Brisbane-based contemporary artist JUSTENE WILLIAMS speaks with Yvette Dal Pozzo about her installation ‘Given that/You put a spell on mine/Uterus’, which features in Part Two of Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now.
YVETTE DAL POZZO (YDP): Tell us about the genesis of the idea for this work?
JUSTENE WILLIAMS (JW): The work was made in 2014 when I received a commission through Artspace. It was made as a part of an exhibition called The Curtain Breathed Deeply. In preparation I made collages which included artworks by [Fernand] Léger which depict women reclining and pipe organs. In creating the installation, the pipe organs became lights and the hierarchical tower became like an altar piece or a female form.
I made the video works first. They were speaking to a broader investigation throughout The Curtain Breathed Deeply using holes as a mechanism to peep through, to look through to death, to peer beyond thresholds or to look at interior holes in bodies — all sorts of orifices! At the time I made this I was mourning the loss of my father, so the work is contending with death. However, at the same time there was a joyousness and discovery of my body through meeting my now partner, so it also encompassed the joy of sex and life. So these two opposite experiences inspired the work.
YDP: Why is it important to you to utilise readymade materials in your work?
JW: Because I feel for the objects somehow. My father owned a wrecking yard, so I grew up around objects that were left or discarded but had been given another life. As a child I’d sit in decommissioned cars with my sister. Sometimes you could turn the ignition and move the steering wheel and it would start to work. I imagined the life of the objects and dreamt about where they could go. I like the idea of visual artists giving objects another life. As an artist you imbue energy into objects through intention, ideas and making. I feel second-hand objects have an existing vibration, energy or history that’s lying dormant. By revisiting those objects the viewer can experience them again, informed by the prior history we already understand but seeing it in a different way.
YDP: What is it about the Ford Ute that you are interested in reinvigorating in this work?
JW: It was my Ute, [but] was originally my father’s car and he gave it to me. From thinking about the original [Fernand] Leger image I had seen I just imagined the Ute being the centrepiece to the exhibition [The Curtain Breathed Deeply]. I had translated the organs [from the Leger painting] into lights and the Ute became the plinth. The Ute also acts as a point of transition. At the time, I was making videos about psychopomps [Santa was a Psychopomp (2014)], spirits whose role was to take souls to the afterlife. Similar, too, were the ancient Egyptians, who made beautiful boats to cross into another realm.
What I love is that the work can operate on these different levels — there is no one set meaning and people can take what they want from it. The Ute, for me, when I was growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney, was a symbol of the macho male. As a girl who grew up around cars I wanted to own this idea. The Ute was a way of taking that symbol of machismo and making it mine by building up the female form on top of it. It was about turning the idea of the Ute around and playing with it, like in the title making ‘Ute’ part of ‘Uterus’. I was trying to reclaim those symbols of masculine identity.
YDP: The work features a Ute, stark white fluorescent lights, a barbecue, and a large freezer, evoking the aesthetic and feeling of the Australian suburbs with elements combined in an unexpected way. What draws you to this subject?
JW: It’s what I know, I suppose. It was my experience growing up in the suburbs. There was a part of me that hated it and a part that found it quite intriguing. I often think the strangest things happen in the most ordinary places. Houses with nicely mown grass and clean fences, you never know quite what goes on in those spaces. Also, the aesthetics and vernacular of the suburbs are quite particular. For me, the inclusion of ordinary suburban whitegoods like the fridge and the freezer are a nod to minimalism but in a daggy way. They’re shonky and not pristine. They’re certainly not manufactured in a way Donald Judd would make them!
YDP: That’s a great reference to a kind of shonky, jumbly minimalism. I love the dialogue you set up between found objects and art history.
JW: There’s always an ad-hoc formalism in my work. As I sit in my mother’s house here, I can see where my father renovated the house. He wasn’t a builder, so everything is sort of on a slanty, shanty angle — nothing is perfect. The world isn’t perfect and the surfaces of those found objects aren’t perfect. They have lived a life and they will never be on perfect 90-degree angles.
YDP: As an artist and a university lecturer you have an active relationship with art history. How does this shape your work?
JW: I suppose it saved me, in some ways, when I had a crisis of faith in making work a while back. I looked back to art history to rekindle a love of art and look over the things that had come before. I was drawn to peripheral figures. For instance, when I looked at [Marcel] Duchamp and his circle, that’s when I started to find artists like [Elsa Hildegard] Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, whose life and work had been sidelined. These figures were sometimes women and, for me, that was interesting. This idea of being overlooked then manifested in a different way in my photographic practice.
YDP: Given that/You put a spell on mine/Uterus is an altar to female sexual expression and desire, but incorporates key tropes from prominent male artists such as Dan Flavin and Marcel Duchamp. What conversations come from incorporating elements from these artists?
