May 2011

Arts & Letters

Lessons in unlearning

By Peter Robb
Shaun Gladwell, 'Tangara', production still, 2003. (Photographer: Josh Raymond.) Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.
Shaun Gladwell

When the Olympic Games came to Sydney in 2000 I decided to rent a TV and watch some. Tweaking the rabbit’s ears – no time for an antenna – I watched Cathy and Ian and the others going for gold in extreme blizzard conditions.

Outside in the real, mild world I saw triathletes ride their bikes up through the Domain and the marathon runners pass by Taylor Square. The marathon is the greatest thing in sport, and the runners – following their painted blue line out along Anzac Parade – still had in them something of the Greek messenger, the barefoot Ethiopian shepherd.

While I was peering through the electronic storm, a young man out in the stadium had a small camera trained on Cathy Freeman, a new-generation digital video recorder – new for then – small, compact and with a powerful zoom. From his great distance in the stand the young man was able to home in close on the individual athletes and film them in great detail. Plenty of others in the crowd had video cameras too, but this young man wasn’t filming the moments these tense bodies had been working toward for years.

He was filming the instant before the movement, the silence and stillness when everything was contained and potential. In his hands was the technology to do what, for thousands of years, artists in paint or stone could only dream of, and he was using it to do what a Quattrocento painter might have done, to show action implicit in stillness. He followed the marathon course too, but backwards, at night, when the runners were long gone. Heading into the traffic on his skateboard, he filmed the blue line painted on the road. Showing the action by not showing it.

In 2000 Shaun Gladwell was 28 and fairly new to making film. It was a big year for him; it was his breakthrough year, his annus mirabilis – the year of his first solo exhibition and of five other group shows. It was the year he formed, with 15 other young artists, the Imperial Slacks collective, whose sublime name was still visible on the outside of the former trouser factory in Surry Hills where the Slackers had their home.

He was getting to the end of several years’ work for a master’s degree in fine arts at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. The following year he went straight off to take up residencies in Paris and London. Since then Gladwell’s videos have been shown all over Australia, Europe, Asia and the Americas. In 2009 he represented Australia at the Venice Biennale. Next month his work will fill the underground space of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne in a show called Shaun Gladwell: Stereo Sequences, whose title hardly begins to describe the new phase of a remarkable journey.

Gladwell and I met on the day Kodachrome went out of production for all time. It was an afternoon in Sydney when summer had come charging back and temperatures were in the high thirties. In four hours and more we each got through several litres of water, fizzy and tap, and half a dozen coffees – strong soy latte for the artist and simple short caffè for his interlocutor. Somehow the caffeine, the heat, the water and a weird assemblage of shared interests did what no alcohol could have.

We talked over the top of each other, hyperventilating – ‘runner’s high’ was one of the things we touched on – along a videosceptic’s road to Damascus. I looked into the bright eyes under the shadow of the black baseball cap and tried to understand. He was taking me where I’d not been before, and spinning me on the spot.

Where did it come from? Gladwell grew up in North Rocks, a pocket of suburbia in Sydney’s outer north-west that I had never heard of until he described it. North Rocks is in the Parramatta area, not far from the Westmead Hospital and handy to the Rosehill Gardens racetrack, several golf courses and a Shell oil refinery marked for closure. A creek runs past North Rocks through a string of reserves and empties into the Parramatta River.

North Rocks is riven with more ambiguities and contradictions, in Gladwell’s account, than the ordinary confusions you would expect in an area where North Shore runs into Western Suburbs on the ground of the earliest white settlement in Australia. It is a mainly middle-class place but Gladwell identifies his origins as working class. There is a strong, though not obvious, presence of military and former military men and their families in North Rocks, and they keep to themselves. The military milieu is itself internally divided into officer class and enlisted men.

Shaun Gladwell grew up in North Rocks because his father had been an army man. He was a Vietnam veteran who had been invalided out, badly wounded during the Tet offensive in 1968. When he recovered, Gladwell’s father worked in mining for several years in Western Australia and Bougainville, before returning to Sydney, getting married and setting up in North Rocks in a house provided by the army. And this, plus a few months of vivid early memories of passionfruit and bananas on the border of New South Wales and Queensland, was where Gladwell grew up.

He was born in 1972, the first of four children. When he was six Gladwell began at the local primary school before going on to the agricultural Muirfield High School, where nobody had to wear uniforms. The highly militaristic King’s School was nearby and so was the famously high-achieving James Ruse Agricultural High School. But the King’s School, established in the 1830s, is private and expensive, and James Ruse for the academically driven. Shaun Gladwell’s family was neither rich nor highly studious.

