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Justin Shoulder 2013 portrait 02 (c) Time Out Sydney photographer credit Daniel Boud
Photograph: Daniel BoudJustin Shoulder

Justin Shoulder embodies queer resilience with his latest ‘fantastic creature’

Written by
Dee Jefferson

For his latest work, Sydney performer and artist Justin Shoulder will embody a ‘fantastic creature’ inspired by a microscopic animal called the ‘Tardigrade’, which was discovered by Johann Goetz in 1773. “It’s one of the only organisms that can survive anything – extreme heat, extreme cold,” says the performer. “You can’t kill it.”

This ‘Tardigrade’ is one figure on a spectrum of transformation that unspools in Shoulder’s one-man sci-fi show, Carrion, premiering at Carriageworks this week as part of Performance Space’s Liveworks Festival. Set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future, the show is part installation and part dance work, and is a “reflection on evolution, and the possibilities of adaptation and survival,” says Shoulder. It opens on a figure that has survived everything; “then I become human, machine, animal – and then this combination of all those things.”

Carrion – by Liz Ham, Tristan Jalleh and Justin Shoulder
Photograph: Supplied

Shoulder has been making Fantastic Creatures, colourful avatars consisting of full-body costumes that he ‘performs’ in, for ten years now. His first, Caenus Cerabrallus, debuted at the now-defunct warehouse space Lanfranchi’s in 2007 – and since then new incarnations have popped up at queer club nights (such as the also-defunct Club Kooky) and festivals (including Underbelly Arts Festival).

Justin Shoulder – Caenus Cerabrallus
Photograph: Mat Hornby

The origin of Carrion was a performance Shoulder did at Pink Bubble, a semi-regular queer club he runs with Matt Stegh. The artist describes that first incarnation as his “most human creature” to date, and his least “camp”. Among the ideas and issues it explores are climate change, cyborg culture, surveillance, Trump, and the rise of white supremacy. “It’s much more informed by fear and anxiety [than my previous works] – which is probably a reflection of our times.”

Unlike previous Fantastic Creatures, Shoulder has built the characters in Carrion from their bodily movement upwards, rather than from the costume downwards. To this end, he has been training in the Japanese-inspired BodyWeather discipline with mentor Victoria Hunt, for the past two years. He describes the goal as “deep bodily transformation”. “It’s like I’m Justin, and I became all these other things or characters”.

As we talk about the show, and our conversation digresses to Sydney’s queer culture and Australia’s marriage equality plebiscite, it’s impossible not to see in Carrion a metaphor for queer survival in an increasingly hostile world.

“We’re in some pretty dark times,” Shoulder agrees. “It feels unsafe for LGBTQIA people. There are so many reports of violence. That’s why telling stories and putting on parties is important. It’s all something to make you feel connected, and angry, and feel love.”

Carrion runs Oct 25-28 at Carriageworks as part of Liveworks Festival of Experimental Arts.

Liveworks runs until Oct 29 at Carriageworks.

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