Artist Melanie Jame Wolf / Savage Amusement is back in Melbourne for the Australian debut of HIGHNESS. Part two in a trilogy on archetypes of womanhood, HIGHNESS is a mixture of performance and video exploring what it means to be a queen. Part moving image, part pop culture, part pop culture interrogation, all performance, HIGHNESS looks set to receive the same critical acclaim as part one (2016’s Mira Fuchs) as it examines what it is to be regal. Melanie Jame kindly caught up with with Til Knowles to discuss the performance of femininity, the allure of queens and being an international artist.
You say you make work about economies. What draws you to explore systems of exchange?
I am just super interested in how people give value to things outside of material objects and money. I am constantly analyzing how social and cultural capital operate and flux and flex power. Most of my work in one way or another is seeking to expose or draw attention to immaterial labour and systems of value and exchange of social standing and affective capital. These things all contribute to different economies of desire, of how gender is played out, of how pop culture works, of why and how class is a thing to be conscious of.
What do you find so interesting about queens?
I’m interested more in the idea of everyday queens and pop queens than historical queens. The core of HIGHNESS is really about the impossible, contradictory expectations put on women who are held up as icons in the spotlight. Whether it’s as queens of their neighborhood, or of the world. We want queens to be a thousand things at once, and we love to see them fall and falter in quite a violent way.
I like the idea of calling someone a queen as a way of acknowledging their level of skill, and maybe also their survival. But at the end of the day, a queen sits on top of a hierarchy, and can’t exist without her subjects. A queen’s image is often only fierce through the work of many hands. And a desire to rule can rot very quickly.
HIGHNESS is dedicated to every queen I’ve ever met – the drag queens, the queen bees, the drama queens, the size queens…
A lot of your work delves into the performance of the feminine. How do relate these performances to your own femininity? How do you anticipate audiences will relate to them?
I am interested in how womanhood is performed, in what is permitted and what is not. And by womanhood I mean ALL women. I guess I draw first and foremost on my own lived experience as the starting point for what I make around questions of gender and I identify as Femme.
Audiences relate to my work around these issues in different ways – some people cry, some people get angry, some people sexualise my big Femme sensuality as a way of trying to cope with my body and presence in space. I really just open out a space in which audience’s are invited to consider how they think about and respond to women.
This piece is part two in a trilogy – the Whore, the Queen and the Hag. How can art be used to address stereotypes of the feminine?
I am interested in those archetypes as kinds of scripts or scores that have a real world influence on how gender is performed. This comes from the idea that gender is a drag. By laying out these worn archetypes, I hope to carve out a space in which audiences might be able consider how to rewrite or abandon these old scripts.
You’re a multimedia artist – what led to you to include a video in this production? How did you go about creating and developing these videos?
I come from a performance background, but have increasingly found myself drawn to working with video. In 2019 I will have the opportunity to exhibit some new video works for the first time which feels really satisfying.
With HIGHNESS, I wanted to create a performance that felt like being immersed in a stretched out music video. It’s a piece that is critically Pop, and for me, my queeniest desires and ideas about performativity were formed by watching music videos as a kid.
HIGHNESS is both a 60 minute performance which experiments with video as a choreographic material,. And it is a video series. I made both in collaboration with my friend, UK based filmmaker, Sam Smith. You can see both at Arts House this week. Working together with Sam was amazing because we come from such different backgrounds and both learnt so much through merging our practices this way.
Economies, femininity – what other things and themes inspire and inform your work?
The biggest thing driving my work right now is a critical but loving investment in the Pop idiom. I’m interested in how pop culture imprints in its subjects, and in articulating aspects of pop poetics and the political implications of these poetics. A lot of this is influenced by the late Mark Fisher and ideas of pop culture – music and film in particular – producing ghosts and nostalgia and basically being beautiful and ruinous at the same time.
The most important thing for me in my work is that it gives permission for audiences to not know everything, and to feel more than one way at a time.
You work and live in both Melbourne and Berlin. How does creating and performing in these cities differ?
In short, there are huge differences between these places in terms of resources and cultural agendas and priority of discourse and audience desires – one is Old Europe and one is the ongoing result of the European colonial project. Both are still ultimately run by white conservatives who are increasingly intolerant of difference and who increasingly devalue critical art production.
That said, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work between two places as I do – I love both for different reasons, and I also see and feel the limitations of both, and how the limitations of both make life extremely difficult for vulnerable people.
The best thing about making work for Australian audiences for me is that I get to take a particular pleasure in language that I don’t get anywhere else, because this where I’m from and so the nuances are infinite.
Who is your favorite queen?
Quentin Crisp as Elizabeth I in Sally Potter’s film of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ / Rihanna / Princess Nokia / Sade / Madonna.
HIGHNESS is on at Arts House, North Melbourne at 8pm from 18 – 21 July 2018. For tickets, show details and accessibility information, head to the Arts House website.