Shaun Glad­well
Morn­ing of the Earth

21st November – 21st December 2013
Anna Schwartz Gallery

Morn­ing of the Earth’ fur­ther elab­o­rates Shaun Gladwell’s inter­est in mythol­o­gy and art his­to­ry, re-deployed through the per­for­mance of extreme phys­i­cal action and pop­u­lar cul­ture. In these new video, ani­ma­tion and sculp­tur­al works, ges­ture, bal­ance and geom­e­try are rein­ter­pret­ed in con­tem­po­rary tech­nol­o­gy and the Aus­tralian coastal landscape.

The title of the exhi­bi­tion refers to the 1971 clas­sic Aus­tralian surf film by Alby Fal­zon and David Elfick. In Gladwell’s new body of work, the idyl­lic aes­thet­ic of the film becomes a treat­ment for Richard Wagner’s 1841 opera Der fliegende Hol­län­der (The Fly­ing Dutch­man). Glad­well says, I am inter­est­ed in the philoso­pher Gilles Deleuze’s notion of surf­ing as dis­tinct from clas­si­cal move­ment. The surfer must respond to the forces of the wave where­as in oth­er activ­i­ty, the mechan­ics of move­ment is large­ly autonomous. To struc­ture a video work around Wagner’s The Fly­ing Dutch­man is to also surf with and against the sociopo­lit­i­cal forces at play with­in this opera.”

In Gladwell’s six-chan­nel video work, The Fly­ing Dutch­man in Blue, the dra­ma of Wagner’s opera is trans­posed onto the beach, where the orig­i­nal char­ac­ters – Dutch and Nor­we­gian sailors – are played by Aus­tralian surfers, all also pro­fes­sion­al dancers. These per­form­ers move at the edge of dance: their actions in the water and on the sand describ­ing an expand­ed chore­og­ra­phy. The per­form­ers con­stant­ly impro­vise to sur­vive the unpre­dictable and tur­bu­lent pow­er of the Tas­man Sea’s win­ter swell. This dra­mat­ic east coast of Aus­tralia is where the dra­ma of the opera plays out, some­times through an obvi­ous, descrip­tive series of ges­tures and at oth­ers, through high­ly exper­i­men­tal and abstract­ed sequences of move­ment that depart from the opera’s orig­i­nal libret­to. Gladwell’s relo­ca­tion of the dra­ma also sees the addi­tion of a new char­ac­ter to the orig­i­nal opera’s cast: to this dark north­ern Euro­pean ghost sto­ry of the seas is added an indige­nous spir­it guide, who inter­cedes in Erik, the huntsman’s, course of action; the role offers guid­ance’ to Wagner’s opera in its new Aus­tralian con­text and locates the work with­in the vast indige­nous cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the continent.

Aspects of the work are crit­i­cal of the opera and its author. The per­form­ers are seen record­ing each oth­er with cam­eras; not sim­ply look­ing at one anoth­er but reg­is­ter­ing and analysing their moti­va­tions and the sur­round­ing envi­ron­ment. This self-imag­ing and ques­tion­ing calls upon a his­to­ry of artis­tic and philo­soph­i­cal doubt and a ref­er­ence to Fred­er­ick Nietzsche’s detailed cri­tique of Wagner.

In one read­ing of this work, Glad­well has bypassed the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing Wag­n­er by sug­gest­ing we all just go surf­ing.’ How­ev­er, for many Aus­tralians, the beach is not only a recre­ation­al space but a polit­i­cal­ly loaded site. Aus­tralia has con­struct­ed a major nar­ra­tive with­in its nation­al iden­ti­ty: first­ly, through adver­si­ty on the dis­tant beach of Gal­lipoli in the First World War and more recent­ly its self-image as a har­mo­nious mul­ti­cul­tur­al soci­ety was shat­tered dur­ing the Cronul­la beach riots of 2005. The Fly­ing Dutch­man in Blue may appear as a con­tin­u­a­tion of the sub­lime ten­den­cies of the Roman­tic tra­di­tion, how­ev­er Glad­well con­trasts the utopi­an phi­los­o­phy of surf cul­ture with­in the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s against the prob­lem­at­ic con­struc­tions of a nation­al identity.

The inter­per­son­al dra­ma of The Fly­ing Dutch­man is inter­pret­ed as a looped ani­ma­tion in Gladwell’s The Dutch­man and Sen­ta Togeth­er. The opera’s cen­tral pro­tag­o­nists, lovers The Dutch­man and Sen­ta, are depict­ed as two eter­nal­ly cry­ing human skulls, a graph­ic dis­til­la­tion of their story’s trag­ic end­ing and the opera’s core themes of love and sac­ri­fice. The sim­ple linework ani­ma­tion, whose tat­too-like form refers to the sailors who pop­u­late the opera, is pro­duced in the style of direct draw­ing onto film pio­neered by artists such as Nor­man McLaren and Len Lye. It is ren­dered here on the iPad, a con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous medi­um, as was film for McLaren and Lye.

Glad­well revis­its the com­pos­ite fig­ure of ear­li­er work, Max­imus, in Max­imus Swept out to Sea (Wat­ta­mol­la). The black-clad, hel­met­ed fig­ure is a con­tin­u­a­tion of Gladwell’s series of inves­ti­ga­tions of per­for­mance in a dis­tinct­ly Aus­tralian land­scape, a project that recalls motifs and fig­ures from across gen­er­a­tions of Aus­trali­a’s land­scape tra­di­tion. Max­imus is seen wad­ing through a bill­abong, light­ing a torch from a burn­ing branch. He moves before a water­fall, breath­ing fire, and strug­gles against the waves in the open ocean before dis­ap­pear­ing from view. His progress may be anal­o­gous to the pro­gres­sion of an idea, of an indi­vid­ual or con­scious­ness; the work is rich with the sym­bol­ism and asso­ci­a­tions not only of Max­imus’ pre­vi­ous jour­neys through the land but also with the scene and moral of Wag­n­er’s Dutch­man, Sen­ta and sailors.

The ele­ments in which Max­imus’ actions are always locat­ed — fire and water, air and earth — are direct­ly invoked in Aris­totelian Ele­ments Lean-To, Glad­well’s sculp­ture of per­for­ma­tive ready­mades, or the remains of actions. This work is the mate­ri­al­i­sa­tion of the objects fea­tured in The Fly­ing Dutch­man in Blue and Max­imus Swept out to Sea (Wat­ta­mol­la), and refers to Aris­totle’s sys­tem of ele­ments and their prop­er­ties: Water (a surf­board), Air (stilts), Fire (the torch) and Earth (a hel­met filled with clay). These objects stand not mere­ly as props but as exten­sions of the human body: instru­ments, ves­sels and vehi­cles for explor­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing the lim­its of the self and the sur­round­ing environment.


Shaun Glad­well

The Fly­ing Dutch­man in Blue, 2013
six-chan­nel video, looped, 16:9, colour, silent

Shaun Glad­well

Max­imus Swept out to Sea (Wat­ta­mol­la), 2013
HD video, 16:9, colour, silent
12 min­utes 33 seconds

Shaun Glad­well

Aris­totelian Ele­ments Lean-To, 2013
surf­board, stilts, branch, motor­cy­cle hel­met, clay
dimen­sions variable

Shaun Glad­well

Dutch­man and Sen­ta Together, 2013
hand-drawn ani­ma­tion on iPad, framed, looped, black and white, silent
2025 cm
Edi­tion of 6