Shaun Glad­well
The Inspec­tor of Tides

30th October – 19th December 2015
Anna Schwartz Gallery Carriageworks

THE INVEN­TION OF THE SKATE­BOARD IS THE INVEN­TION OF THE SLAM

Time and tide wait for no man.

Geof­frey Chaucer

The road up and the road down are one and the same.

Her­a­cli­tus

Shaun Glad­well is a high­ly accom­plished freestyle skate­board­er, enough so to have been ama­teur cham­pi­on of the world, and his own skat­ing has often been the focus of his work as an artist. Skate­board­ing seems to me to be more than just con­ve­nient con­tent for the work; it actu­al­ly func­tions as a gen­er­a­tive prin­ci­ple, one to which Glad­well cease­less­ly returns, and also as the mod­el for some­thing like an ethic.

Freestyle is the min­i­mal­ist form of skate­board­ing. You don’t need any spe­cial ter­rain, like the curved walls used by vert skaters, the ledges and gaps sought out by street skaters, or the moun­tain roads beloved of speed skaters. All you need is a flat, hard, smooth sur­face. It is also the most rarely pur­sued, eso­teric form of this sport that is not real­ly a sport; a com­bin­ing, hyper­ac­tive, yet reflec­tive dis­ci­pline that takes the basic kinet­ic vocab­u­lary of skat­ing – moves such as bal­anc­ing, spin­ning, flip­ping, pop­ping, and slid­ing – and end­less­ly recom­bines and morphs them into each oth­er to cre­ate new, unex­pect­ed forms. It is like action paint­ing with­out the paint.

It is sig­nif­i­cant that Glad­well eter­nal­ly returns to Bon­di Beach, both as a skater and as an artist. Skate­board­ing began as side­walk surf­ing’, a way of bring­ing the wide open free­dom of the seas into the con­trolled envi­ron­ments of mod­ern cities and sub­urbs. A skate­board, then, is already a tool for explor­ing urban spaces in ways nev­er intend­ed by their design­ers. Handrails meant to con­trol and nor­malise move­ment become oppor­tu­ni­ties to explore new forms of ecsta­t­ic motion; use­less aban­doned swim­ming pools are used to test the pos­si­bil­i­ties of life on the ver­ti­cal plane. Freestyle does the same thing with the skate­board itself. Freestylers like Glad­well will find ways to ride their boards on just two wheels (wheel­ies and man­u­als), spin­ning on just one wheel (one wheel 360), jump­ing up and down on the tail (pogo), slid­ing on the side edge (pri­mo), or even flip­ping the board and rid­ing on its under­side (dark­slide). There are no rules or pre-set goals to this exper­i­men­tal prac­tice, just the con­stant process of dis­cov­er­ing and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing all the ways a board and a body can move in rela­tion to each other.

Watch­ing Glad­well skate in real life is mes­meris­ing. His board and body are con­stant­ly spin­ning and flip­ping, some­times in con­cert, some­times in dif­fer­ent direc­tions, and he is always ini­ti­at­ing the next trick before you have had time to com­pre­hend the last. It is like watch­ing an impos­si­bly dex­trous magi­cian doing light­ning-fast card tricks, except that Shaun is not only shuf­fling the cards, he is rid­ing them, being shuf­fled by them in return. Freestyle is this art of self-shuf­fling. It is an intense­ly cen­tred, cen­tripetal activ­i­ty, but there is also an expan­sive move­ment in Gladwell’s freestyle per­for­mance: the spec­ta­cle he cre­ates draws in passers­by, who will ran­dom­ly stop and engage the per­former in con­ver­sa­tion. The num­ber of peo­ple who recog­nise and feel moti­vat­ed to approach him grows each time he returns to his favourite spot at Bon­di. Even as he engages in the utter­ly cen­tred activ­i­ty of freestyle, he is net­work­ing, form­ing a kind of inter­mit­tent com­mu­ni­ty, shuf­fling new­ly found friends into his ever-grow­ing pack. Gladwell’s entire life seems to be deter­mined by a sim­i­lar dynam­ic at the glob­al lev­el. As soon as he arrives some­where, he is already leav­ing. It is as though he were delib­er­ate­ly con­struct­ing his life as a kind of freestyle rou­tine. This seems to be exact­ly how his art works, as evi­denced in this very exhi­bi­tion: a grow­ing net­work of col­lab­o­ra­tors jux­ta­posed with the artist’s eter­nal return to his own ques­tions, his own emerg­ing tra­di­tions’, his own obses­sive love for cer­tain repeat­ed motifs: spin­ning bod­ies, inver­sions of body and world, the use of video to dis­tort and dis­tend time, the iconog­ra­phy of Mad Max films, art his­to­ry and the­o­ry, skate­board­ing itself.

