Justene Williams: The Curtain Breathed Deeply


By Stella Rosa McDonald

There is nothing slick about Justene Williams’s new commission The curtain breathed deeply, 2014, made with the support of The Catalyst: Katherine Hannay Visual Arts Commission in partnership with Artspace, Sydney. The all-singing, all-dancing, all-or-nothing installation is a macabre expression of the suburban mundane and the human psyche. The irony and comedy of the work lie in its articulation of the contradictions between surface and interior, reality and desire, and, as the title suggests, the apparent life of inanimate things.

Made in Williams’s homemade co-op style, The curtain breathed deeply features a costumed cast of her friends and family who writhe, sing, dance and perform rituals across countless screens to a soundtrack of Milli Vanilli and Broadway hits. The performative videos draw great influence from hermetic practices such as hypnosis, voodoo and animism, while the repurposed sets and costumes that spill out from the videos into the gallery space itself are appropriated from the works of Frida Kahlo and Dan Flavin and the history of Greek, Mexican and North American mythology. The curtain breathed deeply situates the psyche in the suburbs: the artist’s ute is parked in the middle of the space, a cheap blow-up pool has been made into a wishing well replete with copper coins, and a backyard psychic cheerfully communicates with a woman’s dead relative in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it video. The suburbs are a place where, much like the unconscious, there are few distinctions between love and death, sham and shaman.

If The curtain breathed deeply sounds like a sensory and aesthetic overload rendered in tinsel and technicolour, that’s because it is – Williams does not add a palatable gloss to her installations, videos and performances. Instead, as an abstract rather than narrative work, she succeeds in maintaining a fidelity to the intangible recollection of dreams and the fertile paradoxes of sex and death throughout the installation. There is little in the work to suggest that Williams sees a linear, narrative logic to the passage of time; rather, the expansive installation mirrors a non-linear life cycle – a place where death, sex, desire and renewal occur as indiscriminately as they do in a lifetime.


First published in ARTAND, June 2014






By Anne Loxley, Senior Curator, C3West, MCA Australia

The Curtain Breathed Deeply is a milestone in Justene Williams’ nine years of video-making. The exhibition showcases six new video installations for Sydney’s Artspace, Melbourne’s Monash University Museum of Art and this publication. The Curtain Breathed Deeply is distinguished by many ‘firsts’: it is the first time Williams has repurposed elements from her video works as elaborate sculptural installation elements, including several versions of the eponymous curtain; the pace of the videos is notably slower than in previous works; at least three of them are explicitly sexual; Williams is only before the camera in one; and in two she directs a considerable number of performers.

In The Curtain Breathed Deeply Williams uses her signature mash-up of arcane references to art history and suburban consumer culture to address ‘systems of belief’. As she explains: What do you believe in? Love? Art? Church? God? Weddings? Funerals? Death?1 Williams relies more on honed visual, emotional and physical intelligences than on cool rationality or academic knowledge:

I sometimes talk about my work or my way of working as a subtle knowledge or an emotional intelligence. I work from the heart and I’m very interested in communicating very visually—like really see! And read and hear through colour, movement [and] hand gestures. It is a non-obvious form of communication.

I have always been interested in repetitive action—things like people getting up every day and standing in the same place on the train station. Sometimes I could bring the work down to labour and looking, where the work speaks for itself or the workers speak through their labour. What is the difference between work and play? A lot of people say ‘oh you must have so much fun making it’, but there is always a tension between work and play.

Sumptuous and embracing, this vigorous multimedia installation augments Williams’ trademark employment of loved ones as cast members with professional performers. A committed recycler, Williams had to buy the materials for The Curtain Breathed Deeply, albeit from Marrickville’s Reverse Garbage and a two-dollar shop in Sydney’s Rockdale, but the tapes embellishing the costumes and sculptures were expensive purchases from the United States. These multi-coloured reflective tapes glint in Costume relic painting (2014) and Performance relic painting (2014), the costumes transformed into curtains that look like large, bold and slightly wonky versions of twentieth-century abstraction. Assisted performance relics (2014) and Assisted performance sculpture (2014) are exuberant agglomerations of props embellished with tape and various accoutrements, such as hair and coloured zigzag cut-outs—the latter appropriated by Williams from Japanese shide, a type of paper streamer often attached to shimenawa (rope) and traditionally used to decorate Shinto temples. Shide motifs recur throughout The Curtain Breathed Deeply, adding to the exhibition’s sizzling energy. The artist cites both voodoo and the tradition of musical theatre as key reference points for the work. She is drawn to the challenge of the musical’s components of set, costume, performing troupe and dance or song. While Williams’ practice has been described as ‘a form of voodoo ritual … a way of opening “the [metaphysical] spaces that could exist if we stuck our fingers into old photographs and peeled them back to reveal their inner workings”’2, The Curtain Breathed Deeply goes beyond art-historical retrieval to more conventional voodoo practices, including honouring, if not summoning, the spirits of the dead.

