Justene Williams talks about dancing her way to the top


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. She is also currently featured in the Biennale of Sydney and has a group show opening in Tassie in June. And there are still six months left in 2016! Tracey Clement caught the artistic dynamo between gigs and asked her about dancing her way to the top.

Tracey Clement: You certainly are having a moment. Do you ever feel like one of those pop star ‘overnight sensations’ who have actually been slogging away for years?

Justene Williams: Yeah! Someone said to me the other day, “You’re the ‘it’ girl!” Like I was just discovered overnight, but it is so not true! I’ve been working for 25 years. I had my first solo show in 1991! As the saying goes, it takes at least 15 years to be an overnight success!

TC: For the Biennale of Sydney, you worked with the Sydney Chamber Opera on re-staging the 1913 Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun. Was this the biggest production you’ve worked on?

JW: Absolutely! And it was also the first time I really got big money. I got the fellowship from the Australia Council, $40 grand a year for two years. Amazing!

It was really interesting working with the Sydney Chamber Opera. (Laughing) I’m low and loose, they are high and tight! Completely different styles, but it was a great experience.

The opera was only performed a few times. But you can still see the costumes and sets out on Cockatoo Island. For a while it was pure aftermath, it looked like the morning after the night before, but now I’ve edited it. There are eight costumes on display. It’s like Bauhaus retail, but I’ve owned it! And there are videos that were in the show and videos of the performance, which I’ve edited.

TC: Working for the stage seems like a natural move for you. I know dance has played a big role in your work for a long time and I always think that if you were born in a different era you might have been a vaudeville-style performer!

JW: I agree. I’ve danced since I was a child and I actually had a job dancing in year 10. I nearly didn’t finish school! I started to work in theatre-cabaret restaurants, you know, like South Sydney Junior Leagues Club, when there’s just a dry bread roll on the table. It was a bit bawdy. Luckily I stayed at school and my dad suggested maybe I’d like to go to uni, and I got into art school.

TC: Now that you’ve had a taste of large scale production, do you think you might do more opera?

JW: Actually I want to make a film. A silent film with live sound: maybe an orchestra playing specially commissioned music, and a folly artist. So you know how I’m interested in female characters in art history that have been overlooked? I want to make a silent film based on Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman), a surrealist film that was made before Luis Buñuel’s more famous Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). That’s for next year, when I get the next instalment of the fellowship money.

TC: Your work is so idiosyncratic, so totally you! How do you describe your signature style?

JW: Lately I’ve started to say that the way it looks is Baroque Grunge. I came from that era, and I don’t think I’ll ever lose it: that messiness, that arte povera aesthetic. (Laughing) and as I’ve got older and I’ve got more money it kind of just gets more baroque, or more gilded or something!

TC: Tell me about your show in Adelaide, Eternal circles in a present whole.

JW: I’m showing five video works, none of them are new. And one of them will be projected really large in the car-park, I’m really excited about that. And there will also be some new live performances with two dancers.

TC: What are the advantages of revisiting old works?

JW: It’s an opportunity. The work is fluid, it doesn’t have to remain the same. I can re-edit if I want to. And you can present them in different ways. The No Mind, No Disco piece, it’s the third time it has been shown in a short period of time. (Laughing) and this time I think I’ll get it right!


Justene Williams: Eternal circles in a present whole
Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia
Until 10 July

20th Biennale of Sydney
8 March – 5 June

Big Cheese
Contemporary Art Tasmania
9 June – 17 July

Interview Words by Tracey Clement