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into a hall of mirror gazes

vivienne gaskin: shaun gladwell, stereo sequences, acmi

Vivienne Gaskin is Curator and Director, Vivienne Gaskin Cultural Management Ltd. She was formally Director of Live and Digital Arts at the Institute for Contemporary Arts [ICA], London 2001-2006 and Head of the Artistic Programme at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow 2000-2001. www.viviennegaskin.com

Shaun Gladwell, Parallels (2011), synchronised dual channel HD video Shaun Gladwell, Parallels (2011), synchronised dual channel HD video
courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery
SHAUN GLADWELL’S FORTHCOMING EXHIBITION AT ACMI, THE MAJOR COMMISSION STEREO SEQUENCES, PROMISES TO BE ONE OF THE ARTIST’S BOLDEST STATEMENTS TO DATE. WORKING ON A GRAND SCALE, THIS SHOW AFFORDS GLADWELL THE OPPORTUNITY TO CREATE A NEW SERIES OF WORKS WHICH GENERATE A PATTERN OF INTERCONNECTED NARRATIVES—A DIALOGUE BETWEEN PERFORMER AND PERFORMER, PERFORMER AND MACHINE, BODY IN LANDSCAPE AND ONE IN WHICH THE VIEWER BECOMES AN ACTIVE AGENT. FOLLOWING ON FROM HIS TECHNICALLY EXTRAVAGANT VIDEO WORKS OF RECENT YEARS, GLADWELL’S CONCERNS FOR THIS SHOW REFLECT A NEW MODESTY TO HIS PRACTICE, WITH A REVIVED INTEREST IN THE EXTREMITIES OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE SUBJECT AND ITS REPRESENTATION ON FILM.

For this exhibition, Gladwell returns to some of the guiding principles of his early experiments in the late 90s where, for example, he explored the freedoms of the early Handy Cam, turning the camera on himself as he skateboards through the streets of urban Australia. The final artwork, he states, reveals itself in the final edit, and while the new works are clearly more involved, the drive for undirected experimentation is evident.

soldiers: dance with camera

The logic for this show evolved from a commission by the Australian War Memorial, the institution somewhat controversially appointing Gladwell as their Official War Artist at the end of 2009. Locating himself in southern Afghanistan, Gladwell ran a series of ‘workshops’ with two soldiers. During this process, he handed the camera to the soldiers to record each other acting out a series of self-generated mirroring movements. Through repetition, a constant in Gladwell’s oeuvre, the work documents the ritualistic practice of gestural movement and by default taps into the commitment and focus which is central to the soldiers’ training and performance in the extremes of war.

Gladwell refers to this action as akin to “an early form of dance” and it is clear that the suspension of consciousness, which the soldiers develop through the work, is the artist’s aim. The dedication and focus of the subject, be they skateboarder, break-dancer or soldier are the drivers for Gladwell’s search for the ‘authentic.’ While on initial approach this may be easily dismissed as cultural appropriation, it becomes clear that Gladwell’s impetus is to capture on film the intense psychological states that occur when the body is placed in extreme situations.

In handing over the camera to the performer, the authorship of the work is largely relinquished. This seems not to perturb Gladwell who places his practice firmly in the context of Dan Graham’s performative experiments in the 1970s: “I particularly loved the idea of him not reporting the work but enabling the audience to do so.” Like Graham, Gladwell wants to test the conventions of the audience and performer relationship, a practice clearly rooted in his own origins in urban sports and street cultures. Through the gesture of self-documentation, Gladwell is almost testing his own levels of perception; as for the viewer, we are there to accompany him on this journey of curiosity.

figures, machines, landscape

Shaun Gladwell is not concerned with the democratisation of media, a notion that has engulfed our digital age. Though he enjoys his works appearing on social networks and flirted briefly with placing work onto handheld consoles, his concerns are much more discursive—connecting subcultures to cultural traditions. He places cars, helicopters and other machines of transportation into a desert landscape in order to portray the details embedded within these grand gestures. Gladwell references the Romantic German landscape artist Casper David Friedrich and particularly his genre-defining painting Wanderer Above The Sea Fog (1818) which depicts a lone figure standing triumphant at the peak of a mist-engulfed mountain. In Gladwell’s works the individual employs the machine to attempt mastery over landscape, while their anonymity and subsequent insignificance marks this as an ultimately barren act.