He gravitated in adolescence to adolescent things, such as graffiti painting and skateboarding. He was so emphatically not academic in his interests that in 1988, when he was 16, he dropped out of school altogether and devoted the year to skateboarding. That he went back, hung on and matriculated was due to two things.

The first was a girl, who moved into the neighbourhood from the US. Her parents were Korean and focused on study, progress, success. This girl was not going to be impressed by a skateboarding graffiti-spraying high-school dropout, and the young Gladwell was impressed enough by her to think her worth going to school for. He did not, however, abandon his other activities.

The other reason was a feeling that art – he’d been drawing since childhood, at first reflexively and then passionately, whatever he saw with whatever materials he could get his hands on – was something he wanted to go on making, wanted to be good at. The way to do this was to go to art school. Thoughts of the future intruded on his life of skateboarding, arcane zines, coded clothes and graffiti sprays on inaccessible surfaces. Gladwell was growing up. He stayed on at Muirfield, passed his exams at the end of 1990 and headed for university. After an inconclusive year at the University of Western Sydney he started properly in 1992 at the Sydney College of the Arts.

Behind, and even in, the video work of Shaun Gladwell is the potent but invisible presence of his father. Gladwell insists his father and his mother were both always keen and supportive about his wanting to make art. They were relaxed even in the early days of skateboarding and graffiti, and during the dropout year. They tried neither to make him get a job nor to stay at school and study. Athletic themselves, they understood their son’s pleasure in physical activity, his adolescent need to move.

Gladwell’s father had himself joined the army well before he was out of his teens, as young as was legal and maybe younger. He went straight to Vietnam and was there only a couple of years before injuries ended his military career. The former soldier and miner was a young man when Gladwell was born. The artist surprised me – or perhaps not – by not recalling how young. “I can ask him for you,” he offered.

The boy was fascinated by his father’s previous life. There was a biscuit tin of old snaps in the kitchen, images of people his father had known in Vietnam, both Australian and Vietnamese, with his younger father among them. The desire to know what it was like to be in danger on alien terrain resurfaced in 2009 when Gladwell joined the Australian force in Afghanistan as an official war artist, a posting he’d sought and secured.

The day before we talked he’d been in South Australia, making a video of Australia’s first Victoria Cross winner in Afghanistan as the soldier’s official portrait. The film showed Mark Donaldson hanging out of a low-flying army helicopter, intent and still, ready for action, floating over the land.

The boy Gladwell was taken up early into his parents’ athleticism. He shared in his father’s strenuous physical regimes – long-distance running and BMX riding – and he recalls these now with enormous enjoyment and no sense the activities were unusually intense, even though his father ran supermarathons and took his young son along on training sessions. A father who once ran from Sydney to Melbourne.

When you hear about this, you realise you see it all in the movement of the son’s videos – in the long, long straight roads, the wheels, the stripped interiors, the tension between movement and stillness, between effort and the forces opposing it, the effort of balance, to achieve an equilibrium that is also the poise of art. You feel it in the shimmering heat haze of the interior, in the storm clouds rolling in from the ocean. You feel the vertiginous freedom of not knowing which way is up and which down.

There’s a great deal to unlearn when you look at Gladwell’s entrancing films, and the artist doesn’t always help. He too is struggling to get free of conventional story and of precedent in general. In his 2005 video of the Woolloomooloo petrol station at night, the seagulls walking through it require no explanation and are its most beautiful moment. Edward Hopper, whose paintings always make you think of story, comes to mind. The blonde girl in the tracksuit is making capoeira moves, fighting as dance, from Brazilian slaves. Are we meant to know this? Meant to see significance in the absence of a partner or antagonist?

And when the inhuman rubbish truck drives slowly through, to unbelievable effect, it recalls the magical late tracking of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film The Passenger – not to mention the more purely ominous last moments of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America – and makes you feel that something terrible is happening here, only not in sight.

MADDESTMAXIMVS, videos Gladwell made for the 2009 Venice Biennale, invites interpretation too. The winks at Mad Max are obtrusive. The helmeted motorcyclist is too black and gleaming, too filmic and unreal. Who is the glamorous bikie stranger and whither bound? Will Tina Turner come riding by on a Harley, wearing a wig and a couple of pieces of rabbit fur? The dead kangaroos were great exotica for Venice, cradled in black-leathered arms, but I missed their source until Gladwell pointed it out for me.

He was talking about the German romantics. Caspar David Friedrich came instantly to mind. The early nineteenth-century gentleman in dark frock coat and stovepipe trousers standing on a rocky promontory and staring out over a fog-shrouded mountain forest – the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog – is more intimately a forerunner of Gladwell’s outback bikie than anything in Mad Max.

