the AU interview: Jesse Willesee - Product Placement

Jesse Willesee

Fraud or artistic oracle? Waste of time or groundbreaking conceptual artist? Love him or hate him, Sydney artist Jesse Willesee knows how to get a reaction. His show ’22 Girls Smoking Weed’ was shut down by a police squad, his website boasts a Jesse Willesee hate page and he’s inspired a graffiti bullying campaign. But he’s a star among the Tumblr and Instagram set and his FLASH/MOB events - live art and fashion installations where the audience become the photographers - attract big crowds. The aureview talks to Willesee about his latest show, Product Placement, and asks, is Jesse Willesee really an artist?

Posing the question, "When we hold up our Coke or Nike or Pizza Hut products and take a social media snap showing them off, are we starring in our own ads?", Product Placement will feature images of models, musicians and well-dressed kids photographed by Jesse "product placing" brands - a reflection of our tendency to show off our favourite products and "make billboards of ourselves" on social media.

“It’s similar [to my other shows] in that it was an idea I got from seeing other images,” Willesee says of Product Placement’s inspiration, the third in his Tumblr trilogy. “Like with 22 Girls Smoking Weed I saw lots of images of girls smoking weed on Tumblr and on the internet. I noticed a trend for people to pose with products in their pictures. And I thought that was interesting. In the past that was product placement - where a company gets you to use your image to help promote themselves. Now it’s kind of happening in reverse. I feel like a lot of people want that iconic imagery that these companies have created.”
And like his other shows, this one-night-only event is big on audience interactivity. Hundreds of giveaways, djs and live music will guarantee a party atmosphere, with the whole crazy night to be captured via Go-Pro and cut into a film.

“It’s very much a party that night,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve done a show in an art gallery in three years. I don’t like, for myself, having a few things hanging on the wall, and people come to look at it and leave. I really like it to be a more engaging experience. I’ve always wanted to give people not just something to be excited about, but to be a part of as well and to make something for themselves.”

Audience interactivity - becoming the artists and sometimes the art itself – it is an unusual way of doing business. And this is what Willesee believes is at the heart of the controversy he’s caused in the art world.

“When I first did those photo shows, I really didn’t feel like I’d seen that anywhere. That wasn’t something I’d borrowed from somewhere,” he says. “We had a live performance art show and I did an impromptu photo shoot of a girl and then everyone flooded around me and they started shooting as well. And I realised, everyone here has cameras and they want to take pictures. And my live installations, people should be able to shoot them. So that came through pretty organically.

“People were saying that wasn’t art, but I very much knew then it was going to become pretty mainstream because so many people have cameras and they don’t have a lot to shoot.

“It’s been very weird for me, to be honest. I always thought there would be people that like it and people that don’t. But when people say outright, ‘this isn’t even art’ it just blows my mind.

“I have this little book of Walt Whitlam’s early poems and he has a whole poem in there ranting about how the library’s are never, ever going to stock his poems but that’s okay because he knows where it’s at. And it’s amazing to think that Walt Whitlam was a young kid complaining the establishment was never going to accept him and he’s fine with that.”

So here we come to the big question. Why makes Willesee's work art?
“A lot of my stuff is art because it’s a reflection of real things that are happening,” Willesee says. “That’s pretty simple. I see a lot of art around that I think is quite mainstream that I think could be called into question a lot more. The established art community I don’t think really likes what I do. And it’s hard to get corporations to stand next to a guy who gets 22 girls to smoke weed. But I always felt this is what needed to happen and what I needed to do otherwise it wouldn’t have been relevant or interesting in any way.”

Product Placement will debut on June 19 at District 01 Gallery in Surry Hills from 7pm. The one-night-only event will feature hundreds of giveaways and music by Buzz Kull and Paper Cranes DJs.

Check out more of Willesee’s work at

Photograph of Jesse Willesee courtesy of Gavriel Maynard