Justene Williams: Dumpster Diva - Art Collector

Issue 46, October - December 2008

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Justene Williams claims for her work a “poor aesthetic” and a working class, make-do spirit. Critics say she has developed her own poetics of suburbia. The artist spoke to Tracey Clement on the eve of her exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Photographer and video artist Justene Williams is living proof that necessity is indeed the mother of invention. She recently moved to Boston, Massachusetts, with her partner performance artist Tony Schwensen. Schwensen took up a teaching position, but Williams didn’t have a green card. Unable to work, she found herself in a paradoxical situation: she was able to become a full-time artist for the first time in her career, but on a non-existent budget.

A self anointed “dumpster diva”, Williams searched the streets for materials, coming home with bundles of newspapers, now destined for a different kind of recycling. And as she explains, the combination of time on her hands, no money and the freezing conditions of a Boston winter, “forced me into the basement.” There, she jokes, “I made work with Freddy Krueger in the boiler room.” In this dark windowless space, with only the warmth of the furnace for comfort and company, Williams says, “I faced my demons…It actually freaked me out sometimes, the stuff I made down there.”

What Williams made in her basement is a series of black and white videos: Bighead, Garbageface, Guards, Ghost, and Derr Sonata. In these videos she pays tribute to legendary nights at the dada Cabaret Voltaire, using photos, poems, performances and writings by radical artists such as Kurt Schwitters, Man Ray, Sophie Täuber-Arp and Jean Arp as sources of inspiration. In her multi-layered moving images, figures wearing rustling newspaper outfits, like media-savvy yetis, perform strange shambolic shuffles in rooms plastered with pages ripped from magazines; treading a fine line between avant garde poise and straight-up slapstick. Or, as Williams puts it in her typical self-deprecating manner: “I’m making bad costumes and dancing badly.”

Actually, neither Williams’s moves, nor her paper haute couture, are anything resembling bad, but they do have what she calls a “poor aesthetic” and a working class, make-do spirit, which was characteristic of her work long before unemployment in the United States. In fact, in some respects, it was a pragmatic kind of making-do that led her to photography in the first place, via the unlikely route of retail.

Raised in Sydney’s sprawling south western suburbs, Williams went straight from high school to art school, after a short teenage detour as a cabaret performer. Following a Bachelor degree at the University of Western Sydney and several overseas residencies, she completed a Master of Visual Arts at Sydney College of the Arts. But despite these achievements, and an impressive list of exhibitions, Williams has spent most of her adult (and artistic) life, working retail jobs in the rag trade, a fact that has had a huge impact on her practice.

Williams explains that as a part-time artist, sans studio, she was drawn to photography because: “I was always working in retail. It was the easiest thing to do. I was always snapping away in the shopping mall. It was quick. I loved the speed.” In the 1990s, she became known for her images of the ‘burbs, her way of coping with the non-stop consumption and information overload she faced every day working at the coal face of late capitalism.

As a photographer, Williams would take enormous numbers of images and her working method was an “editing process”. With this in mind, her transition to video seems logical, perhaps inevitable. However, Williams still identifies herself as a photographer, it remains her driving passion. Despite their complexity and the labour she expends creating her sets, Williams has no intention of becoming an installation artist. She describes her crazy paper creations as, “costume for the camera” and her videos as “moving photos” saying: “The intention is to bring sonic resonance to the silent medium of photography through movement and costume.”

Williams’s love of dressing up, and the almost perverse pleasure she takes from making disposable outfits out of rubbish, is also linked to her years in rag trade retail. And it was there that she learned to work a certain kind of magic; the ability to make something from nothing. She’d be told by employers: “Make the best window display you can, here’s ten dollars.” Looking at the elaborate sets and inventive costumes of her recent work, it’s clear that Justene Williams hasn’t lost her magic touch. •

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