Interview with Artist Jennie Feyen

Portrait by Matt Bedford

I first came across Jennie Feyen's work when I saw a clip of her "My Core" video installation in my instagram wandering. My mindless and rapid-fire exploration was immediately interrupted - I was transfixed by the peach and golden hues of a sensually writhing body projected onto a pure white bed of fluffy marshmallow-like textile. The piece - meant to celebrate self-love and fulfillment - mesmerized and satisfied me. I wanted to know more about the work and the artist behind it. The Sydney-based artist explores themes related to self-health/care and sexuality through her installations, often a combination of video, lighting, technological, and structural design. She has shown work at various festivals and galleries including BEAMS Arts Festival and Underbelly Arts Festival, and most recently was part of a group show at Sydney's Kudos Gallery.

Jennie Feyen, My Core, 2013, single channel HD video with cotton balls, 120cmx190cm, Transcend, The Japan Foundation

When did you first start to identify as an artist? How has your education informed your practice?

I didn't see myself as an artist for some time because all throughout my education art and media were treated as two separate entities. Now, I understand the term artist is extremely fluid and can mean many different things, but I only discovered this by producing my own work and satisfying my own curiosity about the shape-shifting potential of storytelling and communicating ideas. With that said, society tends to be very compartmentalized as you will find that there are still clear divisions within the creative industries, so I think it's a very personal endeavor to view yourself as an artist if you don't fit the traditional mold of what an artist should be.

The moment I started to identify as an artist was when I was an exchange student in Japan. Up until that point I was purely focused on being a film director, and I attended a number of film festivals in Tokyo as part of my research. The pivotal moment came when I saw a flyer for Lee Bul’s solo exhibition at the Mori Art Museum and decided to go. I remember walking into a large dark room that had white abstract figures suspended from the ceiling and genuinely feeling like I had stepped into another world. Seeing her works ‘floating’ above me triggered something inside my brain and I started to imagine my work in a spatial context: moving images on large wall spaces, floor spaces, ceilings: imagery that existed beyond the confines of a screen.

Photo by Camila Cruz

I returned to Australia with one final unit to take at university and chose to do a visual arts unit instead of my final film production unit. My classmates consisted of fashion designers, sculptors, painters and photographers, and we were required to create our own work under the supervision of different lecturers. We had to constructively critique each other’s work, providing our opinions even if we knew very little about the medium. It really encouraged me to find and extract meaning from work that was beyond the familiarity of cinema. Furthermore, I had to document my creative process with research, art theory, sketches, diagrams, proof of correspondence with other artists and evaluations. This resulted in a large scrapbook that showed the genesis of an idea to the final result, and has really helped me with the planning and execution of video installations and projection art after my graduation. 

I know you focus on film and video - why this medium? What other mediums have you worked in or would you like to work in?

I remember spontaneously announcing to my family that I wanted to be a film director at the age of ten and started making amateur films the second we got our first digital video camera. I got my friends and my brother to be in my films, which at first consisted of obscure little satires or parodies – I remember remaking A Perfect Storm with some girlfriends and throwing a bucket of cold water over them to resemble ‘the waves’ and laughing devilishly at the sight of them running off camera screaming. I then gravitated towards making experimental films and montages set to music and would show them to my friends. I just loved creating these little worlds and showing them to people – I felt it was something unique that I could offer the world, and I feel the same way today.

Regarding other mediums, music is definitely my second love, and I have composed scores for my own short films, but they are all very minimalist in design. I don’t think I would enjoy the task of scoring other peoples’ work; it would probably be a fun challenge at first, but I would soon be longing to tell my own stories. With that said, I have started a collaboration with a Sydney-based sound artist in which we will explore the relationship between music and visuals in a live performance context, so this may present some opportunities to learn more about music composition and create music for ideas that aren’t my own, but within a close collaboration.

In your bio, it says much of your work is informed by Japanese culture and folklore - what elements specifically? What drew you to this?

I was eighteen when I first moved to Japan, and it was at a time when I was really dissatisfied with my surroundings. I knew I was hungry for a unique experience, so I took a job as a teacher in the Japanese countryside, and it really changed my life. I started going to shrines, temples and festivals and learning about Japanese music and cinema, as well as traditional theatre and masks. I was particularly drawn to Hannya, a jealous demon with an eternal sad frown, and Onna-Kei, a female visage as beautifully shown in the film Ugetsu Monogatari (1953). I learned about the background of these masks and incorporated their design into my short films.

