Alive with mov­ing qualities

Christopher Allen
The Weekend Australian

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

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