Australia, Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square

Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.” — uncredited Aboriginal proverb, frequently quoted on travel websites

Between the tragedies of the past

And the inequalities of the present

Rests some kind of poignant sorrow

And the sanguine luxury of hope,

Furtively stored, but held nonetheless,

That all the pain we see and the pain

Rendered invisible, could be more than the material:

Suffering is unpleasant, but hiding from it is heavy foolishness.

It’s bad for children, they say, to have too much

Screen time. But I’ve been parenting by proxy like this,

A hundred days or more now, so, it doesn’t

Feel as bad to walk the virtual gallery with my child on my lap.

She likes to drive the mouse, and says, “squeak squeak”

While doing so. We look through Western Arnhem land

Representations of spirit beings on bark.

She calls the figures on them “babies”.

“What’s this baby doing?” She says. “What’s his name?”

I don’t correct her and explain as the explanatory panels do,

Just say the babies are telling stories.

The point is not to know right now, but to learn:

Good sorrow, good grief, good sorry, good spirit.


Artplay Playground, Birrarung Marr

It’s always better to be looked over than overlooked – Mae West

For years, Deborah Halpern’s tubular tripod stood out — proudly — front and centre outside the National Gallery, a crazed, bent dinosaur of happiness and kitsch.

Now, from my peripheral at the playground, I can just see this cheesy delight, out of fashion and probably saying something dated and passé: like “happy 200 years Australia, you slime ball colonialist”. To be honest, I appreciate the sentiment, even as I own a precious Jenny Kee jumper and don’t mind a Ken Done scarf. As I’ve said before, forced cheerfulness disturbs me. In the distance, despite its size, the sculpture seems toy-like and mundane. I wonder why there was such a hullabaloo to move it.

The river seems mossy green in this light, the leaves of the trees along it minty and lime, giving way to the patchy, grassed bank. We’re waiting for my husband to finish work, to stream out of his office like all the other Collins Street 5 o’clocks.

I’ll never know another city like I know this one: not New York, no matter how potently the “no” signs figured: no standing, no standing any time, no parking, tow away zone, snow zone, bus lane, buses only. Not Bangkok with its golden temples, its lurid neons, the posters the posters the posters the billboards. Especially not Sydney: I don’t like their suburbs. Nor the Opera House, or the Bridge. Just the humidity, the unalloyed magic of sun and steam that spawns Rousseau-like bougainvillea over wrought-iron balconies and makes my thighs chafe. I hate how dry Melbourne can be. How summer leaches the fern and forest away leaving dusky dry olives and tawdry wisps of starched grass.

If we are always leaving one place and coming to another, I am always swinging back here, like a door on its hinge, back to this place, this town, my hometown.

As my child plays, she leaps across chasms: known to unknown to unknown again. She runs her hands over the equipment, asks for help, does not ask for help, falls down, starts again. I sometimes smile at the other parents and carers, mostly women, but sometimes men. Sometimes we make conversation. My child discovers, I unearth with her, a stick, a stone, something unpredictable. She riffs on the sand to make it a beach, manifests the unintelligible conclusion that we are travelling to the moon and “can you get that boy over there to share his cheese sticks?”

Nothing is here and she sees it. The facts cede to possibility. We do not exist except for her imagination: she conjures me, I conjure her and, benignly, in the distance, the angel watches over us with her twee, green smile.

Six Walks has been commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art as part of the exhibition, Who’s Afraid of Public Space. For more information about the exhibition and to listen to other walks in this series, please visit ACCA’s website, ACCA acknowledges the support of Creative Victoria in the development of the Six Walks series.