It could be argued that expressing what cannot be expressed is the driving paradox for all art. It could be a slight mark on paper, or a concert at a stadium. Willoh S. Weiland’s works are closer to the latter. Often extraordinary feats of multimedia performance that involve visual elements, sound and collaboration, they have a poetic tone and are very much alive. Components of her work can appear as small absurdities—an ice-cream cone shaped as a breast, a monologue sent to space—yet they touch on current concerns, including our relationship to technology and feminism, and are imbued with mysticism and critique.
From 2010-2018 Weiland was the director of APHIDS, a Melbourne-based artist-led experimental arts organisation operating for 25 years. Now living in Hobart, she is a creative associate of Mona Foma (Mona’s summer festival of arts) and continues to undertake research and make art. Her most recently performed work, Howl, part of the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Art Monster Theatres, was an homage to twelve artists whose work has been historically and recently censored. Through a parade set to Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, the piece combined elements of a DIY carnival with a protest against censorship, profiling controversial local artists such as Soda_Jerk and Jason Wing.
Brash and articulate, Weiland tells of her upbringing between Belize in Central America and Australia, which she describes, respectively, in heady and bare terms. “I grew up in this very idyllic Caribbean black culture,” she says. “We lived on a boat and it was a very dreamy and magical place with dolphins and mangos.” When Weiland was eleven her mother, a sculptor, bought a piece of land on Kangaroo Island where they both lived for some time before moving back to the Americas. Then, as a teenager, Weiland was back in Australia at boarding school in Adelaide. “These places had a contrast, I guess, in creative expression,” says Weiland. “But also, I really think it formed my interest in language and narrative. I grew up speaking Belizean Kriol, which is a language constructed under slavery composed of riddles and double entendres; this speaking to power where power doesn’t know.”
Alongside power and language, collaboration is central in Weiland’s work. “It’s a process that I find endlessly fascinating and it really drives my excitement and interest in making work,” she explains. Her longest artistic partnership to date, from 2008-2015, was with varying scientists, and led to the creation of three works known as the Space Trilogy, which explored, each in their own way, interstellar communication. “The works themselves pose artistic questions but really what was driving me was the collaboration of the scientists,” recounts Weiland. “How that conversation evolved really determined the way the artworks were constructed.”
More recently, she’s worked with the National Older Women’s Network—a group promoting the rights, dignity and wellbeing of older women. “In Sydney I worked with a group of 120 women,” says Weiland. “They were all there at 9:45 am for the shoot, all so full of generosity and intelligence, and across the day they took their gear off and totally engaged in this experimental and weird film.” The work emerged as a participatory multimedia installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of The National in 2019. It granted entrance to one audience member at a time, who watched the short film alone while eating a choc-top ice-cream shaped as a breast.
Not incidentally, Weiland is aware of the vulnerability and awkwardness for an audience participating in performance art. Her methods both draw viewers in, while still allowing unease as a generative space of friction. Qualities of the carnival can aid this. “The carnival is useful in that sense because they rely on things like music, repetition, the uncanny and location,” says Weiland. “And all of these things circumnavigate the resistance that we all naturally have towards anything happening.” Likewise, humour also renders the important issues in Weiland’s work more palatable for those who need it, such as the aforementioned Lick Lick Blink, which ultimately speaks of women’s treatment and lack of visibility in cinema. But humour can also unsettle in a contemporary art context; there’s uncertainty of whether you’re allowed to laugh due to the rarefied nature of art, and Weiland describes this state as “rustling peoples’ psyches.”
A fascination with human behaviour continues in Weiland’s research and artmaking, as does her focus on feminism. Currently, she is developing the project My Monster which centres on Tamagotchis, the digital pets popular in the late 90s. “I’m obsessed with Tamagotchis and how they were so intense because they could die if neglected,” says Weiland. “It’s such an intense state to put into something inanimate.” In addition to this project, she’s working with researchers at University of Melbourne where she’s looking at the masculine-gendered assumptions in computer science engineering. “It is the stuff of science fiction and it’s relevant,” she explains. “I’m always trying to muscle into the conversation and go, ‘Hey, dudes’.”
The Art Gallery of South Australia is currently open, with social distancing and hygiene measures in place.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.