I need to begin with a caveat: I realise it’s evident, or at least will become so. that we all approached this as an opportunity to do something different to the kinds of writing we would usually do at work, which is the implicit acknowledgment that we all know there’s a formula to what we do. But let’s be honest, there’s a difference between words arranged for the privacy of the the mind and words arranged to be spoken aloud, and I’m not really escaping a formula at all, I’m just using another one.
And it will also be evident, painfully, that we all ended up using this as an opportunity to talk about ourselves as much as Justene Williams, an indulgent desire much more tolerable, expected even, in the work an artist than it is in the work of a curator, who ideally will repress their desires to be authorial and autobiographical for those artists’ benefit. But let’s be honest again, (honesty becoming a theme): we should all rebel against whatever objectivity is still claimed for the ‘curatorial gaze’, although I doubt anyone presumes this anymore anyway, that museums are neutral, that institutions are neutral, that the people that work in them and on them, are neutral.
To be honest, all of these caveats are really a means to justify that I can’t find any way to talk about this exhibition other than to tell you what it was like being in it, and how being in it changed the way I’ve moved through space, and thought about form, not only in the moments I was contained by it but also in the three weeks since, while I bask in the privilege of being able to present my experience to you as a kind of allegory.
I actually had this big theatrical plan to be played on by the opening minute of a Carly Rae Jespen song, before I realised I was clutching at straws and the connection I’d made between the song and The Curtain Breathed Deeply was arbitrary, and was likely just because I was listening to it on the bus once on my way to PICA. FYI, the song isn’t Boy Problems, it’s called called Warm Blood and it’s the 11th and I think best track on Carly Rae Jespen’s 2015 release, Emotion. I like it because it’s weird, because love songs might talk about hearts but those hearts are rarely visceral, rarely connected with blood and therefore guts, which – to be honest – is where love is mostly felt, right? And I like it because it opens with these sincerely weird lines: I’ve got a cavern of secrets/none of them are for you, which I can’t help but think of as a reference to vaginas, which would therefore give me an opportunity to talk about – or at least mention – vaginas. Which I feel as a female sandwiched in this program between two men is both my honour and my duty to do at least once.
But, to be honest, as much as I’d like to conceptualise my attraction to this song, the real reason why I like it is its danceability, which I would go as far as to rate alongside Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, although the beat is a bit slow. And I think the reason why I was so desperate to shoehorn it into this discussion is the following daisy chain of associations, which will eventually allow me to get to my point. One: that Carly Rae Jespen was described by Youtube user “imcool1347” as the unproblematic white-girl pop-star we need but don’t deserve; 2: that American comedian Hassan Mahnaj once said, and I paraphrase, that he’s fighting for a world where his children will have the same kind of unqualified confidence that white people have when they dance, and finally 3: I am a sincerely white girl with limited control over the movement of my limbs who finds it difficult, despite my privilege, to overcome my anxiety about dancing in public or even to admit to liking pop music, at least sober, and that this exhibition both made me painfully aware of this and offered me absolution from it.
Let’s break it down: In this exhibition there are bodies, spaces for bodies, props and costumes for bodies. The objects and the spaces create the parameters for the movement and meaning of the bodies within them. I guess all built spaces, all clothing does this, but the thing these scenarios do that regular life doesn’t is make that deliberately visible. It’s a practical magic that I think can be analysed according to two categories, sculpture and movement.
Firstly, to encounter these sculptures is to encounter an object becoming something else without ever ceasing to be what it is. We talk often about transformation as a device in art but it almost rarely, if never, actually happens and I think why these works work is they know that and don’t try. A pool is a wishing well but still a pool, a tablecloth is a ceremonial robe is the fabric of the cosmos, but it also still cost $2.50 at The Reject Shop or similar, there’s no denying that: it’s a dumb thing made sacred but still dumb, why not be both? It’s the sculptural equivalent of your mind wandering off into some old memory or some weird dream while your body stays resolutely where it is, and that’s the effect that they cause, too – mundane time travel, you and them in two places, being two things at once. And more than that: being around them makes what ever you do performative. They’re so disruptive, obstructive, never letting you forget that your body is an object in space, like them.