JW: Somehow it’s like looking back and reviving or resuscitating those spirits. It was also resuscitating these ideas through a female body. There is also a love, for me. I love their work, but somehow the work is rethinking histories.
YDP: You often like to create installations or environments in gallery spaces on a large scale. What is the importance of scale and immersion in your practice?
JW: I really just wanted to take up space. I wanted to choreograph the viewer through a space. I felt like I was creating particular experiences and emotions through using different colours, textures, sounds and spaces. It was a way of getting the viewer to experience the work in a real way or on another level other than just being stationary. I wanted the viewer to enact the space in some ways, like the idea of a ‘total artwork’. Architecture and site are also really important to me. I dream about filling a space and putting a particular feeling in there. Really, I am trying to create other worlds.
YDP: There are five video works placed throughout the installation featuring nude bodies and genitals in densely patterned environments. Some show nude men tending and caring for an abstract anthropomorphic form — there’s a sense of labour and work throughout, a labour of love or desire. Why is the depiction of labour central to your work?
JW: This idea of honest labour is just something I have grown up with. My parents have instilled in me that you have to work hard, and it always comes out in the work. At the time I made this work I was interested in the idea of men helping and tending to women. It also draws on tropes of classical nudes, but rather than women prancing around, I was just swapping it.
YDP: One of the video works You/I put a spell on mine shows an Auslan translation of song lyrics from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s love song ‘I put a spell on you’. What is the importance of the relationship between music, gesture and dance in your practice?
JW: I have never felt very easy communicating directly with speech. I always think it is easier communicating with the body through dance or gesture. Visual images—like photographs and paintings—also use another language that is highly coded, which you have to be attuned to. I’m interested these languages, and in not being so direct.
This was the first time I have used Auslan in my work. The girl signing was my student. She had a hearing impairment which had improved due to a medical intervention, so she was out of practice and got the translation of the lyrics slightly wrong. I thought it was interesting that in this translation there were slippages. The repeated gestures and black and white background in those videos were meant to be something quite hypnotic. I was using repetition as a way of getting people into another state.
In 2020 I made the live performance work She Conjured the Clouds for the Sydney Festival where I worked closely with the deaf community in a very real way. There really wasn’t much speaking at all in that performance it was just a lot of hand movement and I learned [non-oral communication] really was another language.
YDP: To me, the reference to hypnosis is so strong in the work, with the pulsing and flashing present in the black and white video works drawing you in to the installation, which then towers above you.
JW: That’s exactly right. As a young girl who went to a Catholic school, I really loved a lot of the aesthetics and the ritual of the Catholic church, where there is the altar, the vestments and the twinkling lights. The theatre of the Catholic church is just extraordinary.
YDP: The pinnacle of this particular altar is a video titled Vjayjay of a nude, hairless vagina (mons pubis) viewed through a peephole. While the female nude is present everywhere throughout art history, this fragmented view is unusual. Why appealed to you about presenting the female body this way?
JW: Because it was my body, I suppose, I really didn’t want to show my whole self or the nude as we are used to. I wanted it to be about looking very directly; when you cut the circle like that and you look through, you have a very specific lens.
It’s a good question and no one’s asked me before, maybe because they’ve been too shy. Looking back on it, it’s very specifically about the woman’s sex. I also wanted it to be animated and moving. At the time, I was starting to become sexually active again and I was also starting to think about reproducing for the first time. There’s nothing more female, but a lot of the time it doesn’t get shown [in art] — everyone always shows the tits. It was also a Duchampian reference [to the work Étant donnés] but in his work the woman was lying there flaccid, not doing anything. Mine was active.
YDP: Who are some Australian women artists who have shaped your practice?
JW: Clarice Beckett. I love her paintings and she didn’t have an easy career, so she has been very interesting to me. Friends, particularly, like Sarah Goffman. I love her practice and she has shaped me through her conversation. Mikala Dwyer, of course, who is one of my very closest friends and collaborators. She has definitely shaped my practice and the way I am as an artist.
My work is also shaped by people that don’t make art, like curators. Anne Loxley, Charlotte Day and Natasha Bullock [National Gallery Assistant Director, Curatorial and Programs] have all been fantastic. For me, it is also the women behind the scenes, not just other artists, because all of us work in the industry together.
YDP: What does it mean for you to be involved in the exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now?
JW: It’s great, of course. I think it’s important for the nation’s capital to have this large exhibition of women artists. You could say it is timely, but at the same time it should have happened in the 70s or 80s. I am glad that Given that/You put a spell on mine/Uterus will get another life. For it to be shown again many years later is great.