Pacif­ic Under­tow, Shaun Gladwell

Grace Huang
Art Asia Pacific

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 72019.

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