Shaun Glad­well
Dou­ble Voyage

14th August – 6th September 2008
Anna Schwartz Gallery

Dr Kit Messham-Muir

Equi­lib­ri­um: Shaun Gladwell’s Dou­ble Voy­age, 2006

When I was about six years old, my Dad decid­ed it was time I learned to ride a bicy­cle. He sat me on an old, over­sized postman’s bike and pushed me down our street, try­ing to shout instruc­tions over the sounds of my screams. Though my mem­o­ry is sketchy, I clear­ly recall my fear at how wild­ly unnat­ur­al it felt. Then at a cer­tain moment, after hours of grav­el rash and tears, every­thing sud­den­ly clicked into place. I could bal­ance, ped­dle and steer at the same time. From then on, I rarely thought about bal­anc­ing again – it just felt right. Prob­a­bly the only time since then, when I was con­scious of bal­ance, was for a brief moment when I cycled at speed across grav­el as a teenag­er. In a sec­ond I became aware of lack of bal­ance and was painful­ly rein­tro­duced to grav­el rash. Liv­ing neces­si­tates these more or less com­plex skilled engage­ments with the world. When we learn to ride a bike, dri­ve, walk, swim or play foot­ball, we per­form skills that have become nat­u­ralised’, as though part of us. A fas­ci­na­tion with skilled per­for­mance under­lies much of Shaun Gladwell’s video works; how­ev­er, it is the intu­itive rela­tion­ship between per­for­mance and an inter­nalised sense of equi­lib­ri­um that comes to the fore in Dou­ble Voy­age, 2006.

Per­for­mance is an overt theme in Gladwell’s work. Storm Sequence, 2000, while pri­mar­i­ly a retake on sub­lime aes­thet­ics, focus­es on the honed skate­board­ing skills of the artist. Glad­well is both the artist and the per­former. Sim­i­lar­ly in Kick­flip­per, 2000, Wool­loomooloo Night, 2004, and oth­er works, Glad­well doc­u­ments skilled per­for­mances. In fact, these works are not doc­u­men­ta­tions, as Blair French notes, Gladwell’s works are a kind of study’. The slow­ing down of motion that char­ac­teris­es Gladwell’s work is an aes­thet­ic explo­ration of move­ment. He slows human motion to a point at which at the sub­tleties of the move­ments of bod­ies are cracked open.

Equi­lib­ri­um is also an ongo­ing sub­text in much of Gladwell’s work. Works such as Pat­a­phys­i­cal Man, 2005, Busan Trip­tych, 2006 and In a Sta­tion of the Metro, 2006, are poet­ic explo­rations of equi­lib­ri­um in its every­day sense, lit­er­al­ly as bal­ance. His per­form­ers move or hold their bod­ies in a state in which all forces act­ing on them are equal. How­ev­er in Dou­ble Voy­age, 2006, equi­lib­ri­um func­tions in more sub­tle and lay­ered ways, lit­er­al, metaphor­i­cal and phenomenological.

Beneath the lit­er­al bal­anc­ing acts shown, equi­lib­ri­um func­tions con­cep­tu­al­ly as a metaphor. Dou­ble Voy­age is a dou­ble por­trait, and its por­tray­als oscil­late through the ten­sion of inter­sect­ing dual­i­ties. The two per­form­ers in Dou­ble Voy­age become mid points in a nexus of bina­ries – able-bod­ied/dis­abled, male/​female, upright/​inverted, left/​right, subcultural/​canonical, erotic/​athletic. Impor­tant­ly, in Dou­ble Voy­age these bina­ries are held in bal­ance – these dual­i­ties are unre­solved and ambigu­ous. They are played off against each oth­er, as equal forces hold­ing sub­jec­tiv­i­ties in equi­lib­ri­um, in a state of being and becoming.

The par­tic­u­lar bod­ies in Dou­ble Voy­age bring anoth­er lay­er to the work. In terms of main­stream nor­mal­i­sa­tions, these could be seen as prob­lema­tised bod­ies – the skate­board­er, Og D’Souza, can­not use his legs, some­thing we might think as a pre­req­ui­site for a skate­board­er. The appar­ent dis­junc­tion between the pos­si­ble and not, draws our atten­tion more acute­ly to his per­for­mance. The dancer, Grace O’Hara, is trans­sex­u­al, and Judith Butler’s argu­ment that gen­der is a per­for­mance is per­fect­ly played out. Both per­form­ers defy, even exploit, their nat­ur­al’ con­di­tion, self-willed into being in defi­ance of their capac­i­ties. And they enact a per­for­ma­tive pass­ing’ – they are both unques­tion­ably that which they perform.

