Katy B Plummer is like a one-person film industry. She is the costumier, set designer, propmaker, star and director of her own unique style of genre-busting videos that tread a clever and fertile line between being laugh-out-loud funny and deeply troubling. Her elaborate props and costumes are sculptures in their own right, and they demand both attention and physical space.
With a renowned practice, Plummer pulls at the threads of preexisting cultural narratives, prompting political, personal and existential questions. When Art Guide visited Plummer in her Carriageworks studio in Sydney, the artist spoke about relishing having space to herself while surrounded by other artists, as well as making the most of her inner high school thespian, and wrestling with her “art fairy”.
Place: I’ve been here at Carriageworks since January 2021 and the residency is for just one year. It has really been amazing to not have to make everything at home. Last year, I had this pair of long, soft witch’s legs draped over a chair, and I was yelling at my kid to do his homework and he said, “I just need somewhere to do my homework that doesn’t look like a horror movie!” That’s what our house looked like; it was full of these big creepy things all the time.
The other thing that I’m really loving about the studio is, I was really isolated before. I came back into the art world after a seven-year-child-having break. Which means that all of my uni peers went off to different places, so I didn’t have a cohort. But here I’m surrounded by other artists who are working, and I can have conversations with people who aren’t my kids, or the television. Or the budgies.
I’m juggling family and paid work, and because my work is pretty labour-intensive, I try to be in here all the time. So whenever I’m not doing other things, I’m here. And I put in long days. Sometimes not much actually happens. But that feels important too; to just have times where you can stare at the ceiling, or just be in among your stuff for a couple of hours.
Process: I think that deep, deep in my biographical history is high school theatre. And that’s where my creative roots are. My work is really narrative driven. And if it’s not an explicit narrative, then it’s about how narrative works. Something I’m really interested in is taking a pre-existing narrative and kind of emptying it out: either a myth, novel, play, or some other cultural story that already exists, and then refilling it with my own meaning.
And it will start with a character, and the character always starts with a costume. But I’m not a natural seamstress. All of my sewing skills are gathered and half-baked, so it’s a messy process and takes a long time. And that’s really where it starts; I’m just building this web from which the character, all this other stuff, stretches out to make the work.
Ever since I started making video and performance work, I’ve been in my own work: the artist as ‘the self.’ And if there’s somebody else it’s ‘the other’, and that would often be Kuba [Dorabialski, Plummer’s partner]. Then when I came back to making work [after having children], I was seven years older and I was chubbier. And there was a little minute when I had the feeling like, “Oh, I have to find a stand-in, I can’t be the actor anymore because I’m not cute.” But that was a brief moment. Then I thought, “I’m not going to kick myself out of my own work so that people don’t have to look at my chubby, saggy self!”
I feel like so often in my work, I am asked to do something that horrifies me. Of course it’s one hundred percent me asking. I call it the ‘art fairy’, and it will just go, “I have an idea. You’re going to hate it.” And there’s this kind of laughter underneath that. I don’t like to be embarrassed, or in danger; but always in my work there’s this thing happening where I’m continually being hung out to dry. And I do find it really hilarious.
I’m often talking about really tough things, and making them into comedy makes them manageable. But it also disarms people. One minute we think we’re in this friendly world where everything is soft and cute and a little bit adorable, and suddenly we’re talking about violence as a political tool. I find that collision really fertile.
Projects: I’m really interested in the moment when a story flips; when the threat of violence, or the explicit violence, is no longer enough to keep a power imbalance in stasis. I’m really drawn to historical events that contain that. The French Revolution is one I’ve worked with before—suddenly, the monarchy can’t keep that power imbalance in place, and they lose their heads. You see this too in the work that I’ve just finished about Mussolini’s execution.
After he was killed in 1945, his body was moved to the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. A crowd gathered and enacted this sort of strange, horrifying, cathartic experiment: like they were trying to figure out how to rebalance the scale. They shot him, even though he was already dead, and hung him up by his heels, like smoked meat. And I thought, “What if Mussolini was a salami?” It was just one of those images. Like once you think it, it made me laugh and I couldn’t unthink it.
The first quarter of this year has been completely nuts; I haven’t looked up or breathed. So now I’m really excited to start working on something that I don’t already know what it’s going to look like. It’s been a while since I’ve had the luxury of doing that. I’m working on these ladies with luminous strap-on noses; they’re kind of speculative ancestors. I don’t know what the purpose of art is, but I know I’m really compelled to do it. And that feels really human to me.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.
This interview and studio visit was conducted prior to Sydney’s 2021 COVID-19 lockdown.