There’s a particular kind of movement that these objects seem to create, too, both in their role as sets, working on the performers, and as installations, working on the audience. In the videos, Justene isn’t a director as such: she provides some basic instructions but what happens is directed more by the constraints – or the freedoms, depending on how you look at it – offered by the scenarios: being nude, being concealed, being an owl, sticking yourself through a hole. The freedom to take up space is mediated by the limits of that space and there’s a back and forth between that, an oscillation. This creates a repetitive kind of movement. It’s ungainly, never really going anywhere or building to anything but building all the same, gaining significance through accumulation. If you can think of choreography, or dancing, or movement in general as a language then these movements would be its stammer.
There’s a 3ish-page Roland Bathes thought-bubble about this idea that I like, parts of it anyway, and I guess he did too because he named a whole book after of it: The Rustle of Language. Roland says speech is irreversible and can only be corrected by addition, something you could also say about movement. The titular “rustle” is the background noise that language forms by working properly, on mass, so you catch its rhythms but not its meanings. Imagine machines purring in unison. For Roland the rustle is utopic: “a vast auditory fabric in which semantic apparatus would be made unreal…,” which on the face of it sounds a bit like The Curtain Breathed Deeply, but then he has to go and ruin it by qualifying it with a part two “…without meaning being brutally dismissed, dogmatically foreclosed, in short, castrated.” For Roland, the stammer is something close to the rustle’s opposite, not a “dogmatic foreclosure of meaning” so much as meaning obfuscated by fragmentation and repetition: “twice spoiled”, but a kind of castration all the same.
But this is all a bit theoretical and what I really wanted to tell you about was what happened in the exhibition and afterwards, which I think will illustrate my point more clearly, if that’s the point of this exercise at all. What happened was that I got comfortable on the blue couch pushed forward enough into the space so I become an exhibit by sitting on it, watching a back-yard town-hall production of a play without seeming beginning and end, but which I knew the story of somehow, classic like Shakespeare: the leader, the posse, the ritual, the altered-state. The conversion. So familiar and so comfortable despite feeling on display that my Smartrider fell out of my pocket and Liam had to deliver it back to me when I was lounging now on bare yellowing foam, which also gave him an opportunity to apologise to me for laughing when I’d originally taken off my shoes and arranged myself on it, a nightmare for an anxious person but an involuntary reaction, he said, because he was excited. So few people had done it yet, laid down, tested the rules of what was an artwork and what was for use. I guess out of fear of being chastised, or laughed at.
The foam is soft but it’s hard to meld the body into its straight lines. I stayed there for as long as I could, trying to photograph one of the dancers in the video, who looks so much like an old friend, now in London, that I had to text him to tell him I’m thinking about him. What is it about this room, this exhibition that makes me so uncharacteristically vulnerable and sentimental? Another revelation on the same foam a fortnight prior: a different friend, my mother is sick, a blood infection, I’m so worried. Maybe it was the globular fragmentation of the bodies on screen, bobb-el-ling platelets of red and skin, or maybe it’s the feeling that I’m not on some grubby foam in a public institution under an inside-out panopticon of a balcony but at home, somehow. This exhibition does that, it welcomes you in and sets a place for you.
In the white room Adrienne, who I know from the internet and from plays but not well enough to talk to in real life, comes in and I watched as she got close enough to the barbeque for the swivelling form to reveal itself as a human dick and not the head of a chicken, as I had thought it to be out of the corner of my eye, whatever that slippage says about me. She does another involuntary guffaw, the second of the day, and leaves hurriedly. On the way out I talk to Louise through the holographic slats of the fence about how I’m listening to a podcast about the Manson murders and how because they happened in Hollywood, a place that makes so many myths about itself, they seem disconnected from other real life violence, too cinematic, almost too perfect, formally, about how one of the contestants on the then-current season of The Bachelor had escaped from a cult, about how many cults there seemed to have been, to be, in Australia; about how my grandfather, like Justene’s father, was a Freemason; how Louise wanted to ask Justene is she practiced Wicca but felt like that would be impolite, or that needing to know that for certain might not be important, anyway. Louise stops: “Can you come round, talking through this fence feels like a drug deal rather than a conversation?” To get to her I do the loop, past the pool, behind the curtain, between the lines.