I returned to Japan as a student of Japanese language and culture and discovered Butoh Theatre, an alternative dance developed in the 1960’s, as well as yōkai, which are supernatural monsters and spirits. It was just a continual discovery of things that seemed so different from my own Anglo-Saxon culture, and I really started to appreciate how a visionary like Hayao Miyazaki was able to infuse his sophisticated stories with elements from his own culture, especially the presence of yōkai.

I can’t really pinpoint exactly why Japan has had such an impact on my life and my work, but it could be because I associate the country with my first taste of independence and self-discovery, and I soaked up the ethereal parts of Japanese culture to the point that it feels natural to explore it in my work. A lot of seeds were planted during my stay in such an interesting country.

Dancing with Demons (2010)

You also write in your bio that your work explores one's sexuality and one's desire to find personal healing...can you give an example of this exploration in your work? How much of this exploration is based on objective research and how much is subjective reflection? What are your personal views on sexuality and overcoming trauma?

Incandescence (2015)

After I finished high school I started listening to Tori Amos, and I was really touched by her search for personal healing after being sexually assaulted, and the way in which her music provided her with an outlet for her pain and encouraged her listeners to find their own healing. I’ve never been assaulted in any way, but I have struggled with issues of self-doubt and shame, so I always felt like I was trying to break down a wall that was stopping me from being a woman.

Without getting too introspective, I think my personal experience led to a hunger for depictions of female sexuality that are healthy, self-loving and not solely manufactured for the male gaze. I crave to be the type of woman who can enjoy life on her own terms and just be free of self-sabotaging emotions, which I explored via a woman touching her body in My Core (2013) and via a woman dancing freely among the stars in Incandescence (2015). It’s incredibly personal and subjective, but it’s also a reaction against the virgin / whore stereotype that’s still perpetuated by the media. Women, just like men, should be allowed to be complete people who have their own desires.

Regarding objective research in relation to sexuality and trauma, my mother introduced me to the Half the Sky movement a few years ago and I read scary statistics and accounts of sex slavery and the ‘gendercide’ taking place in several parts of the world. I couldn’t shake this image of a woman being used for sex in my mind, so I made Held Down (2011) as an attempt to personify those statistics about sex slavery and to show an individual desperately trying to hold on to her sense of self-worth as she is continuously raped and exploited for money. It’s my artistic interpretation, but I think it’s important that we try and bring statistics to life, no matter how unsettling it may be.

Throughout your practice, you have collaborated with many different individuals ranging from dancers to engineers to musicians, etc, what has that process been like? What difficulties have you encountered in collaboration or what successes have you attributed directly to working with others? How does working on your own differ from collaborating? At She/Folk, we are always interested in learning more about group creative practices and highly value collaboration so it's always interesting to delve into this topic with creators that have actually experienced it.

I love collaborations of any kind as long as there is a shared vision and understanding of the concept. I’m not very technically-minded as I often talk about feelings, textures and creating a certain atmosphere, so I try to be very clear with my collaborators about what I want to convey to the audience. I have been able to find a halfway point with more technically-minded people by drawing a timeline of feelings in relation to the duration of the piece, and of course by using reference material, which may consist of an image, a sound or a colour.

I suppose I have been fairly lucky as my collaborations have been fulfilling, however the one thing I’ve learned is to clearly establish whether there’s room for experimentation or if my ideas are set in stone, as this has led to misunderstandings with some collaborators in the past. One composer produced a very polished recording for an idea that I had, but because I was still experimenting with a whole range of ideas, I had to tell them that the track they had put a lot of time and effort into no longer suited the tone of the work. Feelings were hurt and I hope to never make that same mistake.

Regarding the collaborations that have been most fulfilling for me, I’d have to say that working with contemporary dancers has allowed me to channel my innermost feelings of self-expression and personal freedom, especially as I used to have a very complicated relationship with my own body. Furthermore, I used to study dance as a teenager but never pursued it professionally, so I feel that that part of my journey lives on through the talented people I collaborate with.

Who are three contemporary artists you admire or inspire you?

