Margaux Williamson on her performance piece How to Act in Real Life, her film Teenager Hamlet, and being a character in Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?
Polymath only begins to describe Margaux Williamson, a Toronto-based painter, screenwriter, director, playwright, movie critic, and book character. When I imagine her, she seems to alight on genres as a butterfly might on flowers, pollinating each next one with the dust of the previous one.
Williamson first came to my attention as a character in Sheila Heti’s novel-play-biography How Should a Person Be. Through the snapshots of Williamson that instigate many parts of the plot, I was continually astonished that this woman was not a novelistic invention but an actual person. I was compelled to know more about her, and it turned out there was quite a lot to know.
Her paintings first impressed me with their radiant, opulent strokes that create spaces of indeterminate reality. They suggest a set of eyes capable of finding dream notes in the living environment, and to assemble scenes or still lifes in which to place the components of a dream; a skill also relevant to Williamson’s work as a filmmaker. I suppose technically her film Teenager Hamlet is a documentary (with full-on explanatory voiceover), but it seems an ill-fitting label for a work that has real-life friends and people become archetypal “Ophelias” or “Hamlets,” while e.g., Williamson interrogates a working actor on what it feels like to be in the mode of acting.
Recently, during her residency at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Williamson presented a piece How to Act in Real Life, a construction somewhere between an organic Happening, and a play that relies strictly on Method acting. Engaged in an episode of Williamson instructing Sheila (Heti, the author above), on the art of simply being—existing in life that happens to be in front of an audience—much of what the viewer experiences during its presentation is circumscribed in the written manifesto/pamphlet distributed beforehand.
As someone who so fluently shifts between the written word and the image, I wanted to interview Williamson about her bilingual gifts and her reasons for so often incorporating both into her works. Over the course of a few weeks, we emailed each other, and I had the pleasure of understanding more about this charming Renaissance woman through her (predictably) articulate words.
Megan McDonald Walsh In all your work, you seem to flexibly adopt the role of either artist/creator/viewer or subject/creation/viewed. Do you have a preference for one position over the other?
Margaux Williamson Artist. But true, I’m flexible.
In terms of being a subject—when I started making art, I worked very quietly and alone. I made paintings that, on the surface, weren’t about me at all, but came entirely from my inner world. Later on, I got a bit sicker of myself and more curious about things outside of my studio. The more curious I got, the more I just became a useful character to use in my own work alongside all the other things in the world that I can use, like my neighbor or a tree.
In any case, it always seems polite and honest to wave to the audience so they know where you’re standing—which you can do if you’re one of the subjects they’re looking at.