Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow
Shaun Gladwell is known for his hypnotic, slow-motion videos depicting a solitary figure centrally framed against an urban, coastal, underwater or desert setting, engaged in some high-octane activity. Generally, the activities are associated with youth culture – surfing, skateboarding, breakdancing, BMX bike riding and other adrenaline-inducing pursuits whose adherents, Gladwell included, embrace velocity and cheat gravity with grace and daring.
In Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow, a concise and considered survey of his 20-plus-year practice at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, key videos projected “full-bleed” on gallery walls serve as anchor points. Around them, works in other media – paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures – are placed in subtle dialogue. Together, they reveal the artist’s sustained interest in art history, his fascination with the ineluctable power of natural forces, and his ongoing efforts to capture the expressive potential of the human body as it performs in, responds to, and moves through a given environment.
The exhibition takes its title from a 2010 work of Gladwell’s, Pacific Undertow Sequence (Bondi). Beautiful and beguiling in its conceptual elegance, the video features footage of the artist hanging upside down from his surfboard in the water like a human-shaped keel as he struggles against the powerful waves and currents of Australia’s best-known beach. Because the footage has been inverted, however, what we see is the artist straddling his board, right side up, moving dreamily through an aquamarine haze with his eyes open. The underwater environment isn’t immediately recognisable as such, though air bubbles escaping from Gladwell’s mouth and the odd passing fish soon make this apparent.
Clocking the mechanics of its making doesn’t diminish the viewing experience. On the contrary, one becomes increasingly aware of the uncommon aquatic skills required and likely levels of discomfort endured in its creation. At one point, the artist stretches out on his board and kicks his legs up behind him, like Esther Williams waiting for the perfect wave – a ferociously difficult manoeuvre, given Gladwell would have been clinging to the underside of his board to execute it. Occasionally, he bends his torso to come up – or down – for air.
This work, rich and evocative, is the first visitors encounter upon entering the exhibition space. Along with the borrowed show title, the video’s location suggests its significance to the artist and the show’s curators, Natasha Bullock and Blair French. The concept of the “undertow”, in particular, may be relevant to the biography of Sydney-born Gladwell, who spent eight years living and working in London, returning to Australia at the end of 2018 and settling in Melbourne. It is tempting to ascribe his relocation to an undercurrent of homesickness, gently but firmly pulling him back here like some sort of psychocultural umbilical cord. According to the artist, Brexit played a major role in his decision to leave Britain.
Now 46, Gladwell has long had an international career. He represented Australia at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009 and has work in the collections of institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York to prove it. But the Australian landscape, in its many guises, has been a crucial aspect of his art from the beginning. Besides, when it comes to surfing, London is no Bondi or Bells Beach – you have to go to Cornwall for that.
The artist enjoys considerable crossover appeal, and the show’s “video hits” include his breakout Storm Sequence (2000), a rhythmic, slow-burning ode to the exquisite weightlessness of youth. A fresh-faced Gladwell performs an extended, loose-limbed solo on his skateboard against the backdrop of an encroaching tempest at Bondi Beach. A 21st-century update of the Romantic sublime – awe in the face of nature’s terrifying power – the work doesn’t have much to play with, yet it achieves a great deal, not least the suggestion of a metaphysical transfer of energy from the elements behind to the pivoting performer in the foreground.
Tangara (2003) is also included in the survey, albeit in augmented-reality (AR) format as a virtual projection against a gallery wall, viewable on any mobile device with the MCA’s app. Here, the artist hangs upside down from the handrail of a Sydney train for an extended period, but because the video has been flipped, what we see is someone appearing to have defeated gravity in a vaguely sci-fi interior of gleaming metal and fluorescent lights. Again, the work transcends its humble materials. The artist has called Tangara his attempt to experience “the sensation of space travel for the price of a train ticket”, although the sensation of blood rushing to his head was probably more prominent at the time.
Meanwhile, in Pataphysical Man (2005), another upside-down video, a helmeted breakdancer with arms outstretched performs an impressive sequence of head spins in front of a grid-like wall of polished metal. Gladwell is a fan of appropriation – the practice of making art by utilising objects, images or texts from works by other artists – and the video is named after an Imants Tillers painting. Tillers himself has used the strategy of appropriation throughout his career – his Pataphysical Man (1984) borrows from Giorgio de Chirico and others. In Gladwell’s work, the grid behind the performer references Tillers’ format for his paintings, which are assembled in a grid-like structure from a number of individually painted canvas boards. Quietly mesmerising, the video melds the aesthetics of minimalism with the physicality of a durational performance.
Early evidence of Gladwell’s appetite for technology – and appropriation – is apparent in a series of meticulously executed oil paintings made between 1998 and 2002, which mimic the grand portrait styles of the 18th-century English masters Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Scanning low-res images of the originals into an early version of Photoshop, the artist elongated the figures by 50 per cent, then painted the attenuated results, obscuring their heads in a sinister black fog. He performs a similar homage to John Glover elsewhere in the space, stretching a landscape horizontally by 50 per cent, painting the results in a lush, slightly surreal register and affixing two battered skateboards beneath the canvas like a street-smart predella.
These angular anti-portraits, leaning against a wall in a row, share a gallery with Pataphysical Man and with Gladwell’s most recent foray into virtual reality (VR), a seven-minute, 360-degree digital dreamscape titled Electronic Monuments (2019). Designed to be experienced singly, the work immerses the viewer in a Tron-like wire-frame re-creation of the selfsame gallery space, right down to the leaning suite of spindly portraits and Pataphysical Man projected on the far wall. As the scale model expands and contracts around the viewer like something out of Alice in Wonderland, other videos by the artist make an appearance, and at one point the viewer is “crushed” by two wall-wide projections closing in from either side. It’s fun and freaky, and the level of agency involved means each person’s experience will be slightly different. But the headgear and hand paddles are cumbersome, the tech can be glitchy – there was no soundtrack the second time this reviewer “entered” the work – and it seems a shame Electronic Monuments can only be encountered by one person at a time.
Elsewhere in the exhibition space, an intricately detailed aerosol painting on a diamond-shaped aluminium panel recalls a milky constellation of stars pierced by floodlights; a wildly inventive suite of six etchings riffs on the iconography of skulls and the Statue of Liberty, bearing witness to Gladwell’s graphic smarts and fertile imagination; and a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel attached to a white stool becomes an unlikely vehicle for a professional BMX-er, who flips it and rides through the gallery space in another AR work.
Gladwell is fond of French theory – he has cited Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space as a seminal influence – but fortunately one doesn’t need to be a card-carrying Situationist or down with Derrida to fully appreciate this exhibition, especially the videos, which are receptive to multiple readings on account of their non-narrative, open-ended structure. More than anything, they are invitations to meditate on what it means to move. Indeed, upon exiting the MCA, one may well find oneself newly alert to the million different ways bodies ambulate and interact, inscribing public space with calligraphic hand gestures, fidgety footwork, trunk twists and head wobbles – the contingent choreography of the everyday.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 27, 2019 as "An upside-down world ". Subscribe here.