Self Por­trait Spin­ning and Falling in Paris (2015) is a rep­e­ti­tion and trans­for­ma­tion of ear­li­er works focussed on the artist skate­board­ing or oth­er­wise inter­act­ing with designed envi­ron­ments in strange and unex­pect­ed, often lit­er­al­ly upside down’ ways.

The deci­sive prece­dent, of course, is the break­through work, Storm Sequence (2000), which already fea­tures Glad­well him­self doing freestyle in slow motion. In tra­di­tion­al sports cov­er­age, slow motion allows view­ers to inter­ro­gate a deci­sive moment of action. We are per­mit­ted to re-watch a priv­i­leged instant stretched out to the length of an ordeal in order to more ful­ly appre­ci­ate the com­plex play of forces con­verg­ing upon a sin­gle moment. There is no such hier­ar­chy of moments in Glad­well. Instead, he repeat­ed­ly choos­es to sub­ject entire events to the effects of slow motion. Each ges­ture seems to unfold like a flower or a work of origa­mi, the mov­ing body crossed by con­tend­ing rhythms that uncoil at dif­fer­ent speeds through mus­cles and limbs that no longer seem to be defined by the tele­ol­o­gy of a sin­gle pur­pose. There are waves and tides ris­ing and con­verg­ing from every direc­tion in Storm Sequence, not only in the sea, or in the tur­bu­lent sky above, but also in the performer’s own body, the dif­fer­ent parts of which flex and rotate and respond to each oth­er in ways that are vis­i­bly too com­plex to be con­scious­ly mon­i­tored or con­trolled in real time by the per­former. Gladwell’s own body is like a riv­er mouth open­ing to the ocean, crossed by waves and tides dri­ven by and return­ing to a sin­gle source that nonethe­less tend to sep­a­rate and some­times con­flict accord­ing to their own inter­nal dynam­ics, but it is also like a twig or a surf­board cut loose from its teth­er, caught up in this criss-cross play of waves and tidal forces. The inten­si­ty and com­plex­i­ty of the staged per­for­mance is as cru­cial as the slow motion, which func­tions not just as an effect’ added to the con­tent, but as an expres­sion of that con­tent, reveal­ing a cer­tain kind of pas­siv­i­ty at the heart of every action as time ceas­es to func­tion as the mea­sure of an accom­plish­ment in space.

Self Por­trait Spin­ning and Falling in Paris, (2015), which shows the artist vis­it­ing var­i­ous sites in Paris and spin­ning mul­ti­ple 360s on his skate­board, takes this now instant­ly recog­nis­able Glad­wellian’ for­mat to anoth­er lev­el. The lev­el at which the artist/​skater is seen falling like a help­less rag­doll at the end of each performance.

When the artist first showed me this footage, I almost fell over back­wards myself, laugh­ing. It wasn’t so much the slam at the end; it was the fact that this very high def­i­n­i­tion, extreme slow motion footage some­how made my friend look pre­ma­ture­ly decrepit. Here he was, spin­ning these 360s which are so impres­sive to wit­ness in real life, but instead of look­ing like the envi­ably youth­ful Mas­ter of His Own Body I know him to be, he looked some­how wor­ried, weird­ly awk­ward, as if he were afraid he might keel over at any moment. Indeed, the only time one usu­al­ly sees a human being devot­ing such intense atten­tion to the mere task of stay­ing upright is when encoun­ter­ing an infirm per­son try­ing to nav­i­gate their way through space with the aid of a Zim­mer frame. If the slow motion of Storm Sequence (2000) already released Gladwell’s body from the gee-whizz’ impres­sion of action com­mand­ed by the head, this much clear­er, more detailed footage expos­es the self-care’ expressed in the artist’s face and out­reach­ing arms as he is caught up in a wave that he has gen­er­at­ed from with­in him­self, the instinc­tive cau­tion that keeps him upright in the spin­ning cen­tre of his own performance.