She might only be described as a singer by some, but to me the ever-intriguing and expressive Björk is a contemporary artist who blew a hole in my brain when I was a teenager and helped me to find myself as a creative. I consider Björk to be the queen of artistic collaboration as she has worked with some of the most innovative filmmakers, fashion designers and musicians in contemporary times, and she’s one of the few artists who has consistently produced music videos that are able to match the ethereal tone of her music. Furthermore, her work is ultimately about self-love and honouring who you are within the confines of this world

The second contemporary artist who inspires me is Alexander McQueen, the world-renowned enfant terrible of the fashion world. I was introduced to his work via his collaborations with Björk; he designed the cover for her album Homogenic and various dresses for her, including the breathtaking costume worn in the music video for Pagan Poetry. When I look at McQueen’s designs, I always feel like it's stirring some deep desire to show my more daring, adventurous and experimental side, and that it’s completely okay to honour that side of yourself. His work is soul-stirring.

The third contemporary artist who I admire is Eiko Ishioka, who I also discovered through Björk when I saw her music video for Cocoon, which Ishioka directed. Ishioka designed beautiful costumes and sets for films like Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as both The Cell and The Fall by visionary director Tarsem. I really admire her ability to communicate so much meaning through various colours, textures and shapes, and the fact that her work can be so uniquely sensual and erotic.

I noticed recently on your instagram you posted an image of a neon sign that reads "The Ladies Network" - what does this refer to? Are you involved with many women-centric groups or collectives? What is this "scene" like for women creators in Sydney where you are based?

The Ladies Network is a multi-platform agency for female creatives based in Sydney, Australia. The network organises events that support and recognise the creative contribution of women in the areas of art, music, business and design. I discovered them by chance when I stopped by a popular Sydney-based gallery called Ambush and saw their latest exhibition featuring an array of different female creatives. I would love to collaborate with The Ladies Network in the future, and because I’m still fairly new to this city, as I’m originally from Perth, I'm still learning about other groups and opportunities, however last year I was invited to participate in Island Salon, which was a cinema installation project that featured collaborations between eighty female artists from around Australia. The result was a celebration of female cinema consisting of a variety of intriguing visual works that was part of the 2015 Underbelly Arts Festival.

Tell us about your piece "My Core" - meaning, inspiration, process, reception.

My Core is very important to me as it represents my first foray into installation art. It’s also my first step towards exploring the theme of sexuality and showing a woman who allows herself to enjoy her own body for her own fulfillment. In the very beginning, I had this image of a young woman lying alone in the middle of a field, touching her body. I considered making a short film about it but it never amounted to anything as I was trying too hard to develop some sort of narrative.

The turning point came when I remembered a Butoh Theatre performance I saw in Tokyo by the Japanese company Dairakudakan Temputenshiki. The dancers performed the piece covered in white body paint, writhing around on the floor wearing thin layers of cloth. They contorted their hands and rolled their eyes back for the duration of the performance, which was very weird and unsettling to see, but at the same time I found their movements to be so primitive and raw that it became strangely erotic and inspiring.

I realised that I wanted to channel this otherworldly energy into my desire to show a young woman touching herself, and my idea started to take shape and morph from a short film into an experimental work of art. I borrowed a projector and took myself into a dark room and experimented with different projection surfaces, starting with flat walls, then textured fabrics then cotton wool, which was another turning point as the cotton gave the image a  three-dimensional quality, creating the illusion of an actual woman touching herself in front of you. Regarding the girl, I was lucky enough to find Catherine Ryan, a young Australian contemporary dancer who studied Butoh Theatre movement in Brisbane, and she really brought the piece to life.

The reaction from viewers has been interesting – some people have told me that they’ve never seen work like it before, others have commented that it has a calming effect, and most interestingly, a lot of people have assumed that the girl is me. At first I would laugh and I would say “of course not” but now I realise that they’re not too far off the mark.

What does feminism mean to you?

Maybe it’s my dumbfounded reaction to people who denounce feminism or use the utterly awful word ‘feminazi’, but in my mind I’ve broken it down into something very simple. I see a baby boy and a baby girl placed side by side, and society basically says to them: “We will grant you equal access to an education, career choices and property ownership, as well as equal salaries and mental health support. You can’t be bought or sold and your value is not determined by your virginity or sexual activity. You can apply for the same job, drive a car, and aspire for the same things, if you choose to. We support and love you both.”

That is what feminism means to me: equal opportunities, as well as an equal amount of responsibility. Men and women are both capable of doing great things, and we should be able to support each other when we need help, and acknowledge our differences in a respectful way. Maybe it sounds utopian, but I feel that we are constantly holding ourselves back as a society when we suppress women or deny men any room to be vulnerable.

And for the record, “men age like fine wine, women age like milk” is just downright insulting to everyone’s intelligence. I read this great quote recently that basically said that men are simply allowed to age, whereas women aren’t. This has to stop.