When recent German artists first came up I mentioned Anselm Kiefer and missed. Too upfront, too formal, too moralistic, too rooted in the past to get a response from Gladwell. But with Joseph Beuys a very palpable hit; Gladwell lit up and reminded me that Beuys’s disturbing performance of 1965, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, lay right behind the cradled kangaroo roadkill.

Beuys is one of the scariest and most ambiguous artists of the last half-century. Behind him looms a dark Heideggerian hinterland of Blut und Boden (blood and soil) that has nothing to do with the lucid beauty of Gladwell’s work. It doesn’t matter, seeking connections and validations like these. There’s such a thing, when you’re doing something really new, as the anxiety of no influence. Myself, I found the white road trains floating through the ageless shimmer, from white specks to tiny motionless cubes to looming pale monsters, far more compelling to the eye than the action happening in the crisp foreground.

The high-concept gloss in the titling and the catalogue talk around these videos – obligatory in the milieux through which Gladwell has moved with such striking speed – is not always wildly illuminating. But when Gladwell talks spontaneously he ransacks the past, its physics and philosophy as well as its art, to make a history that leads to him. He’s the scavenging opportunist every serious innovator has to be. You don’t need to know this to see his filmed images are intensely beautiful, done with a care and finish and a calmness unlike anything else you think of as video art.

Gladwell has seized on the technology of the small video camera to redefine the way our minds live in space. He talks often of “bodies in space”, but his videos are less about bodies than movement in space, and the way we experience it. The bodies are the least of it. There is something very Australian about this – not only Australian but experienced here as nowhere else, in the vast flatness of our spaces and the clear intensity of the light that rakes them. Individual presences are diminished or atomised in the huge and living space they move in. The videos are about ease or difficulty in moving through this space, and the greater difficulty of staying still in it.

Australia’s Indigenous art takes all this as a given, and represents a way of being in time and space that people with differently educated eyes and differently lived lives have to learn to see. Unlearn what they know. Gladwell’s art is unlearning for us. It might be easier to see this in Venice or São Paulo, where they love his work as once they loved Australian cinema in Europe and the US, not for its stories or its acting but for its rediscovery of light and space.

It’s not the first time technology has changed the way people see. The invention of photography changed painting forever. And earlier, in 1600, the painter Merisi from Caravaggio seized on the new optical technology of lenses and mirrors to reflect, refract and project images of real life onto two-dimensional surfaces and paint these meticulously. The technical leap threw out the old geometrics of perspective view for something that came close to the way the human eye saw.

The human reverberations were no less violent. Technique is never only technical. This was the new art of Galileo’s cosmos and Bruno’s infinite universe of innumerable bodies defined by light. Hierarchy collapsed when the lens was perfected. And Gladwell also looks back to the more distant humanism of Leonardo, for whom science and art were one and painting was about understanding light.

When Gladwell was a teenage skateboarder he used to come to Melbourne and head for a great anonymous space by the Yarra, a kind of unused plaza just over from Flinders Street Station and above an underground car park that had once been a station of the Melbourne metro. It was appropriated by the boarders to swirl around in.

The wasted plaza is now part of Federation Square and the cavernous space of the former train station below is where ACMI is installing Gladwell’s solo show. It was a brilliant intuition by Alessio Cavallaro, the centre’s former senior curator, to commission Gladwell to use ACMI’s subterranean vastnesses to project his visions of movement and stasis.

The totality of the experience, in the dark theatre of huge and small spaces that are part of the art, may resolve the formal banality that always threatens anything done in video. Here the moving images will exploit differences of scale and kind – some are video, others projected film – and, as Gladwell’s verbal walk-through maps it out before the opening, freely wandering visitors will move between matching images of seemingly stationary red helicopters in parallel flight and go on to lie on their backs and stare at images projected onto the ceiling of things filmed from above. Other experiences will follow. A great camera obscura, or series of them, I thought. Gladwell calls it Plato’s cave.

To enter the sixth and last room, visitors will walk through an image: an entrance way covered by a screen of water vapour – held in place by air jets – onto which is being projected a film of dark, rocky terrain. Inside the room they will find an apparatus less familiar than the film projector that is an earlier sculptural presence and part of the show. Part of the new object is an electronic endoscope exploring the interior of the human skull to which it’s joined, and a third component projects the endoscope’s findings onto the vapour screen. The insubstantial rough ground people have walked through is the inside of the skull. The mind, mind has mountains

This is something stunningly new in Gladwell’s recent art. The newness is the apprehension of death. The kangaroos didn’t count. Gladwell’s now 39. Exactly the age at which his optical forerunner Merisi vanished on a sea journey from Naples to Rome in the summer of 1610. You can imagine that final trajectory through his eyes, seen as a Gladwell video. Everything flows.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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