By Tina Wu and Helen Huang
Artist, mother, educator: Northern Beaches local Katy B Plummer isn’t afraid to show some teeth in her multimedia video installations. Having recently exhibited at the Willoughby Incinerator Artspace, Katy talks about her struggles as a woman in society and how she has decided to hit back – literally.
“Violent” isn’t the first word that pops into your mind when you meet Sydney-based artist Katy B Plummer. But underneath this Dee Why resident’s dark, turtle framed sunglasses and handmade mustard dress – with eyes sewn on the front and back – is a feminist’s vengeful spirit.
“I think that often women are really used to the idea of themselves as receiving violence and responding to violence,” says Katy, sitting cross-legged on a patch of grass at Wynyard Park.
“I’m really interested in the idea of women enacting violence and enacting struggle and using their bodies not as passive receptacles, but [as] really active weapons sometimes.”
Katy is a video installation artist who has exhibited both in Australia and abroad. Her latest artwork, titled Beast Trinity, was recently shown at Grit!, a Willoughby Council-curated exhibition in the Incinerator Art Space. The exhibition took in the gallery’s physical proximity to the Willoughby Leisure Centre active complex and Bicentennial Reserve to bring together the seemingly disparate worlds of art and sport.
Katy’s art is known particularly for its unusual use of textile and domestic crafts and brazen displays of physicality to challenge historical and political norms.
“My practice involves a lot of making with textile, so I make a lot of costumes, a lot of props, and I sort of build environments for my characters to occupy,” she says. “I’m interested in women’s work and emotional labour, sort of fraught and difficult aspects of femininity.”
Beast Trinity weaves together these themes of violence and femininity through physical activity, its impact amplified by an all-female cast (including Katy, artist Jodie Whalen and comedian/gridiron player Julia Wilson).
The three women appear on the screen decked out in gridiron costume masks and hand-crafted shoulder pads. “They’re in this spot-lit arena and they start out just sort of brushing each other, [in a] quite gentle but really bodily way,” she says, “so they’re brushing past each other and then that kind of intensifies and intensifies until they’re colliding at full speed and engaging in this struggle.
“I wanted them to look like flowers, animals, like beasts. Not the cute little beasts, but big, powerful beasts. And also goddesses. And that’s where the idea of the trinity comes in.”
Katy is explicit about the underlying theme of female power in her artwork. “We’re all big women. None of us are tiny, we’re all really strong.
“One of them [Julia Wilson] is a bouncer and a gridiron player, so she’s like really freaking strong. And the other one is an artist [Jodie Whalen] who often deals with physical challenge. So I knew they would both be up to it, and they weren’t going to be afraid of getting hurt.”
Entwining these ideas of violence and femininity to explore her feminist beliefs has long been at the core of Katy’s practice, drawing on historical and personal events to inspire her art. Talking about her previous project, Suffragist, Katy is adamant about the role of brutality in the women’s franchise and social reform throughout history.
“The reality of it was that [the suffragettes] asked nicely for 50 years, nothing happened, [then] they started burning down buildings and studying jiu-jitsu so they could fight police officers…and they get the vote really quickly.
“It’s what I’m interested in. It’s those times in history where violence is not only appropriate, but necessary.”
But Katy’s interest in violence and physicality also stems from perhaps an unexpected source: motherhood. “For me, that was when much of my feminism woke up and became really pressing and intense,” she says.
“You know there’s this quite wide band of roles I was allowed to occupy as a woman and there wasn’t too much that was spilling out on either side.
“But when I became a mother, suddenly that band got really narrow. So much of the world has strong feelings about how you should parent and how you should be a mother and how that should look.
“Especially as an artist with a non-commercial practice – it became really difficult to justify. So there were actually several years where I felt like I couldn’t justify it, and I stopped making, so that was really terrible.”
Despite taking an eight-year hiatus, it was only a matter of time before Katy delved back into the art world, guns blazing. “Coming back into my practice was an act of resistance and an act of struggle, and it had this violent intensity demanding that I be allowed to occupy this space and carving it out for myself.”
Katy’s defiance has not only manifested itself in her art practice, but is also visible in her everyday life, to the very clothes that she wears.
“It feels like there are actually so few available versions of femininity. I have always found that to be quite oppressive, and for a lot of years, really confusing. There are all of these parts of yourself that just don’t have a home, don’t have a way of expressing themselves,” she says.
“This is why I make my own clothes. Because when I go into a shop, I just don’t recognise any of those women who are available to me. For a woman my age, my size, there’s a really limited number of versions of ‘lady’ that you’re allowed to be.
“There’s a lot of me that doesn’t fit into these roles, so those bits have built up a lot of energy over the course of my life. They haven’t been allowed expression.
“I’m just really interested in finding other ways to express big feelings like rage and struggle. I just want to find other ways of using my physicality.”
Katy B Plummer speaks to us about what the recent social media uprisings such as MeToo and Time’sUp will mean for our future.