Shaun Gladwell, Parallels (2011), synchronised dual channel HD video Shaun Gladwell, Parallels (2011), synchronised dual channel HD video
courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery
new perspective, new vulnerability

Though now distanced from his early works involving the reappropriation of physical acts into alien environments, Gladwell’s new work, Stereo Sequences, is still rooted in the depiction of the body in space—largely the Australian landscape. His shift of focus from urban to outback was pivotal in Interceptor Surf Sequence (2009) where the cinematic idioms of Australian action movies dictated the overall aesthetic. Within the new works, this landscape is conveyed to the viewer less through the vista of Hollywood than as a point of exploration for the artist for whom this terrain is also unfamiliar. This shift adds vulnerability to the work by replacing the readymade, fast paced aesthetic of Australian action cinema with a more naive consideration of the vast terrain. The boldness of this act reflects the fluidity of Gladwell’s larger practice—he is in a process of exploration and traditional conventions are discarded as necessary. This notable shift in the artist’s work is one of which he is fully conscious: “I like the idea that a signature style can be broken…if an idea demands a certain methodology then you have to go with it.”

a crossfire of images

The monumental scale of the films will be key to the presentation of the final works at ACMI. Each film is presented as a pair, which the audience passes through a central corridor. Gladwell intends that walking through these coordinates you make decisions as a viewer, again suggesting a nod back to Dan Graham’s experiments, with the audience caught in what Gladwell describes as a “hall of mirror gazes.” Within this crossfire of images, the viewer encounters simultaneous movement of the subject in real-time, with the recorded figures at times looking at each other and sometimes moving within the frame. However it is the body’s relationship to machines—helicopters, cars, skateboards—in the environment that drives the motion in this series, creating a comparative study.

the urban edge in a spin

The urban edge to Gladwell’s practice prevails within this show, particularly in a series of films focusing on the singular performative act of spinning. Engaging a range of practitioners from break-dancing, skateboarding and capoeira, Gladwell ran a series of ‘relational workshops’ in which he asked each practitioner to perform the act at its most extreme within their own discipline. The actions recorded, Gladwell then shared footage with the other groups in an attempt to engender a form of cultural fusion around spinning. Through this process, the rotation of the body in space becomes apparent, amplified through Gladwell’s use of a fixed, overhead camera point which frames the body in motion. Gladwell will install these films as a ceiling projection suspended above the audience inviting the viewer to address them from a horizontal position. The Romantic element of the artist’s practice is again evident as the original, fast, physical act mutates into a series of ethereal movements forming a never-ending choreography in space.

It is hard to pin Shaun Gladwell’s practice to a single genre. He is at once a landscape artist, a social documenter, choreographer and performer. His work, however, provides a moment to reflect on what it means to be a solitary being in a dense and hyper-paced world. His empathetic interventions into subcultures and landscapes exaggerate the potential and limitations of the body while reaffirming the value of the individual self. The most ambitious works to date from Shaun Gladwell’s prolific output will leave you feeling at once displaced, overwhelmed and fragile but, above all else, alive.


ACMI, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Shaun Gladwell: Stereo Sequences, Federation Square, Melbourne, June 1-Aug 14; www.acmi.net.au

Vivienne Gaskin is Curator and Director, Vivienne Gaskin Cultural Management Ltd. She was formally Director of Live and Digital Arts at the Institute for Contemporary Arts [ICA], London 2001-2006 and Head of the Artistic Programme at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow 2000-2001. www.viviennegaskin.com

RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 26

© ; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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