Alive with moving qualities

From The Weekend Australian
by Christopher Allen

Skateboarding is a peculiar subculture. Young boys and girls enjoy playing with skateboards, like any other form of wheeled vehicle, but the full expression of the practice seems to be found in males who are mostly past the flower of youth and often moving into the indefinite frontiers of middle age, especially perilous territory for the immature.

These are the individuals one often notices congregating in inner-city areas, and taking turns to demonstrate their prowess in leaping over small obstacles such as the stone borders of flowerbeds. More often than not they seem to fail in these attempts, and one is left to wonder what draws people to make a public display of their inability to achieve a thing trivial in itself.

But even if you have a dim view of skateboarding in its vernacular form, it is hard not to be entranced by Shaun Gladwell’s video of himself practising alone, in the rain, on a concrete platform above the waves at Bondi Beach. In this precarious position, where presumably he could fall to death or serious injury with any failure of concentration, he loops and spirals, balancing on two wheels, circling around an invisible centre, in a continuous movement made hypnotic by slow motion.

The grey, rainy weather, the livid sea and the subdued light are as crucial to the effect as the motion slowed down to bring out its meditative quality. The work evokes absorption, first in the repetitive yet constantly varied and improvised action, and second in the implied relation to the natural environment, for in the end the work seems to suggest that a kind of communion is achieved through the mystical dance of the rider.

This theme of connection with the world through some kind of practice runs through all of Gladwell’s most significant work, and it reappears here in several different but parallel guises. And perhaps the first thing to note is what could be called the ascetic aspect of his vision. The term “ascetic” is most often associated with forms of self-mortification, but its core meaning is practice; it is because the practices associated with spiritual quests tend to be arduous that the word “ascetic” acquired connotations of rigour and austerity.

The practices illustrated in Gladwell’s work do not involve overt mortification of the body but they are all demanding: they require considerable physical strength, skill and presence. These qualities, in turn, are achieved only by strict self-control, regular and even extreme physical exercise and high levels of fitness. No one achieves enlightenment or whatever we can call the state evoked in these works by being a slob, eating junk food, hunching over a computer screen or lounging in front of a television screen.

And that is quite reasonable, for we are bodies as well as minds, and it is inevitable that one influences the other; we don’t feel mentally well when we are physically sick and we can’t expect to feel happy and serene when our bodies are weak, stiff, overburdened with excess weight and poisoned with sugar, salt and processed food. The first step to mental stability is ensuring the health of the body.

Another of Gladwell’s video works is even more explicitly about the communion of the individual with a vastly greater environment. The sea, which formed the background of the skateboarding piece, is here the all-enveloping setting of a video whose central subject is a surfer riding on a board. There are no boundaries, there is no horizon; the water is everywhere and the anonymous figure is not just passing through it but seems to dwell in it.

In reality, the surfer rides on the surface of the water, on the boundary between the sea and the air, but this fact is almost concealed by the way the film is shot. Much of it appears to be from underwater, with the rider straddling his board upside-down and submerged. When he appears to lean over and dip his head into the water, he is really lifting it out of the sea to take a breath; if there were any doubt about this, the bubbles he emits as he returns into the water make it clear what is really happening.

All of this is not immediately apparent to the casual viewer, yet it does not detract from the work to understand how it was made, for we are left with the image of a man living, like a kind of amphibian, within a watery environment without limits or end. One may think of Thales, the earliest of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who said that water was the primary substance out of which all things were made, or his successor and pupil Anaximander, who corrected his master’s thesis by asserting that it was not water but something without any distinct properties or qualities or bounds.

Superficially different but fundamentally exploring the same themes is another video in which a figure is seen riding a motorbike in the outback. He is viewed from the back, riding down a straight road in one of those remote regions where roads can continue in a straight line, seemingly forever, travelling through emptiness. At a certain point the driver tentatively lets go of the handlebars, then slowly raises his arms to vertical. And then he drives on, arms outstretched, balancing and guiding the bike only with his legs.

