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Exhibition view: Justene Williams, Project Dead Empathy, Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney (10 November–15 December 2018). Courtesy Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney.
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.
Interested in the supernatural, mysticism and shamanism, Justene Williams believes that art is magic. Through the Australian artist's videos, performances, photographs, installations and sculptures—which are also informed by history and wider cultural systems such as religion, rituals and mythology—Williams offers an inquiry into the lifespan of histories, objects and beliefs.
Williams first gained recognition in the 1990s as a photographer, a practice that stemmed from her experiences of working in retail shops where she took quick snapshots of shopping malls with disposable cameras. Later, her projects expanded to include car shows, strip clubs and other scenes of suburban Australian life. Williams also extensively utilised staged settings such as in ‘Bunny Boy’ (1997), a series of 13 photographs of a man who poses before a red backdrop. Dressed up in a bunny outfit that is more commonly associated with a feminised sexual trope, the male model’s cheerful, cartoon-like makeup contrasts with his downcast expression and slumped posture—his arms crossed over his chest as if in self-protection—hinting at the precarious state of his masculinity and his apparent acceptance of its fate. The works produced during this period are marked by their blurring, distortion and intentionally lo-fi aesthetic which was characteristic of several artists’ practices working at the same time in Sydney.
Upon moving to Boston in 2005, Williams discovered that her lack of a green card meant that she could not work but could devote her time entirely to art-making. Working on an almost non-existent budget, she gradually shifted from still photography to constructing costumes out of discarded materials and performing impromptu in them before a camera. Bighead Garbageface Guards Ghost Derr Sonata (2008)—one such work created in her basement in Boston—is a six-channel black-and-white video installation inspired by the Swiss nightclub Cabaret Voltaire which served as a place for avantgarde performances, poetry readings and music concerts in 1916. Williams often references the works of Dada artists associated with the nightclub in her videos; in one film, she plasters herself in found photographs and other paper materials akin to Kurt Schwitters’ Merz collages and constructions. In another, she performs in a geometric and segmented outfit reminiscent of Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s puppets designed for Cabaret Voltaire.
Williams’ reinvigoration of salvaged objects and the works of early 20th-century avantgarde artists have come to define her practice. In her video installation Crutch Dance (2011), 12 second-hand television monitors show the artist running on a found treadmill, then dancing on crutches in a room where the walls are covered in red, yellow, white and black triangular patterns. She wears a cardboard costume in a corresponding design, the colours of which recall the geometric compositions by Piet Mondrian that were inspired by dance and movement (such as Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942–3). By staging Mondrian’s paintings as moving sculptures, Williams playfully challenges the domination of early abstract art by male artists. Similarly, the dancers’ clothing in the live performance A Metal Cry (first presented at The National: New Australian Art at Carriageworks, Sydney, 2017) was derived from Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero’s costume designs for an unrealised performance in 1916. Dressing her dancers in costumes with accordions or chimes sewn into them that made noise as the performers moved, Williams turned their bodies into instruments in an exploration of the production of sound.
Mannequins have been integral to Williams’ practice for some time; she uses them in performances as props, often in a futile attempt to bring them to life. For her 2018 solo exhibition Project Dead Empathy at Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney, she replaced dancers with fiberglass mannequins with absurdly long body parts or limbs arranged in comical poses. One mannequin titled Concord (2018), for example, flaunts its elongated left leg. Another stands upside down on a chair (Communion, 2018), while all but one of them wear virtual reality glasses as if engrossed in an otherwise invisible, exclusive play.
Graduating with a BVA from Western Sydney University in 1991, Williams received her MVA from Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, in 2006. Selected solo exhibitions include No Mind, No Disco, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide (2016); The Curtain Breathed Deeply, Artspace Sydney (2014); and Handbag Hammer Meditation, La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse, Montreal (2013). Williams’ work has also featured in a number of group exhibitions, notably the 20th Biennale of Sydney (2016), for which she collaborated with the Sydney Chamber Opera to restage the 1913 Russian Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun; Pleasure & Reality, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2015); Performa 15, New York (2015); and Right Here Right Now, Penrith Regional Gallery (2015).
Williams lives and works in Brisbane.
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.
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