And then, at the end of per­for­mance, the artist falls. How to under­stand these con­clud­ing catastrophes?

Anoth­er work fea­tured in this exhi­bi­tion quotes the philoso­pher Paul Vir­ilio to the effect that The Inven­tion of the ship is the inven­tion of the ship­wreck”. This is just one way in which Vir­ilio express­es his the­sis that every tech­nol­o­gy nec­es­sar­i­ly implies a new form of acci­dent. We are thus also assured that the inven­tion of car is the inven­tion of the car crash, and not just as a side effect. Reject­ing Aristotle’s found­ing meta­phys­i­cal oppo­si­tion between essence and acci­dent, Vir­ilio insists that the acci­dent IS the essence. In Neg­a­tive Hori­zon (2005), he tells a para­ble about a man dri­ving a car down a high­way, feel­ing insu­lat­ed and secure in his speed­ing met­al bub­ble as he effort­less­ly pen­e­trates space, the world unfold­ing across his wind­screen on com­mand. This sense of con­trol and safe­ty is sud­den­ly shat­tered when a col­li­sion forces the dri­ver to learn the truth about the rela­tion between tech­nol­o­gy and acci­dent in the most inti­mate pos­si­ble way. It is already too late for the dri­ver to reflect as his body is sent careen­ing through the wind­screen, final­ly break­ing the fourth wall’ of vehic­u­lar spec­ta­tor­ship as he is pro­ject­ed towards the van­ish­ing point of his own death.

Put Glad­well in a car burn­ing down a desert high­way and he will vol­un­tar­i­ly climb out the win­dow and stand on the roof (Inter­cep­tor Surf Sequence, 2009). He will, in oth­er words, do his best to turn the car into a skate­board, a form of trans­port that has no insu­lat­ing bub­ble, in which the immi­nent pos­si­bil­i­ty of crash­ing or falling can nev­er be for­got­ten; in which the acci­dent is not dis­avowed as mere­ly’ acci­den­tal, but ful­ly and lucid­ly embraced, becom­ing the very moti­va­tion of move­ment, even as the rid­er deploys all his con­cen­tra­tion and skill try­ing to ensure it doesn’t happen.

If the prang is the essence of dri­ving, the slam is the essence of skate­board­ing. Or rather, of the skater­ly, since Glad­well often extends this approach beyond the world of skating.

There may be lit­tle trace of nar­ra­tive in many of Gladwell’s videos, but there cer­tain­ly is a kind of dra­ma. In Tan­gara (2003), the over­head sup­port of the train car­riage is designed to help humans avoid falling, to min­imise the dan­gers of mass tran­sit, but Glad­well delib­er­ate­ly uses it to increase the risk of falling, to raise the stakes of every move he makes. The sim­ple deci­sion to invert the func­tion of designed space pro­vides a kind of dra­mat­ic phys­i­cal premise that puts the performer’s body at risk of injury and pain. Glad­well in this way takes the neu­tral space of a mass vehi­cle made to trans­port docile bod­ies from A to B and turns it into a world of unex­pect­ed pos­si­bil­i­ties: a tight­ly defined world where the body is inti­mate­ly con­strained by met­al struc­tures and yet cease­less­ly seeks new degrees of free­dom afford­ed by those very constraints.

These inver­sions of func­tion occur through­out the per­for­mances fea­tured in Gladwell’s art, espe­cial­ly when it is his own body being put on the line. In A Guide to Recent Syd­ney Archi­tec­ture (2000), as well as Storm Sequence, it is the addi­tion of water to the skat­ing sur­face, the very thing skaters usu­al­ly avoid. In Approach to Mun­di Mun­di (2007) it is the act of let­ting go of the han­dle­bars of a speed­ing motor­bike so that it must be con­trolled pure­ly by bal­ance instead of steer­ing, just like a skateboard.