Later she sends me link on Facebook to the open day of the Co-Masonic temple on Brisbane St, the only one in Perth that admits women, and I feel because of our conversation that it’s my duty to go. In the foyer of the temple there’s a table of tinned asparagus wrapped in white Tip Top and scones and spring rolls and I don’t know how something can be so mystical and so ordinary at the same time: the old blue carpet, powder blue walls, the palette of a classroom or a 1970s’ hospital. Bureaucratic, almost boring. During question time everybody just wants to know what does this symbol mean what about these columns what about that light with the big G on it? and the Grand Mason or whatever does his best to intimate that they actually do have very specific meanings without revealing any of those specific meanings to us, the uninitiated. He describes Masonry as a “system of morality, veiled in allegory, expressed in symbols”, although when Amy asks about the intermittent half-bricks set into the wall he just shrugs and says that it’s an art deco design feature common to buildings of the temple’s age, which confuses everyone, and when I ask what he means by “making someone a better person” he seems annoyed, like it should be obvious in the endless emphasis on being plumb and level like architecture. I feel like the flowers and trees would have something to say about this if we would only choose to read things we didn’t create as moral lessons too, although I guess all those times in history that men have read bodies as moral lessons haven’t worked out so well for women, but maybe they count as something we create. Bodies I mean, but perhaps women too.
The whole afternoon is a masterclass in using words to not say anything but we find out at least that the regular Masons consider Co-Masonic gender diversity heretic and that you have to walk clockwise round the room, which is the one thing I actually manage to find symbolic. This is only because I’ve been down south with my recovering mum all weekend learning the rules of mah-jong, played anti-clockwise, all etiquette and strategy, the east wind, eight circles, breeze your wall, don’t let the dragons out. Mum has picked up a taste for mah-jong at the Bunbury women’s club where she is Secretary, which I guess in its own way is also a secret society, one that exists to preserve the private and esoteric rituals of being female and aging. Amy says, at the masons: did you notice that when we came in we walked around the sacred chessboard in the right direction before we knew, even though it’s the longest, least convenient route? Clockwise.
But I’m trying to get somewhere beyond the idea that things are working on you, even if you don’t know it, or that there are rhythms at play, even if you’re not listening. Anyone with a pulse, who sleeps, who follows the seasons, will know that intuitively, I hope. What The Curtain Breathed Deeply did for me, beyond this, was show me that being out of time, out of place, off beat, stammering, is a kind of rhythm too.
For Roland the stammer is comparable to the noise a machine makes when it misfires. It’s a sign of dysfunction or, in extremis, the threat of demise, something to be feared. Justene’s movements and Justene’s objects, though, don’t even fuck with function, and their value isn’t derived from it, or from exactitude or clarity or coherence. They don’t rustle, they don’t purr, they don’t do anything smoothly or demurely. They’re loud, and awkward. Being in this show I get to be sad and sorry for Roland and his insistence on feeling incoherence as castration, and on feeling exactitude as pleasure, for insisting at all on any of those absolutes that could be expressed in black and white: good/bad, function/dysfunction, utopia/dystopia, masculine/feminine, strength/weakness. If The Curtain Breathed Deeply does offer any kind of moral lesson it’s one that disconnects the feminine from submission, goodness from restraint and even from beauty, it disconnects strength from the straight line, and purity from whiteness, before dispensing with the idea of purity altogether. And the lesson that it offers too is that the rhythm of my heartbeat and the movement of my blood, warm, makes for me – a bad dancer – a kind of dancing anyway, without my having to move at all. Until some day, when it won’t.
But the last lesson – the last one, I promise – is that a rhythm holds in it both the beat and the pause, on off on off altogether, so it would be pretty dumb of me to consider that silence as the end.