Suddenly It’s Just Fucking Happening

THE ANATOMY OF AN ART SHOW or Suddenly You’re Standing in the Middle of the Room and It’s Just Fucking Happening, by Marta Jary

The night I met Jesse Willesee he was slumped on a milk crate outside a clothing launch drinking vodka from a full-sized bottle and accosting bystanders with random stanzas of poetry slurred in a phony British accent.

He was 21 but looked 17, he was completely out of control, he had the saddest, hungriest eyes I had ever seen, and he was dressed like some entrepreneurial sleaze-bag had stuck an underage model in The Libertines; squealing little girls would ask if he was famous and get in pictures with him to put on their MySpace pages.

My first two thoughts were: a) what a fucking douche bag, and b) I wanna hang with this kid so bad I could die.

Five years later we were standing in the same spot in Sydney, outside a closed-down bar that used to be called Dr Pongs, except this time we were being interrogated by detectives while a squad of police shut down Jesse’s latest show, 22 Girls Smoking Weed, to howls of dissent from a hoard of the city’s finest hipsters.

We always say: if the idea is strong, everything just works. It’s a bullet: suddenly you look around the room and you’re in the middle of your own show and it’s just happening. And if it’s really working, the police show up.

I’ve known Jesse for five years and for four of them, I’ve managed his art shows.

He has the ideas, I do the wrangling.

I call the kids and beg them to be on time, I call the cabs to collect the lamps and suitcases and borrowed props, I spam the media with press releases. I wrangle Jesse too – I have no qualms about turning up at bars, girl’s houses and parties at 2am and pulling him home by the arm, so much so that I am often mistaken for his mother: once by a rather intoxicated Daniel Johns.

I make sure everybody gets drunk, but nobody gets too drunk – not ever since Kirin J. Callinan was carried off to the hospital to have his stomach pumped half way through our first hotel room installation. I distinctly remember having to use a wad of women’s panties, which Kirin had Blu-Tacked to the walls, to urgently mop up his vomit while kids continued to cram inside the door.

Chaos was always going to be the main theme of those hotel-room shows, of all the shows.

It makes sense: we were chaos at first. Jesse and I were inseparable little amigos from day one, but for the first year, we were about as unhealthy for each other as two people can get. I blew through $10,000 worth of loans and credit cards trying to out-cool him; we did whatever we wanted, we hired limousines to take us to house parties, crammed fifty kids into wrecked hotel rooms and got everyone drunk, went on lengthy benders, slept with absolutely everybody and bought enough drugs to kill ourselves and all our friends. It took me four years to pay it all back to the bank.

As it turned out we were not looking to destroy ourselves, we were looking to create something – to make a show of ourselves in the most naïve way possible. We thought we were Iggy Pop. Guess what? Partying is not an art form.

So Jesse started making actual art.

The first thing he drew was an ink picture of his furious girlfriend throwing Thai food all over his mother’s kitchen called, “There was Pad Thai Everywhere, Even On the Walls”. I bought him forty or fifty $2-store canvases, and because his girlfriend had kicked him out and he had nowhere to live, we moved into the tiny spare room at my parent’s house and he painted. For weeks he only left the house to visit the enormous Dan Murphy’s liquor store on the corner of the street.

There were maybe twenty people at that first show, but Jesse made the newspaper, teetering into the camera in a casually arrogant pose and rambling a bunch of quotes about how art was boring and he was the future. He only sold one painting that night but he charged $700 for it. He refused to lower the price. The whole thing set a precedent.

We were living together in our own place by then, and, for the better part of five years, we have shared a home. We’re a lot like siblings and we brawl, but above all we talk. Our conversations are always arguments. We strategize. We excite each other; every idea becomes a possibility.

Jesse says he has good ideas because he has time to think. It’s true: the couch is his office. He goes to bed at 9pm most nights and is up at 7am most mornings. He gets dressed, and he sits on that couch. And he thinks. He’s the truest definition of the term conceptual artist. He thinks, he rethinks, he plots, and creates. Obsessively.

And he has a catalogue of mad ideas, ideas that we do not have the money or resources for. He has repeatedly demanded I call Taronga Zoo and ask them if he can dress the animals in suits.

