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 working at that 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 was a key location of 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 fibreglass 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 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.
Justene Williams is having a big year. The Sydney based-artist, who is known for her wildly choreographed performance videos which feature elaborate immersive sets and over-the-top costumes, is having her first solo show in South Australia, Eternal circles in a present whole.
A slew of live events and performances has been announced for the Biennale of Sydney, which opens on March 18. Over the opening weekend Justene Williams–known for her Dada-inspired immersive art environments – is working with the Sydney Chamber Orchestra to re-imagine Victory Over the Sun, a futurist opera first performed in St...
The 20th Biennale of Sydney, inspired by a quote from author William Gibson, is titled The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed. This edition will be presented at venues conceived by Stephanie Rosenthal as “embassies of thought.” An embassy traditionally functions as a state within a state: a host country...
Justene Williams discusses her diverse arts practice and giving new life to found objects. See Pleasure & Reality at NGV Australia. Free.
Justene Williams talks about her new work for The National 2017: New Australian Art.Carriageworks, Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia present Nicholson's new work at the first edition of this six-year biennial.
'I want the viewer to try to take it all in - it's one performance across many screens.'Handmade sets, costumes and a collection of CRT TVs are the foundation of Justene Williams' video installation 'Crutch Dance' (2011). The artist wanted to draw attention to the prevalence of screens in our lives and how we are 'bombarded with images and...