Portrait

Controversial Australian artist and activist Van T. Rudd talks politics and ‘non-gallery’ art. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Kevin Rudd’s nephew, artist Van T. Rudd

The motionless body appears to commando-crawl across the Melbourne CBD pavement, one leg desperately trying to gain traction. The crawler, head down, wears dark jeans, an orange hoodie, worn sneakers. The body’s been sliced clean in two, precariously close to the tram tracks. Its insides are made of flat, box-cut cardboard, the words NO MORE CUTS TO EDUCATION scrawled on with black marker.

The second time I stumble upon a body like this, I’m passing a Footscray building site. Arms reach out of the construction fence: blue gloves over pleading fingers. A tracksuit-panted knee protrudes, a sneakered foot. Pedestrians and drivers-by triple-take at the suspended-in-struggle, trying-to-climb-through-from-nowhere body. Bold block letters on a white sign read: REFUGEE.

There’s an anonymity about artist Van T. Rudd, even in person. Sitting in a cafe in Melbourne’s west, for what will become the first of our many meetings, he’s cloaked in faded comfy-casuals, much like those that adorn his artworks.

“It’s not ‘gallery art’,” he says, running a hand over his thin grey-black ponytail. “People don’t see it as having intrinsic value.” Rudd’s gestures are understated. He speaks softly, as if being extra careful not to damage his escaping thoughts. “And it’s probably also my politics.”

In 2008, in a controversy that made headlines around Australia, Rudd’s Banksy homage depicting Ronald McDonald setting fire to a monk with the Olympic torch was rejected by the City of Melbourne for a scheduled exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City. On Australia Day 2010, Rudd and a fellow member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits holding “Racism: Made in Australia” signs outside the Australian Open tennis, protesting against the Victorian government’s refusal to treat recent attacks on Indian people in Melbourne as racially motivated. The two were charged with attempting to incite a riot. Later that year Rudd followed his uncle, former prime minister Kevin Rudd, into federal politics, spiritedly but unsuccessfully contesting then prime minister Julia Gillard’s seat of Lalor. “When people can’t see past your politics, you sometimes don’t get offered opportunities other artists do.”

The sketchbook in front of Rudd contains preliminary lead sketches for Pensioner Handstand, a comment on government cuts to healthcare and the pension. A childlike, handstanding figure is outlined on the open page. 

“I just got an idea,” I say hesitantly. “Speaking of unlikely opportunities … I actually just wrote a kids’ picture book. I haven’t found an illustrator.”

Rudd raises an eyebrow, asks me to send him the text.

The grassy backyard of Rudd’s modest housing co-op rental backs on to an oval. While I chat with Rudd and his partner, Tania, neighbourhood kids wander through to use the secret entrance cut into the fence, Rudd’s loping dog, Django, sniffing around them. Our combined primary-aged brood have moved past the initial staring-shyly-at-each-other stage and are enthusiastically padding a wire basket with grass to make a “bird’s nest”.

Inside the house, Rudd moves aside a dragon and fully functioning foot-long car he has designed for his two kids to show me his casting technique. He wraps his lower leg with cling wrap, grabs a wide roll of sticky tape and tightly wraps the tape around and around the cling wrap, until a thick, hard layer has formed. Carefully, he slices the clear cast off with scissors, tapes it together at the join, and shoves newspaper inside to retain the shape. “I do most of the bodies like this, but I adjust them where I need to.” 

Sketching back

A couple of months after our first cafe meeting, I’m emailed a suite of photographs of exquisite oil-painted illustrations. The scenes are painted on old cardboard packing boxes. The works are raw, eerie, enchanting. The kind of reach-into-the-author’s-subconscious imaginings that make me realise, somewhat uneasily, that during the weeks I’ve been visiting Rudd to collect material for this piece, the artist has been quietly sketching back. I forward the illustrations to my publisher. “Holy fuck,” he replies.

On exhibition day, Rudd and I meet on the steps of Flinders Street Station. Pensioner Handstand is hoisted over his shoulder. Her body’s withered: flesh sunken, with a slightly twisted hip. She wears black parachute-material trousers, an old green zip-jacket and a tatty grey wig. Her collapsed walking frame leans against Rudd’s leg. Passers-by gasp at the slim Vietnamese-Australian with an elderly woman casually thrown over his shoulder. We make our way past McDonald’s, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Commonwealth Bank, Rudd’s down-and-out pensioner floating among startled shoppers.

Rudd settles on a spot outside a department store, near windows advertising end-of-financial-year sales. He sets up the elderly woman, handstanding on her walker, balances her cardboard protest sign: No more delusions. I want revolution. Rudd quickly moves back into the crowd. Three businessmen stop in their tracks, discuss the installation. A woman shoves a $5 note into the pensioner’s shopping bag. The local Big Issue seller comes over for a better look. A group of schoolchildren discuss the work with their teacher, gently prod the pensioner, as if testing whether or not she’s alive.

Van fidgets. “It’s time to go.” The artist seems genuinely uncomfortable – not because of potential police questioning, to which he’s well accustomed by now, but because there’s a very real emotional investment in the work. The not knowing what’s going to happen to her is difficult.

We walk on for a moment, in silence. “Did you get the illustration contracts?” I finally ask. “You know how we don’t use the front door of our place?” he says, “Well, the postman dropped the contracts there. In a priority express envelope and everything. The parcel sat at the front door for days. A local kid found it, and brought it round the back and said. ‘Hey, Van, I think this might be for you.’ And I said ‘Oh! Thank you for bringing that in. I’ve been expecting that. It’s a very important document.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2015 as "The other Rudd". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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