death and holograms: inside the world of julia deville
As Australia’s gothic art queen prepares for a technological revolution, we speak to her about death as an influence and keeping yourself alive.
Photography Ben Thomson
Julia deVille has forged a weighty reputation for making very beautiful, delicate things out of death. Her taxidermy jewellery and sculptures are works of brilliance: under her light touch the dead are reborn as trinkets and prizes. While taxidermy has become an increasingly accessible hobby, on par with brewing beer or growing heirloom tomatoes, Julia's work has always been something more sublime.
But while she's interested in the end, she has no time for stagnation. Her reputation may be built on a Victorian fascination with the end, but her future is taken up with thoughts of the interplay between art and emerging technologies. She came to the art world's attention, by challenging what we thought of beauty and decay, and now she's planning to do it again — but this time there will probably be holograms.
Your work has always dealt pretty directly with death, have you always been so comfortable with it?
It's something I've found really natural since childhood. My dad was an avid scuba diver, he was always bringing back dead fish and crayfish for me to play with. When I was about eight we went for a walk in the countryside and found an old church, there was an open coffin inside with an elderly lady's body in it with no one around. My dad is quite eccentric so he let me touch her face and see how rubbery she felt. It still remains one of my clearest memories. It became very apparent to me at that moment that whatever we are is not our body, because her body had become this completely transformed thing.
That's an intense experience for a child.
I had similar experiences when my grandmothers died: I was allowed to see their bodies, touch them. Here were people who had been so warm and such big parts of my life, but they weren't grandmothers, they were just dead bodies. So many kids don't get to see their family after they've died, it's still a taboo thing, but it means they don't get that closure. It's healthy to see that body and realise whoever that person was isn't there anymore. I guess I'm quite detached from dead bodies.
You've been incredibly busy for the past few years: I was interested to read about how committed you are to slowing down and practicing self-care as an artist. Can you tell me about hitting that wall and then your recovery?
It's actually funny because I'm sort of back working seven days a week, just because I'm in the middle of launching websites and working on shows. But I have managed to take it easier in the last year and go on proper holidays. Previously I really knocked myself around with pushing it too hard; you love doing it — and it's satisfying — but it gets to a point where if you keep doing it you will actually kill yourself. I got to a very dangerous place with my health [Julia had adrenal fatigue] and it took me about two years to recover. I still have to be very gentle, I completely quit drinking alcohol and caffeine, I go to bed super early and meditate for an hour everyday. These things help keep me level, and also help me to recover when I feel like I'm overworking myself.
You really can love your job so much you literally never stop doing it.
When you're passionate about something, it's hard to pull the reigns in. Eventually I realised I could work forever and still not get all my ideas done, so I've learnt to be more selective and say no to things. There's always this artist FOMO thing of fearing you're missing a big opportunity. I think it's about being effective rather than efficient. We're all so focused on being efficient, but you realise that you're actually being efficient on something that you don't even need to be working on in the first place.
That fear of missing your big break is so real. Do you feel artists are particularly susceptible to this?
I think as an artist you're often a more sensitive person in the first place. You're more empathetic and emotional but you also have this drive to do this thing you feel you're meant to do, so we probably take more on. Additionally, if you have success as an artist, you feel so grateful you can do this as a living it feels ungrateful if you turn down great opportunities. But sometimes, something more important will come out of saying no. Our motto in the studio now is "no is the new black."
Looking to the future now, I've heard you mention that you're looking at ways to marry old and new technologies — especially 3D printing. From the outside, you seem like the last person who would be thinking about technology.
I guess I've always worked in really old crafts and techniques, and never even considered using all this new technology because it was just not of any interest to me. But then I started thinking about the applications of some of these technologies and what you can do with them. It excites me how you can use them to make things that look old. I'd like to start 3D scanning my sculptures and shrinking them or blowing them up and make outdoor sculptures.
How do you see this changing your work?
I love taxidermy but it's so fragile, expensive, hard to ship and bugs like to eat it — you have to keep everything in glass cases. It's fraught with issues and I'm kind of sick of dealing with difficult things — which is probably part of a continuous refining of my life and my work. It would be nice to make things that you can just chuck in a crate and not have to worry about it so much.
Do you think you'll ever move away from taxidermy?
I think there will always be an element of taxidermy but for now I don't really have any desire to be doing it. I've got a big exhibition in 2018 which will probably be my last taxidermy show, but now I'd like to bring a lot of this technology in. I've started making holograms of my work which is really exciting. With this technology you can take one work and end up with a whole catalogue of different pieces. I really just want to play with it and see where it can take me.
Yeah, it's funny that holograms are this cliche of being super modern, but they're actually older than I am. I'd like to do holograms of my work because I think it would be interesting to have these really old, antique looking objects juxtaposed in the context of a hologram.
Text Kasumi Borczyk
Photography Ben Thomson