Williams says that the three constants in her work are ‘action, energy and emotion’. In The Curtain Breathed Deeply feelings abound, especially happiness, love, lust, confusion and grief. Energies range from somnambulist to frenzied, and actions include swaying, swinging and hitting. The Japanese theatrical Noh tradition is a significant influence on Williams’ approach to movement. As she explains: ‘It is codified; hopefully viewers will read the codes. Costumes are a way of communicating, like Noh theatre, which uses costumes, objects and movements to make a coded language. I am not interested in linear narratives.’

The Curtain Breathed Deeply is also a homage to the artist’s father, Ted Williams, who died in 2012. As well as being a fine husband and father, Ted was his daughter’s unfailing and multi-skilled video production assistant, his loss occasioning four works. Milk seeped in bread and rocked the leg (2012–13)—an eight-channel video sculpture and performance installation commissioned for We used to talk about love (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2013)3 and re-exhibited in the Monash University Museum of Art iteration of The Curtain Breathed Deeply in 2015—features two videos of the artist with her mother and ailing father—the three of them wearing white, grey wigs and protuberances made from plastic cement. One channel shows an iPhone image of a barbeque at which the artist talks with her mother and sister on the night her father died. Another shows Williams and two friends trying on her father’s clothes, while on a further screen a figure sets fire to the landscape. A dormant white figure lies still in the exhibition. Milk seeped in bread and rocked the leg is a powerful evocation of a family’s experience of enduring illness, death, burial and loss. At Sydney’s Alaska Projects, Williams performed 722784 Total Man Hours (2013),4 in which she stood in the tray of her father’s ute and gave away the contents of his tool shed. The project considered her father as a worker, the title declaring his lifespan in a vocabulary of labour and the tools symbolising his hands and their handiwork—his strength.

The breathing curtain of the title starkly and poetically refers to the hospital environs which characterised Williams’ father’s illness, and also to that illness: mesothelioma. In 2013, during the installation of an exhibition in Montréal, Williams was in a hardware shop when a man covered with dust walked in. Behind him a feather dropped from the sky. For Williams, this was a sign of her father, and led to the realisation that she had to make a work in which someone was covered in flour or dust. The result, Santa was a Psychopomp (2014)—the only work in The Curtain Breathed Deeply in which Williams performs—begins with the artist and a psychic sitting in a snow dome structure and talking about Williams’ father, art, life, death and being a spirit. Williams then performs a chant or song as she shakes flour from stockings and repeats various unconventional actions with Christmas trees.5 The psychic correlates the video work to the spirit world:

Everyone wants to be inside the snow dome. They want to see what it’s like. When you’re a spirit it’s a similar situation because [you’re] between the two worlds. There is always a thin line between life and death; what you’re doing is like the thin veil, the spirit looking out.


Excerpt of Anne Loxley’s essay Inside The Snow Dome from Justene Williams: The Curtain Breathed Deeply monograph published 2015.

1 All quotes from the artist are from conversations and emails with the author, October – November 2014.
2 Vanessa Berry as quoted in Pamela Hansford, ‘Voodoo child’, NEW11, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2011, p. 56.
3 We used to talk about love, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 31 January – 21 April 2013.
4 Janis, Alaska Projects, Sydney, 6 – 24 February 2013
5 For her Artspace exhibition Williams made two versions of her highly personal work Santa was a Psychopomp: a three-minute version for the opening and a fifteen-minute version for the exhibition.





An Artspace exhibition toured by Museums & Galleries of NSW.

The Curtain Breathed Deeply has been developed through a Catalyst: Katherine Hannay Visual Arts Commission.