I would sug­gest that phys­i­cal pain has a very dif­fer­ent tone in Gladwell’s record­ed per­for­mances than in the work of oth­er artists who have pub­licly sub­ject­ed them­selves to the effects of grav­i­ty while sus­pend­ed from var­i­ous forms of appa­ra­tus. Where oth­ers pas­sive­ly endure the tor­tures of a pre-defined con­di­tion, Glad­well uses pain as one feed­back path among oth­ers in tim­ing actions that sub­vert the very dis­tinc­tion between the pas­sive and the active. Pain is nev­er the point, nor is it enough to bring the search for new forms of motion to a stop. The tone here is ulti­mate­ly affir­ma­tive, even opti­mistic. All it takes to cre­ate a world is a human body, a con­strained envi­ron­ment, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of move­ment that can be dis­cov­ered in their rela­tion­ship, and the joy­ful embrace of phys­i­cal risks implied by that exploration.

What I see watch­ing works like Self Por­trait Spin­ning and Falling in Paris, (2015) is less the pathet­ic search for bal­ance and equi­lib­ri­um in a space devoid of grav­i­ty, or the evo­ca­tion of an alien­at­ed life in which the artist hides from the world inside his own spin­ning ghost, than a body seiz­ing the chance to raise the stakes of every action. Gladwell’s work is a coher­ent, ongo­ing affir­ma­tion and explo­ration of this eth­ic of the skater­ly. Of course, you don’t skate to fall; you do every­thing you can stop it hap­pen­ing. But you do skate because you could fall, because the stakes of every move, every deci­sion, are raised by the con­stant prospect of slam­ming. Niet­zsche taught that cru­el­ty is the best mnemon­ic sys­tem, the most effi­cient way to engrave mem­o­ries into the folds of the human brain: for a skater, that cru­el­ty is the force of grav­i­ty con­stant­ly threat­en­ing to bring the body into direct rela­tion­ship with con­crete. If the very ubiq­ui­ty of grav­i­ty ensures that it remains invis­i­ble’ for ter­res­tri­al beings under ordi­nary con­di­tions, the extra­or­di­nary effect of Gladwell’s work is to ren­der grav­i­ty vis­i­ble. In short, to defa­mil­iarise the most famil­iar thing on earth: the very fact that we are stuck on it.

Dr Bill Schaf­fer, pool skater and film scholar

Images

Shaun Glad­well

The Inspec­tor of Tides, 2015
instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Carriageworks

Shaun Glad­well

The Inspec­tor of Tides, 2015
instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Carriageworks

Shaun Glad­well

Self Por­trait Spin­ning and Falling in Paris, 2016
sin­gle-chan­nel High Def­i­n­i­tion video, 16:9, colour, silent
15 min­utes 26 seconds

Shaun Glad­well

ATM (Sains­burys Bank), 2015
Dig­i­tal pig­ment print and acrylic on canvas
9483 cm

Shaun Glad­well

John For­rest Back­side Invert, 2015
inkjet print on paper
183123 cm
Edi­tion of 2

Shaun Glad­well

Last of the first weaponised drones, 2015
oil on canvas
107153 cm

Shaun Glad­well

Offline Pas­toral Edit (after Heysen), 2015
Oil on canvas
190126 cm

Shaun Glad­well

Por­trait of a Street Artist, 1, 2015
Acrylic, oil and enam­el on canvas
9898 cm

Shaun Glad­well

Tow­er Bridge Frontside Invert, 2015
183123 cm (framed)

Shaun Glad­well

Cos­mol­o­gy (Air Antwerpen), 2011
Enam­el on alu­mini­um panel
123123 cm

Por­trait of a Street Artist, 2, 2015
Acrylic, oil and enam­el on canvas
10879 cm

Mir­ror Man, 2015
Acrylic on canvas
190300 cm

Por­trait of Meyne Wyatt / Black Dig­ger (colour version), 2014
Mixed media on canvas
2 pan­els, 8585 cm each