Justene Williams

blue foto, green foto, red foto
Mori Gallery, Sydney
2 – 26 November 2005

‘Blue Foto, Green Foto, Red Foto’ is the collective title for three large video projections of the artist, Justene Williams, making staccato-like movements while dressed in eponymously coloured faux-futuristic costumes. Williams transformed herself beyond recognition into a trio of coloured Gollums, or hideous Coppelia-dolls that performed mechanical mime against a prism of mirrors, the kind seen in strip parlours or pole-dancing dens. It was an impressive and extraordinary spectacle with a strong air of strangeness about it. Why had the artist gone to such lengths to make herself into an odd cretinous techno-beast?

The fast answer is that the artistic tendency towards making strange evinces a deep sense of frustration at the insufficiency of ‘reality’. Conversely, it is within the subconscious of unethical regimes of power to distrust the sinister and the uncanny, because such expressions reveal the natural consequences of bad faith. I would probably speculate that Williams did not have much of this in mind, but ‘Blue Foto, Green…’ was strange enough to rouse more than a laugh. It was so idiosyncratically unsettling that it could make you speculate on some ulterior purpose.

One of the great preoccupations of the avant-garde was dressing up. The dress-up is not the first or even last lesson in doctrinaire modernism, but if you look closely, it is everywhere: from Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire, to Picasso’s Cubist theatre costumes, to Rodchenko’s Constructivist clothing, to the mannequins of the Surrealists. But it was the Futurists and the artists of the Bauhaus (Oskar Schlemmer principal amongst them) who used costume to muddy the divisions between illusionistic painting, sculpture and theatre, so that all three became resolved in one form, allowing the work of art to come to life and to mix within the random events of the everyday. At the same time as bodies experimented with becoming machines, machines ventured into the realm of bodies, epitomised in Leger’s filmic masterpiece, Ballet mécanique (1924). While some of these forays were circuitously self-serving, many more were utopian in intent, aiming to bring the world of machines together into harmonic union with the subjective world of humans. Well after the end of World War I, artists embraced the machine-human as a new strategy for depersonalisation and for reorienting, perhaps reshaping human expression for the better. But the manner in which World War II used technology for systematic massacre made these ideas untenable. The machine-man was no longer a possible saviour, but a monster, a symbol of terrifying dehumanisation.

But this should not rule out his/her use as a cultural metaphor, far from it. Williams’ fembots enact a political endgame that tells of the individual’s lack of confidence in effecting change: political, environmental, artistic or otherwise. Her automaton, dressed-to-the coloured-nines, moves aimlessly, but with concerted seriousness, on the spot. It does not take long for the mirrors to lose their aestheticising effect when it becomes evident that they have a reflexive function, they remove her from any suggestion of context.

The manner in which the artist tries to divest herself of context is one of the work’s great strengths; yet it does not share in the kind of purist decontextualisation rife in modernism. Rather, Williams’ works suggest a distrust, an antagonism, a tiredness, maybe even a fear of context and circumstance. The inscrutability of Williams’ figures is the result of loss. There are no words and no real signs and they have no discernible purpose. One might go so far to say that they are figures left over from a rupture; the bodies which march in an eternal return within a frame. It is this sense of being the violent after-effect of something that brings Williams’ present work into the Kelley-McCarthy realm. Although Williams is not quite into genital mutilation, one has the sense of something so dangerously extreme in her work that it borders on the hysterically stupid. It seems that this fever-pitch intelligent-idiocy is one of the more apt expressions of our time, precisely because it is an artistic strategy that has fallen out of love with itself. It knows that art is inescapable and treats artistic production as a cowardly retreat from the world instead of a solemn discipline. Williams, like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, is condemned to make art; condemned because art no longer saves, no-one listens much, art is just art.

The idea of endless repetition, like a hamster on a treadmill, is the key to understanding the use of ‘foto’ for the title of the these video works. For instead of the photographic stills (which were also presented in a series in the exhibition) being derived from the videos, conceptually speaking at least, the reverse was the case. The videos presented the imaginary and crude perdition of a world once the layer of photographic stasis had been peeled away. What lay beneath was something different from the vast, familiar continuity of reality and life. Instead, the stillness of the photograph continued within a decontextualised photographic cell, like a peep-show that goes on and on. In just another version of stasis, the figures continue not to speak, and if they do happen to move, they jerk about in an endless loop. And by the looks in their eyes they are way past caring.

Take this idea and apply it to our present political situation and what do you have?