Shaun Gladwell rose to prominence in the art world through his 2000 video work Storm Sequence, in which he skateboards in slow motion on the edge of a concrete drop at Bondi Beach, as a storm approaches on the ocean’s horizon. Though very simple, the hypnotic quality of the piece, as well as its unconventional documentation of skate culture, pricked up the ears of the art establishment and put a flag in the sand for video art in Australia.
Since Storm Sequence, Gladwell’s career has gone from strength to strength. As well as continuing to produce ‘performance landscapes’ featuring figures (often Gladwell himself) engaging in various slow-motion ‘extreme sports’, he represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 2009 and had his own huge Stereo Sequences solo exhibition at ACMI in 2011.
Gladwell’s newest work Morning of the Earth is now on display at Anna Schwartz Gallery. Originally commissioned by the Rotterdam Philharmonic to accompany Richard Wagner’s opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), Gladwell was attracted to the spirit of the piece, but decided to give it a twist. “I thought ‘oh yeah, that’s cool but it’s all about sailors and high seas’. I kinda related to it as an Australian.”
“I don’t call the show The Flying Dutchman,” says Gladwell, “I call it Morning of the Earth, which is an amazing early Australian surf film from the ‘70s.” He reasoned that when Wagner wrote the opera, he was aged 27, so Gladwell decided to reimagine the piece in a modern context, explaining, “when I was 27 I was just wasting my time skating and surfing. So it made perfect sense to turn The Flying Dutchman into a surf film.” Though he is now based in London, Gladwell chose to film the work in Australia. “My experience of surfing isn’t suffering insanely cold water in Cornwall looking like a rubber monster, it’s chilling out in board shorts, surfing Bondi, Bronte or Clovelly,” he says. “It had to happen back here.”
For Morning of the Earth’s current incarnation at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Gladwell split the piece up into six different parts, which play simultaneously on different screens. “It became more interesting to show it in that way,” says Gladwell. “It’s like I’ve taken Wagner’s libretto, the structure of the opera and just scrambled it.” Gladwell’s preoccupation with using surfing, skateboarding and motocross in his work is less of a conscious position, and more of a literation of his muse. “It’s just the language I’ve seen my generation develop,” he says. “Degas was always hanging around ballet dancers, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec always used to go up the hill to Montmartre to check out Jane Averill kicking those petticoats. That’s what he loved; he just totally loved the can-can. For me, I just love extreme sports.”
Instead of exploiting the sports’ rich subcultures in his work, Gladwell hopes to expose them to a wider audience. “I want people to meditate on it and maybe see something like surfing as being as important as one of the Olympic sports or ballet,” he says. “We’re talking about the emergence of new languages of movement, man. It’s just great to be involved in that as an artist. I love it, it’s very inspiring.”