There have been suggestions that the outstretched arms are a reference to Christ on the cross, but this is a superficial reading of the image, which has nothing to do with suffering, sacrifice or atonement. The outstretched arms are in reality more like the wings of a bird in flight, expressing confidence and at the same time surrender, as the body rushes through the air in a posture that would be dangerous without skill, experience and complete attention.

These works remind us of a couple of things about performance and video. The first of these is that video art largely arose as a way to give permanence to performance art, which was originally ephemeral, often witnessed by only a small audience at the time, and frequently poorly documented.

But the other interesting point about the best performances is they tend to be memorable as actions in themselves, and thus to have their own afterlife, through a process of telling and retelling, as stories.

In several of his videos Gladwell employs performers, including in a piece that echoes his own skateboarding work on a larger scale but without quite the same intensity: the setting is a seaside pier in England on a gloomy and rainy day, and the performer rides his bicycle on the back wheel like a unicyclist. Again the individual is engaged in a feat of skill, concentration and focus in a setting that has a foreground of cultural and historical specificity but a background of the amorphous and boundless.

Motion reaches its crescendo in Pataphysical Man, in which a breakdancer in a helmet is filmed spinning on his head, the most physically intense, extreme and also dangerous performance we have seen so far. Inverted poses such as handstands and headstands always have the fascination of defying gravity and are like brief and tantalising escapes from the constraints of matter and the laws of physics. But with actions that are too extreme for most of us to contemplate, such as spinning on your head, the sense of discomfort and danger can negate the dream of freedom.

Perhaps that is why Gladwell has projected this video upside-down, cancelling our instinctive sense of the weight that is being put on the performer’s neck. Instead, he seems to spin around weightlessly and almost effortlessly in the air, as though in some ecstatic or trancelike state. The sense of absorption that I mentioned before is present in all of his works, but in cases such as this it is particularly marked.

The question this raises is, once again, about the relation between the absorption in an action that demands all one’s attention, and the putative connection with the natural environment, the almost metaphysical sense of usually amorphous being that surrounds the performer.

This is, in fact, a methodological question that arises also in other practices such as yoga and meditation. Is the aim to withdraw from the world or to engage with it? In the earlier versions of yoga philosophy, the point was to still the agitation of the mind and achieve lucidity of consciousness. But that naturally raises the question of the object of lucid consciousness. In later centuries, especially under the influence of Islam during the Mughal period, writers tended to take a more theistic view, so that the aim became to achieve communion with the divine.

But there is also the question of the means. Yoga and meditation work through stillness, although yoga finds stillness in slow, disciplined and repeated movement. On the other hand some other traditions, such as Sufism, seek illumination through ecstatic rapidity of movement and particularly through the inebriating effect of spinning in the ceremonies of the so-called whirling dervishes.

Gladwell’s work has clear affinities with such practices of movement, often consisting of rapid and energetic movement on the spot, going nowhere but as it were moving into itself, or perhaps into depth. Pataphysical Man, of course, is most literally an example of ecstatic, hypnotic whirling on the spot. The figure on the motor bike is going forward in a straight line, but there is nowhere to go, so it is almost as though he were remaining motionless, while it is the spinning of his wheels that allows him to maintain his balance.

But is ecstatic movement always effective or can it be, as with perhaps any such practice, vulnerable to sinking back into a narcissistic collapsing into the self? This is a suspicion particularly raised by one work, based on the practice of capoeira, a Brazilian combination of dance and martial art that is said to have arisen among black slaves as a form of self-defence and then evolved into a stylised kind of performance based on mock combat.

The performer is a young woman, a friend of the artist, but the action takes place in a sterile urban location unlike Gladwell’s usual natural environments. The figure in this case appears unrelated to what is around her — an effect compounded by the stopping and starting, and gratuitous sequences of improvised action — and seems above all fundamentally alienated from her surroundings. The action, even when dynamic and even sometimes exhilarating, disperses itself in a scattering of energy rather than moving into depth; absorption in practice does not seem to reach beyond itself, and, especially in this sterile setting, the performance seems more an expression of escape than of communion.

Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until October 7