Justene Williams by Lucina Ward

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Several of Justene Williams’ major projects over recent years have been inspired by early twentieth‑century modernism. Channelling Dada cabaret or Futurist opera through a lens of Australian suburbia, she uses mass‑produced objects, digital collage and redundant technologies, adopting the colour and textural excess of a shopping centre, musical theatre or strip club. The artist’s ‘baroque grunge’—the term captures the action, energy and emotion of her practice, three constants in her oeuvre—combines performance, video, costume and sound.(1)

For A metal cry, a performance work Williams produced for The National 2017: New Australian Art exhibition at Carriageworks, Sydney, she turned to collage techniques and the absurd. Large in scale and ambition, she deconstructed the instructions for Misamagia, an unrealised 1916 performance by the Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero, using, as Alex Gawronski observes, ‘historical and pop‑culture references in order to re‑examine forgotten imagery’.(2) Williams was inspired by Depero’s ‘amazing sketches’, describing how his costumes:

'had all these musical instruments attached … I was just drawn to them, so I made my own versions … Do you move so you make sound or do you just think about the shape you’re making and whatever the sound that’s created from that movement is what the work is? I was interested in which one comes first'.(3)

Wearing bright costumes hung with chimes, or incorporating accordions into the armpits and crotches, Williams’ 21 performers negotiated large dyed and painted fans constructed from pleated paper blinds. During the 20‑minute, non‑linear performance without narrative, they performed against a richly geometric and patchworked backdrop, with assemblages of sensor‑activated pedestals, chairs, televisions and mirrors, to form a riot of colour and onomatopoeic sound.

The artist acknowledges being inspired by her father’s wrecking yard and her early training as a dancer. Blurred and painterly early photographic works, from the series Can’t live without plastic 1996, suggest a body in movement or viewed through water while the mannequin‑like figure in the large diptych Gemini 2018 exploits the collage effects of her large‑scale installations and performances.(4) For her three‑dimensional or time‑based works, Williams chooses objects or ‘assisted readymades’ for their histories, stories that might emerge, in turn, through performance. She approaches wastefulness as a tool, reworking and cannibalising her own work, ensuring a constant supply of materials and many times to ‘get it right’.(5)

Williams takes the grand tradition of the gesamtkunstwerk, subtly undermining it through absurdist humour, a sense of play and a joyous feeling of making do. By restaging or reinterpreting utopian and dissonant projects some unfinished or unfulfilled, many canonical in the history of the avant‑garde—and by examining the role of the body and sound for pre‑language communication, she reimagines bridges between corporeal and intangible worlds. From historic sources, and the creative spaces forged within them, Williams makes new mythologies for the twentieth‑first century.

(1) The artist quoted in Anne Loxley, ‘Inside the snow dome’, in Pamela Hansford, Erin Brannigan et al, Justene Williams: The curtain breathed deeply, Artspace, Sydney and Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2015, p 74, and communications with the author, February 2020, NGA file 2017/0164.

(2) Alex Gawronski, ‘Artist text’, The National, at the-national.com.au/artists/justene-williams/ametal- cry/; see also ‘Curator Nina Miall on Justene Williams “A metal cry”’, at soundcloud. com/thenationalau/justene-williams, accessed 28 January 2020.

(3) ‘Justene Williams: A metal cry’, You Tube, 22 May 2017, at youtube.com/watch?v=CkZE6zcRwQ8, accessed 7 February 2020.

(4) Collection National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

(5) Justin Paton, ‘Justene Williams, Sarah Cottier Gallery review’, Frieze, no 140, 1 June 2011.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Ward, Lucina. "Justene Williams" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 368-369.

LUCINA WARD is (a/g) Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Justene Williams appears in