Morning of the Earth

Shaun Gladwell at Anna Schwartz Gallery.

There are so many disguised dimensions to Shaun Gladwell’s work that it is sometimes difficult to know where to begin. Or, for that matter, where to end. Space, place, performance, street art, high art, realism, romanticism, noise and utter quiet – all of these elements variously inform and propel Gladwell’s art. Yet therein lies the mastery of his practice. Disguised as simplicity, and expressed with a measured candour, these complexities stealthily absorb the viewer in a long discussion on life’s big matters.

In his latest exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne, Morning of the Earth, Gladwell references Wagner, Aristotle, Mad Max, and 1960s surf culture in a four-work display which has the potential to keep you at the gallery for hours. This experience is like the peaceful debate you have with your friends at the end of the night, a few sheets to the wind and completely at ease. Thankfully Gladwell facilitates this experience without the aid of a full belly and vague inebriation.  

In the six-channel video The Flying Dutchman in Blue (2013), Gladwell reimagines the sensational plotline of Richard Wagner’s germinal opera Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) within the natural environment of the east coast of Australia. Two figures in contemporary wetsuits – representative of the Dutch and Norwegian sailors of the original libretto – interact and engage with each other in a manner that is at once gentle and hostile.

This work not only concerns itself with Wagnerian reception, it also continues the Australian artist’s claim for the inherent elegance of sporting performance. In this instance, using professional dancers as the surfers in the video, “he blurs the boundaries between ballet and surfing,” as gallery director Anna Schwartz describes it. Since the roaring success of Gladwell’s early video piece Storm Sequence from 2000, he has been honing a distinctive statement on the “highness” of seemingly low art and performance.

Australia – its landscape, history and many cultures – is another leitmotiv of Gladwell’s practice. In the current exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery, the artist reintroduces his audience to Maximus, a black-clad and helmeted figure who apparently wanders across and amongst Australia, performing a series of ambiguous yet wholly determined acts. Here, in Maximus Swept out to Sea (2013), the helmeted character holds a burning torch whilst wading through a billabong which abuts a pouring waterfall. Here elemental substances mix and mingle in our line of sight, whilst maintaining their combative sovereignty within the scene itself.

Maximus has previously appeared in Approach to Mundi Mundi (2007), which is currently on display in the Royal Academy’s blockbuster exhibition of Australian art in London, and the phenomenally moving Apology to Roadkill (2007), exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2009. In the latter of these works, the figure of Maximus – inspired in the first instance by the character of the Mad Max film series – is seen to progress along an open road on his motorbike, slowing down and stopping at intervals to interact with the roadkill he encounters. As he walks beside the road and cradles a dead kangaroo, Maximus becomes a pristine character, previously unimagined yet, owing to the familiarity of roadkill in the viewer’s consciousness, not at all unexpected.

The centrality of Indigenous culture in Australia also finds expression in the new exhibition of Gladwell’s art. In the aforementioned work The Flying Dutchman in Blue, the artist confirms the Australianness of this reinterpretation of Wagner’s opera by introducing a new character to the story – an Indigenous spirit guide who intercedes in the actions of Erik the huntsman. And thus the complexity of Gladwell’s practice doubles, I am happy to report, since who would want the discussion of life’s big matters to conclude before it has to?

Also featured in this exhibition is an iPad-based work showing a hand-drawn animation of two skulls – representative of the lovers Dutchman and Senta from Wagner’s narrative – and a three-dimensional piece entitled Aristotelian Elements Lean-To (2013). There is certainly nothing like the mention of Aristotle to continue a conversation. Like its two-dimensional counterparts, this work is elegant and aesthetically interesting, whilst being determinedly thought-provoking. Indeed the stillness of this work seems to enhance the slowed-down nature of the video pieces around it.

And since the four components of the sculpture – signifying Water, Air, Fire and Earth – are also featured in the exhibited videos, the viewer is further absorbed into the moving images by the realisation that the spatial boundary between the screens and the gallery space has, without us realising, been dissolved.  As Anna Schwartz summarises, “Morning of the Earth represents a development of Gladwell’s themes and his exploration of the mediums to present them.”

Shaun Gladwell’s Morning of the Earth shows at Anna Schwartz Gallery, 185 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, until December 21.

1. Shaun Gladwell –  The Flying Dutchman in Blue (Coogee) 1, 2013
Pigment print on Hahnemuhle Baryta paper 219.6 x 154.6 cm framed
Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery
2. Shaun Gladwell –  Utterance 1: Maximus Swept Out to Sea (Wattamolla), 2013
Pigment print on Hahnemuhle Baryta paper 154.6 x 154.6 cm framed
Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery


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