Shaun Glad­well review: video-artist pio­neer per­forms vir­tu­al hang five

Chloe Wolifson
Sydney Morning Herald

A surfer hangs upside down on his board, beneath the waves. Pro­tag­o­nist and image are both invert­ed, and the footage is slowed, mak­ing him appear more like a yogi on a mat. His head occa­sion­al­ly dips down for air, momen­tar­i­ly disappearing.

This is Pacif­ic Under­tow Sequence (Bon­di) (2010), the name­sake video piece in the exhi­bi­tion Shaun Glad­well: Pacif­ic Under­tow. This sur­vey, the largest yet of Gladwell’s work, inter­weaves works from across two decades, some wide­ly known and oth­ers less so, cre­at­ing an expand­ed con­text for the work of this Aus­tralian artist who is best known for his videos fea­tur­ing surf­ing, skate­board­ing, and oth­er urban pastimes.

Around the cor­ner we find Gladwell’s break­out hit video work, Storm Sequence (2000). Depict­ing Glad­well twist­ing and turn­ing on his skate­board in slow motion as a storm rolls in over the ocean beyond, Storm Sequence is a study in bal­ance: between the figure’s upper and low­er limbs, between con­trol and being over­pow­ered, between humans and the nat­ur­al world. Glad­well notes that the work was made as a coun­ter­point to the high-ener­gy aes­thet­ics of skate­board­ing videos, in an attempt to cap­ture the more med­i­ta­tive side of the experience.

While skate­board­ing gen­er­al­ly brings to mind jolt­ing, scrap­ing and the occu­pa­tion of urban spaces, Glad­well dis­tills it to a series of bal­let­ic swivels per­formed in soli­tude. Along with Pacif­ic Under­tow Sequence (Bon­di) and the sil­ver aerosol paint­ing Cos­mol­o­gy (Air Antwer­pen) (2011), this open­ing chap­ter of the exhi­bi­tion seeks to fore­ground Gladwell’s inter­est in the con­tem­pla­tive and sublime.

Glad­well makes work about the body under pres­sure, often draw­ing atten­tion to the grace­ful male form where one would least expect it. In the sec­ond gallery, two Aus­tralian sol­diers per­form a pas de deux in the work Dou­ble Field/​Viewfinder (Tarin Kowt) (200910), which Glad­well made in 2009 while on a res­i­den­cy in Afghanistan as the Aus­tralian War Memorial’s offi­cial war artist.

Rifles still slung over their shoul­ders and each armed with a video cam­era, the men train their viewfind­ers on each oth­er and mir­ror each other’s move­ments. The result­ing work is pre­sent­ed across two screens flush up against each oth­er in a cor­ner and recalls com­bat strat­e­gy, human rela­tion­ships, child­like mim­ic­ry, and, for Glad­well, sport­ing tac­tics (in par­tic­u­lar David Campese’s famous goose step’).

Dou­ble Field/​Viewfinder (Tarin Kowt) por­trays a wry humour in a most seri­ous of set­tings, and unlike the urban ath­letes depict­ed else­where, these men are not gen­er­al­ly accus­tomed to per­form­ing pub­licly, mak­ing it one of the most com­pelling works in the show.

Glad­well works deft­ly across media, but a per­for­ma­tive and mis­chie­vous ele­ment is cen­tral to much of his work. Sev­er­al paint­ings made near­ly 20 years ago used grand Eng­lish soci­ety por­trai­ture as a start­ing point, with Glad­well dis­tort­ing the images in Pho­to­shop before painstak­ing­ly copy­ing the results for a post­colo­nial take.

A series of pho­to­graph­ic Inverts from the ear­ly to mid-2010s show Glad­well and friends sus­pend­ed from stat­ues of var­i­ous notable folk, look­ing strange­ly unnat­ur­al in their upright-ness. The artist explains that these actions only took a few sec­onds, describ­ing them as like effer­ves­cent graf­fi­ti” — how­ev­er, images take on a new grav­i­ty in an era where pub­lic mon­u­ments are increas­ing­ly questioned.

Works com­mis­sioned for the exhi­bi­tion include a series of prints, aug­ment­ed real­i­ty (AR) and vir­tu­al real­i­ty (VR) works. The VR work Elec­tron­ic Mon­u­ments (2019) expands on Gladwell’s exper­i­ments with inver­sions, putting the audi­ence inside a vir­tu­al ver­sion of the gallery where art­works and oth­er imagery con­verge on each oth­er, and the viewer.

Unlike the com­plete­ly dis­ori­ent­ing nature of some VR expe­ri­ences, this work places the view­er with­in a decon­struct­ed ver­sion of the gallery’s archi­tec­ture before intro­duc­ing new ele­ments – rather like a dream where you’re aware of being in a famil­iar loca­tion even though it doesn’t exact­ly look like it.

While artists’ quo­tid­i­an inter­ests fil­ter into their work in dif­fer­ent ways, Gladwell’s pas­sion for skate­board­ing and its sport­ing cousins sits unfil­tered, front and cen­tre of his art­work, along­side his inter­est in art his­to­ry and appropriation.

Cura­tors Blair French and Natasha Bul­lock have care­ful­ly select­ed works from across Gladwell’s prac­tice, allow­ing his vision to unfurl across the show, dis­pelling pre­con­cep­tions and pro­vid­ing a rich­er con­text for understanding.

Shaun Glad­well: Pacif­ic Under­tow
Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Syd­ney
19 July – 7 Octo­ber



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