As I enter the Queensland Art Gallery’s (QAG) new exhibition, Embodied Knowledge, I’m stopped in my tracks by an arresting sight. Brightly coloured mannequins scale the walls and grace the floor in impossible and implausible poses, with elongated bodies and dismembered limbs taking on a life of their own. One is impaled through the heart by a fluorescent light tube and a retail mirror through the head. Another is sprawled vulnerably on the floor, staring up at a rack of empty coat hangers. Screens display snatches of conversation: ‘so beguiling’, reads one, ‘move away’, says another, before it goes blank.

‘Some people find my work too much, and there is an element of that,’ says Justene Williams, the creator of this commissioned installation – The Vertigoats. ‘Our lives and the way we take in images… there is too much; we are always being bombarded, so I kind of use that as a way to present the work. And I can’t stop anyway,’ she laughs.

It’s true, Justene hasn’t stopped creating for decades. She has exhibited widely in Australia and New Zealand across different media, including photography, video, performance, installation and sound. She is also the head of sculpture at the Queensland College of Art and is currently working on a large-scale public sculpture called Sheila, who will stand 5 metres high and is soon to be on permanent display outside Brisbane’s Treasury Casino, near Queen’s Wharf. But it is the combination of her background as a window dresser and an encounter that Justene had with someone whom she thought she knew that has perhaps best informed her current work on display in The Vertigoats.

‘When I used to see these bodies in retail,’ she says, gesturing to the mannequins, ‘I used to imagine their other lives and them watching us… I imagined what they could be thinking.’

‘Another part of the work originally evolved around this difficult situation I had with someone, where to my face they were one way… but online, they presented another version of themselves. And I imagined this idea of other kinds of versions of ourselves.’

Originally from Sydney, Justene moved to Brisbane with her daughter three years ago and quickly forged a connection to the Queensland art scene. She is one of 19 artists included in the exhibition, each with a link to Queensland, no matter how tenuous. QAGOMA Director Chris Saines says that Embodied Knowledge had been curated to highlight the vitality and diversity of the state’s artistic landscape.

Ryan Presley / Marri Ngarr people / Australia b.1987 / Blood Money Dollar Fanny Balbuk (detail) 2011 / Watercolour on paper / Dimensions variable / Image courtesy: Ryan Presley and Milani Gallery, Brisbane
Erika SCOTT / The Reservoir Of Cruel Miracles 2022 / Mixed Media / Dimensions variable
Artwork photographed in-progress during a visit to the artist’s studio on Ngudooroo (Lamb Island) by Ellie Buttrose, Curator, Contemporary Australian Art | QAGOMA in preparation for Ellie’s forthcoming curated exhibition Bodies of Knowledge (2022)
Megan Cope / Quandamooka people / Australia b.1982 /
The tide waits for no one (detail) 2020–21 / Kiln cast glass, mineral sand, lightbox / 250 pieces: 40 x 200(cir.) cm (installed) / Courtesy: Megan Cope and Milani Gallery, Brisbane / Photograph: Brenton McGeachie

‘Many of the featured works respond to the specific character of Queensland or challenge its accepted narratives and, in doing so, draw attention to aspects of our state’s history that are overlooked or not well enough understood,’ Mr Saines says.

It follows, then, that there is a strong First Nations presence among the selected and commissioned works, a nod to the oldest creators of our state and a showcase of the continuing contributions that contemporary Indigenous artists are making.

One standout work is The tide waits for no one, Megan Cope’s installation of cast-glass dugong bones addressing the complex social histories tied to the trade and mining exploration of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island). Another is a collection of masks made by Obery Sambo, who is also a member of the Meuram Murray Island Dance Group. Obery makes both traditional dhari (a style of Torres Strait Islander headdress) and his own interpretations of masks relating to Mer legends and medicine men.

Obery Sambo / Meriams of Mer / Australia b.1970 / Sumes Borom (Bush Boar) 2019 / Coconut husk, synthetic polymer
paint, straw, shells, feathers, seeds / 30 x 34 x 46cm / Courtesy: Obery Sambo / Image courtesy: Umbrella Studios

But it is Inert State by Archie Moore on display in the QAG Watermall that leaves me deeply moved. Two hundred coroner’s reports into Indigenous deaths in custody float lifelessly in the water, interspersed with looming stacks of parliamentary Hansards, indicative of the government’s inaction on the issue. It feels, perhaps, more like a memorial than an artwork, but both have the power to evoke reflection, conversation and even change.

Each work of art explores our identity, heritage and history in a completely unique way. Some are sobering – others feel like carefree creations. Circling back through the exhibition to Justene’s eccentric mannequins with their surreally extended bodies, I imagine her work could be interpreted in many ways. She says that their stretched limbs represent our lives stretched out in time.

‘When we were in the pandemic, I was thinking about space and our bodies in those spaces… I just imagine us in this other world where the limbs are stretched and sometimes, we’re exhausted,’ she says.

‘I’m interested in creating these other worlds, but I’m also interested in the body and how we exist in these different spaces over time, whether it’s the online space or the real space. These surrogates, or mannequins, are my way of materialising those ideas.’

A free exhibition, Embodied Knowledge: Queensland Contemporary Art, continues at the Queensland Art Gallery until 22 January 2023.

Article Hero Image:
Justene Williams / Australia b.1970 / The Vertigoats 2021 / Mixed media / Installed dimensions variable / Purchased 2021 with funds from the Contemporary Patrons through the QAGOMA Foundation / Collection: QAGOMA / Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

Queensland Art Gallery
Stanley Place, South Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Tel. 07 3840 7303

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