Jen Valender may just be the busiest artist in Naarm (Melbourne) right now. A multi-disciplinary powerhouse, Valender's recent works combine sculpture, performance and video. One such piece, Sediment, was recently announced as one of six international winners of the Saatchi Group's Art for Change Prize. (Valender will be in London next week, where the overall winner will be announced to coincide with the opening of REGENERATION: an exhibition of the six winning works at the famed Saatchi Gallery.)
This year has found Valender tirelessly creating and exhibiting work across Australia, however 2024 will carry her practice abroad with residencies in Japan and Portugal. Before she departs our shores, she'll round out 2023 with a piece at MPavilion (designed this year by Tadao Ando), and a screening at the big screen Federation Square.
Taking a momentary break from the creative maelstrom of her current schedule, Valender (who is also an ACMI X resident) spoke to us about creating her recent screen works, taking inspiration from the Australian landscape and the indispensable wisdom of Nam June Paik.
Anton De Ionno: As a talented multidisciplinary artist, can you tell us a little about how you approach your artmaking practice?
Jen Valender: The main criteria for being an artist is curiosity. There is no formula, rather a line of enquiry. Making art for me is like being a detective. Something will create a spark, say, I want to know more about harp strings, their history, materials, uses… this interest then will lead to me seeking out information, contacting harp makers, musicians… The artmaking process then takes me on a journey where I encounter communities and places that I otherwise wouldn't have. My practice allows for serendipity and I am constantly surprised by how the ideas will often find me if I am open to them. The final work is never something that I totally preconceive. It forms over time and the artwork becomes an archive of sorts that contains all of the moments leading up to and connected with its making.
ADI: You describe your work as “grounded in the cinematic''. In your mind, how does something employ or embody a cinematic quality?
JV: I started out as a painter, then focused on a sculptural practice early on at art school. Both of these disciplines inform how I shape a moving image artwork. Framing, composition, depth of field, colour, light, texture – these concepts are present in both painting and cinema. In this sense, my films are very painterly. Editing footage is also a process of sculpting, starting with a great deal of content and then taking parts away and forming the material just as you would with clay.
My first jobs out of high school were at theatres and very old cinemas. I was a film projectionist and spent my nights up in the projection booth handling 35mm film reels. I played the violin and was a drummer in a band. It was a time when I was constantly surrounded by art. All of these experiences inform what I produce still to this day. If I made a Venn diagram featuring the variety of mediums that I use, film would be the one that falls in the cross section, combining it all: performance, object making, technology, sound, music, story... nothing is off limits, no medium is safe.
ADI: Your work often responds directly to the drama and romanticism of the natural world. When approaching a site-specific piece how does the landscape inform the work?
JV: When I work onsite, I start with a set of questions – what is present in this landscape? Which animals inhabit this space? What is the history of this place? How are the answers to these questions present or absent in what can be captured on camera? Therefore, the site informs the direction of the artwork. I’m interest in allowing the elements to perform in the work just as I do. This is what happened in Sediment where aeolian harp-sculptures created from local antique surveyors’ tripods were played by the wind within a retired quarry in regional Victoria. This performance is then temporally suspended on film, like a digital echo or ghost, documenting the visual and sonic residue of the art encounter.
ADI: When creating video work of your performance pieces, do you collaborate with filmmakers and a crew? How do you approach the process of framing and composing those videos when you are often in front of the lens?
JV: I prefer to engage with a small team of very talented people to be as agile as possible, often only bringing one or two others into a project. The work really guides this process. In terms of framing and performing, it is a vulnerable practice that requires a great deal of experimentation, so that when it’s time to do the cut there are options… a lot of which will not be useable. However, this is what makes the moments that hit the mark all the more special and spontaneous. Reading Yoko Ono’s instructional text Grapefruit (1964) at art school left a big impression on my way of approaching performance. She is so deeply serious about being absurd. When I find myself engaging with an endurance allergen performance across waterlogged canola fields while wearing high heels and carrying an 8kg cattle gut strung harp, I often think of her.
ADI: You were recently named as the Australian winner of the Saatchi Art for Change prize for your piece Sediment, which credits three pythons as performers (playing aeolian harp-sculptures). Can you tell us a little more about that piece?
JV: Snakes personify how I view the Australian landscape, with the dual reading of being simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. The pythons I worked with are rescue animals and very gentle. Handling them was like guiding warm weighted silk around my body. I was interested in how the sound generated from the harps being played by the wind might be translated to an animal. Pythons essentially hear through vibrations, so theirs is a truly embodied experience of sound. I believe they enjoyed it.
ADI: Your work will also be seen live at MPavilion (on Nov 25) and will be shown on the big screen in Federation Square (dates to be announced). Can you tell us about the experience of witnessing the public and live audiences interact and view your work?
JV: I was recently part of a show at Art at the Bank with Mars Gallery in Windsor and was spending time speaking with the audience about the work. It’s amazing how many different associations a single work of art can conjure. That’s its power. You and I might see or experience the same image completely differently. I also want to leave room in my work for interpretation, so that the individual can find their own insights. That is so much more interesting than telling people what to glean from a work. The actual installation of the artwork also influences how it is understood. I like to engaged with “projection” in its different guises and definitions – projection as optical; projection of still and moving images; projection as noun: protruding; projection as psychoanalysis: to self-project; and so on. Similarly, I love that “screen” is a contronym; to screen is to both shield and to show. The ability for art to contain multiple meanings and perspectives is what keeps me wanting to make.
ADI: As the national museum of the moving image, ACMI is dedicated to providing a platform for video and lens-based artists based in Australia. Do you think artists working with video face any unique challenges?
JV: Financing is always a challenge. Working ethically, paying collaborators fair rates of pay and respecting the skills that people bring to a project is important to my practice. Because of this, and the reality that I don’t always have these resources, I’ve had to become a sort of Swiss army knife artist – often working across the entire process from performance to filming and editing, composition, sound mixing, colour grading and projection mapping. That said, constraints can be an opportunity to be creative and sometimes the works that had virtually no budget become the most conceptually interesting. There are so many decisions being made about the artwork during each of these stages. Being across them all gives me complete creative immersion.
ADI: You’re a resident of ACMI X, what drew you to a residency at ACMI?
JV: I joined in 2022 when Melbourne was opening up after the COVID-19 lockdowns. I was spending too much time working from home and communicating through screens. The community and comradery at ACMI were the remedy. I love that kitchen banter over the coffee machine can easily spill into cross-pollination between practices and disciplines. Future collaborations are constantly brewing.
ADI: Have you encountered any work at ACMI (either via an exhibition or a film or public program) that has inspired or excited you recently?
JV: Repossession: A musical tribute to the films of Andrzej Żuławski, and Themroc, featuring Andy Votel’s live soundscape paired with Andy Rushton’s moving image remix was both playful and incredibly intense – quite the dichotomy. Also, the documentary Nam June Paik: Moon is the oldest TV by Amanda Kim. He is someone who continues to be a source of inspiration… I want a copy of this film so I can return to it for advice like a bible. It opens with a quote from Paik, "I use technology in order to properly hate it". I really get that. My work also leans into tensions and conflict and trying to reconcile with it through the artwork. He also had to really work for his success, nothing was just given to him, which I respect and relate to. We are both proof that, if you keep at it, magic might just happen.
The Saatchi Art for Change Prize exhibition, Regeneration, will be on view at the Saatchi Gallery in London from Nov 30, 2023 – Jan 07, 2024.