'Poems are like sentences that have taken their clothes off.' Marlene Dumas' poetic and sensual refrain accompanies her figurative watercolours on view in Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life, the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) in the southern state of Kerala, India (12 December 2018–29 March 2019).Dumas' new series...
The paintings of Ellen Altfest are ethereal in their detail. Fields of minutiae come together as pulsating images; small brushstrokes of oil paint accumulate over a series of months to single out seemingly innocuous subjects, such as a hand resting atop patterned fabric (The Hand, 2011) or a deep green cactus reaching upwards from beneath a bed of...
On the rooftop of the former Rio Hotel complex in Colombo, it was hard to ignore the high-rise buildings, still under construction, blocking all but a sliver of what used to be an open view over Slave Island, once an island on Beira Lake that housed slaves in the 19th century, and now a downtown suburb. The hotel was set alight during the...
Justene Williams' practice has always centred on the re-use of existing materials, with ingenious recycling techniques employed to build the elaborate sets and costumes for her immersive installations, photographs, videos and performances. After the successful production of several major performances in recent years (Victory Over the Sun for Stephanie Rosenthal's 2015 Biennale of Sydney, A Metal Cry for The National at Carriageworks in 2016, and Pleasure and Reality at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2015), Williams began to consider the reprise and re-application of many of the large backdrops, sculptures and costumes for the production of new works.
Project Dead Empathy acknowledges the concept of peak stuff (a term recently coined by IKEA's head of sustainability!) as a functioning component within Williams' practice. The exhibition channels previous motifs; riffng on existing vocabularies of excessive excess to build an entirely new narrative. Working with a master photographic printer, Williams has devised a new form of photography, dubbed bellowgrams, in which the props from previous works are given new life: placed directly onto photographic paper in the established photogram technique, but also sandwiched within the belllows of the enlarger. The complex camera-less imagery produced invokes the spirits of past performances without resorting to the literalism of the documentary mode, whilst also establishing a truly unique form of photographic collage.
Assembled amongst the photographic works in Gallery 1 is a surreal gathering of multi-coloured shop mannequins gazing blindly into virtual reality masks. Each figure sports bizarrely elongated limbs, possibly a projection of the movements they are performing in the fictional/virtual world that they alone are privvy to. The title of the exhibition is important here, empathy, and the lack of it, is a pressing concern for Williams. The virtual reality industry's grandiose claim of creating an "empathy machine" sits in interesting juxtaposition to Williams' unbridled creativity, where the real and the imagined dance side-by-side. Williams has always worked towards investing objects with forceful personae, projecting herself, and her concerns, into the three dimensional—animating the inanimate.
The installation in Gallery 2 is illuminated by an unearthly orange glow. A large perspex chandelier, once used as the Sun in the 2015 performance of Victory Over the Sun, casts its warm light on a series of unstretched paintings. These large wall works take, as their starting point, the back drops and costumes from the 2017 performance A Metal Cry; their collaged compositions are a joyful, hi-vis expression by an artist at the height of her powers.
Justene Williams' collaging activity extends beyond the physicality of cutting and pasting—she reaches back in time conceptually, reviving and recycling imagery from the annals of art history. In BIGHEAD GARBAGEFACE GUARDS GHOST DERR SONATA (screened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2009) Williams conjured the spirits of Dada artists Kurt Schwitters, Sophie Tauber Arp & Man Ray; in an absurd form of art-voodoo at Penrith Regional Gallery in 2010, Williams summoned Rodin's Burghers and Monet's Waterlilies (Berlin Burghers Microwave Monet); and in a triumphant installation at the Gallery of Modern Art/Queensland Art Gallery (Your Boat My Scenic Personality of Space 2012) she invoked the playful antics of Ferdinand Leger's experimental lm La Ballet Mechanique. More recently, the major work The Curtain Breathed Deeply, (a project developed initially by Artspace Sydney and made possible by the Catalyst: Katherine Hannay Visual Arts Commission), a multi-roomed installation that toured the country, called upon a multitude of sources: Matisse, Dan Flavin, classic Greek theatre, Yves Klein, Bridget Riley, hypnotherapy and the language of white goods, cars and garages to name just a few. The Curtain Breathed Deeply was a poignant and celebratory ode to the artist's father. A major monograph on the artist was produced as a part of the commission.
Project Dead Empathy is Justene Williams' 9th solo exhibition at Sarah Cottier Gallery since 1996.
Justene Williams' work is held in the collections of the Art Gallery of NSW, Museum of Contemporary Art, Buxton Collection, Queensland Art Gallery/GOMA, and Monash University Museum of Art. Recent exhibitions include the monumental The Curtain Breathed Deeply which has recently concluded its 4 year national tour; Inaugural Exhibition, Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne 2017; Eternal Circling in a Present Whole: Selected works by Justene Williams, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA), Adelaide 2016; The National: New Australian Art, Carriageworks, Sydney 2017; The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed, 20th Biennale of Sydney, Sydney 2015; Pleasure and Reality at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2015 ; MCA Collection, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney 2016+2018; and Performa 15, New York City 2015.
Justene Williams was on the road to Sydney when we first spoke ahead of her solo exhibition, Project Dead Empathy, at Sarah Cottier Gallery. The back of the car was full with the stuff that comprises her anarchic installations, and I imagined over-long mannequin arms stretching around headrests as we spoke.
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