Through these two per­for­mances, Dou­ble Voy­age also explores equi­lib­ri­um in a deep­er and more com­plex phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal sense, that is, to do with how we expe­ri­ence the world. Glad­well stud­ies these per­for­mances as an ath­lete would con­sid­er his/​her own per­for­mance – not as dis­play, but as a body engag­ing its’ world with a par­tic­u­lar skill.

The phe­nom­e­nol­o­gist philoso­pher Mau­rice Mer­leau-Pon­ty uses the word equi­lib­ri­um’ in a par­tic­u­lar sense, as some­thing inter­nal­ly felt in per­for­mance of a phys­i­cal skill. Learn­ing a phys­i­cal skill (whether skate­board­ing, danc­ing, dri­ving a car or fly­ing a plane) is a fun­da­men­tal­ly expe­ri­en­tial process. And our expe­ri­ence of the rela­tion­ship of our bod­ies to the skill evolves qual­i­ta­tive­ly. The build­ing blocks at first do not seem nat­ur­al, and the for­ma­tive process is one of inter­nal­is­ing and habit­u­at­ing the unnat­ur­al. A novice com­ing to a new skill is giv­en con­scious­ly-learned rules, which are about read­ing signs and respond­ing in defined ways. When we learn to dri­ve, for instance, we learn that a cer­tain pitch of the engine’s sound means a change of gears is need­ed. As skill devel­ops, Hubert Drey­fus argues, the performer’s the­o­ry of the skill, as rep­re­sent­ed by rules and prin­ci­ples will grad­u­al­ly be replaced by sit­u­a­tion­al dis­crim­i­na­tions accom­pa­nied by asso­ci­at­ed respons­es. Pro­fi­cien­cy seems to devel­op if, and only if, expe­ri­ence is assim­i­lat­ed in this athe­o­ret­i­cal way and intu­itive behav­iour replaces rea­soned respons­es.” So, through innu­mer­able and repeat­ed expe­ri­ences, lit­er­al­ly tri­al and error, these rule-based process­es become com­pressed into our being. We are no longer con­scious of spe­cif­ic actions as the basic rules become adapt­ed, slow­ly habit­u­at­ed and nat­u­ralised into our being, ingrained in what Mer­leau-Pon­ty calls our car­nal for­mu­lae’.
As skill reach­es the lev­el of exper­tise, we are not aware of spe­cif­ic deci­sions, our response is not solicit­ed by con­scious thought but by a more gen­er­alised desire to main­tain a feel­ing of integri­ty. As Mer­leau-Pon­ty claims, whether a sys­tem of motor or per­cep­tu­al pow­er, our body is not an object for an I think’, it is a group­ing of live-through mean­ings which moves towards its equi­lib­ri­um.” We expe­ri­ence our body as mov­ing accord­ing with main­tain­ing or devi­at­ing from its inter­nal feel­ing of equi­lib­ri­um. When this sense of equi­lib­ri­um is sus­tained, we feel a pleas­ant sense of being absorbed and at one with the task; when it is dis­turbed, the char­ac­ter of the learned skill is momen­tar­i­ly laid bare. The under­ly­ing main­te­nance of equi­lib­ri­um becomes the pri­ma­ry moti­va­tion of a habit­u­at­ed action, rather than the more obvi­ous goal. The process seems auto­mat­ic, even phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly autonomic.

In Por­tuguese, the word for this feel­ing of main­tain­ing equi­lib­ri­um is gin­ga, pro­nounced jin­ga’. The notion of gin­ga is often used in rela­tion to the exe­cu­tion of skill in Brazil­ian foot­ball, but is actu­al­ly bor­rowed from capoeira, the Brazil­ian mar­tial art and dance form. Capoeira, is based on a tri­an­gu­lar step pat­tern, a cen­tred’ base from which oth­er body move­ments are made. It is a move­ment of con­tin­u­ous­ly flow­ing equi­lib­ri­um, bal­anc­ing from foot to foot, as seen in Gladwell’s Wool­loomooloo Night, 2004. Sim­i­lar­ly, in Dou­ble Voy­age we see the out­ward bod­i­ly expres­sion of an inter­nal sense of equi­lib­ri­um. In cre­at­ing a con­tem­pla­tive space and time, Dou­ble Voy­age breaks open the equi­lib­ri­um, the flow of the gin­ga, and ren­ders this inter­nal feel­ing momen­tar­i­ly visible.

Images

Shaun Glad­well

Dou­ble Voyage, 2006
2‑channel video
24 min­utes 5 seconds
Cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er: Gotaro Uematsu