Pacific Undertow, Shaun Gladwell

From Art Asia Pacific
by Grace Huang

Awash in a sea of teal, Shaun Gladwell is captured clutching his surfboard, as his body is constantly pushed, dragged, and rocked by the forces of the ocean in Bondi. Paired with a dissonant soundtrack, the speed and intensity of the activity is heavily wound down through the use of slow motion. This 11-minute film, Pacific Undertow Sequence (Bondi) (2010), was the namesake of the Sydney artist’s midcareer survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, which presented Gladwell’s multimedia works from the past two decades, as well as a newly commissioned augmented reality project.

Images of bodies in motion during adrenaline-fueled activities, against backdrops of the Australian landscape, pervade Gladwell’s practice. In the space adjoining the display of Pacific Undertow was the artist’s celebrated video Storm Sequence (2000), portraying Gladwell skateboarding on a concrete platform at the Bondi Beach shoreline. Amid a gathering storm, Gladwell becomes out of focus as the ground-level camera lens is covered with raindrops. Exhibition curator Blair French likened Storm Sequence to the turbulent seascapes of English Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner in the catalogue, although commonalities end at the obvious visual cues of movement and sublime motifs of stormy seas, causing one to wonder if the comparison is purely a contrived effort at affirming Gladwell’s art.

Forced associations aside, a dialogue with art history is evident in works such as Approach to Mundi Mundi (2007). In this silent two-channel video, a helmeted motorcyclist in a black leather jacket is filmed from behind riding across the Broken Hills deserts in rural New South Wales toward the vast horizon, during daytime on one screen, at dawn on the other. The rider is shown letting go of the handlebars and stretching out his arms in a Christ-like manner. Gladwell considers the work a time-based study of the Mundi Mundi plains, referencing Impressionists Paul Cézanne and Claude Monet’s paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire and Rouen Cathedral, respectively, during different seasons and times of day. Compositionally, the video is reminiscent of Australian modernist Sidney Nolan’s iconic painting Ned Kelly (1946), of the black-clad bushranger on horseback, while the figure’s pose also recalls Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (c. 1490). 

Whereas Gladwell’s earlier creations allude to other artists more subtly, for the three-channel video installation Skateboarders vs. Minimalism (2016), Gladwell constructed replicas of sculptural installations by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Carl Andre. The replicas were installed in the Torrance Art Museum in Los Angeles, where Gladwell invited three professional skateboarders to utilize the pieces as ramps. The slow-motion footage forms a triptych of the skateboarders sliding, jumping, spinning, and flipping across the replicas. Viewers may well be intrigued by the physical expression of the skateboarders, but it is unclear how the minimalist replicas contribute to the meaning of Skateboarders vs. Minimalism (2016) aside from offering, in the artist’s words, “great forms for skateboarders to ride on.”

Appropriation continues to loom large in Gladwell’s recent projects, including the new commission Reversed Readymade (Augmented Reality) (2019). The work builds on Gladwell’s 2014 performance Reversed Readymade, in which BMX rider Matti Hemmings performed stunts on the artist’s replica of Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Bicycle Wheel (1913) sculpture. In the AR work, viewers witness BMX pro Simon O’Brien riding the replica as a unicycle in the gallery via the MCA smartphone app. The Dadaist sculpture, which removed the functionality of its components, is thus subverted through returning the wheel to its intended use. The initial excitement brought by AR technology, however, was overshadowed by its pitfalls: the program was only iOS compatible, glitches frequently occurred, and viewers struggled to locate O’Brien on their screens. Arguably, Reversed Readymade (Augmented Reality) contributed little to the experience of the work or the furthering of its concept, especially considering a 360-degree VR video of the same performance was produced in 2016. 

“Pacific Undertow” foregrounded Gladwell’s focus on provoking an awareness of the body in relation to the environment, but might have benefited from more detailed contextualization and explanation of Gladwell’s creative concerns in ancillary materials. Descriptions dropped in cultural influences, art historical references, and trendy tech buzzwords, which, without meaningful elaboration in the context of his two-decade-long practice, appeared as merely surface-level connections.

Shaun Gladwell’s “Pacific Undertow” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, until October 7, 2019.