I don’t have time to think because I have a job. I write for a celebrity magazine. It’s an office full of fantastically foul-mouthed journos and we laugh all day. I endure good-natured barbs about my hipster friends. I get a lot of free lipstick. It’s a sweet gig as far as jobs go.

But it was taking a day off work that started this whole thing, really. Jesse was depressed that morning, worryingly so. It was raining on and off but we went to the beach, to a bay directly across the harbour from my office. We sat on the rocks in the drizzle and he told me that everything he had done so far was wrong.

He’d put in 18 months, he’d done two or three shows then: gallery shows. We’d gotten into the romance of it all. We drove to Thirroull and hired the hotel room Brett Whitley died in. On the carpeted floor there Jesse painted the first thing he sold: The Ass. The slogan read: Life is Simple, But Boring. In the corner was a hole I made with my heel when I’d drunkenly stepped on the canvas.

He’d gotten great at these sweet, sad ink drawings. He’d made a zine that fell into the hands of The National Art school. They invited him to meet with the director, raved that he could be the next Basquiat, and asked if he could sit in a room and draw for four hours a day. He said “no way”. And that was the end of that.

He was writing poems and taking pictures too. A rumour got around that Ian Curtis had communicated with him in a digital photo. Somehow the Sydney Morning Herald had heard and rang us about it. The story never ran but it was true: the letters I-A-N appeared in giant neon letters on a photo of my face the night we saw the film Control. We took it as a good sign.

Jesse was starting to sell quite a few of his works. He hated it. He was so bored. Everyone stared at the walls and went home. He resented the let down. So on the beach that day I asked him, “What do you really want to do?” And he said, “I want to have a show inside a hotel room.”

It was impossible. It was giraffes in tuxedos. It was a million miles from what we knew how to do.

He’d often hire rooms above the Judgement Bar and play the radio and drink gin and paint on the floor. All Jesse wanted was people to come and watch him do it. People interested him. He wanted to put his whole life on show; his friends, himself, not just his private scribbles. I thought: it will never happen.

I called the Darlo bar in Sydney the next day: they had hotel rooms and a bar below. It was a vague chance, if there was one. I vividly remember standing in the sun outside my office with a cigarette in my hand spewing out all sorts of nervous promises down the phone. I hate talking on the phone. And the manager on the other end just said, “That sounds too good to be true”. It was the first call I’d made.

When I called Jesse, he was having his hair bleached white by an anorexic girl who was in love with him, and who always left the dye on too long just to keep him in the salon. He had a burning scalp when I told him, “They said yes. We have seven hotel rooms”. Jesse said, “Oh, fuuuck!” and hung up on me. It was wonderful.

The show worked: it was vivid and terrifyingly right. Seven hotel rooms of performance art, seven little lives on show. As a living thing it was immediately bigger than us.

A year later Jesse invited the audience to bring cameras and shoot the installations live. He called the show Seven Hundred Photos. He was in LA, and he’d directed the action via a series of heated Skype sessions. It exploded, and it changed him. It was finally working. He did a hotel show in LA. And then he flew home.

Fast-forward to earlier this year and 22 girls are smoking joints and dancing to Ramones songs in my lounge room while Jesse snaps them on iPhone. Fast forward to last week and I am holding a Roto light while Jesse pours Fruit Loops over a passed-out model on the floor of the Backroom and snaps a Polaroid.

We have a long way to go. We have no illusions. But we’re ready.

Sometimes people ask me how we make these shows happen and I’ll rattle off some advice. But to be honest, I have no fucking clue. Every single show I swear I’m never doing it again. And then we just keep finding ourselves standing in the middle of bombed-out rooms thinking fuck, it’s over, and we actually made something.

Jesse’s new show. Passout, will feature live fashion and photographic installations of passed-out party people. Passout is at the Backroom, Kings Cross, Sydney on Thursday September 13. You can see the trailer below:

Jesse’s first ever hotel room show was called Paintings in Hotel Rooms. This is what it looked like. 

You can see video of the recent Seven Hundred Photos show here.

Words by Marta Jary.