Artists’ studios are usually paint-spattered and chaotic – filled with ephemera, with inspiration. They’re a little like looking inside the artist’s mind. Shaun Gladwell’s is different. His North Melbourne apartment, where he lives with his partner and seven-year-old son, is minimal and organised.
“I’ve only just arrived in Melbourne so I haven’t quite settled in,” he tells me. “At the moment I’m mostly on the computer. And fucking around on unicycles and wheelchairs.”
Is that work?
“Oh yeah, it’s all work,” he says.
While his home is a clean slate, MCA is currently filled with more than two decades’ worth of his art. On the eve of this retrospective, Gladwell is genuinely unsure how well it will all play together.
“It’s like a family barbeque,” he says. “Everyone’s moved on, and I’m not sure how it’s gonna go. It’ll be weird to judge them as a group.”
Despite the passing of decades, strong currents do run through it all. Wherever he goes, both artistically and geographically (he’s represented Australia in the Venice Biennale and visited Afghanistan as an official Australian war artist), he comes back to a fascination with human movement and how our bodies interact with the world.
In his videos he focuses on the most fluid human movements and their inherent beauty. In one early video work, Storm Sequence (2000), a lone figure spins and turns atop a skateboard, against a backdrop of thundering ocean and a deep-grey sky. Simply shot and presented in slow motion, it’s graceful, almost balletic. Motorcycles (Approach to Mundi Mundi, 2007) and surfboards (Pacific Undertow Sequence, Bondi, 2010) have received the same treatment. And in two-channel video Double Field / Viewfinder (Tarin Kowt) (2009–10), two Australian soldiers point cameras at each other in the Afghan desert, circling one another slowly, cameras trained like guns.
Gladwell has also choreographed dance performances; appropriated Marcel Duchamp’s idea of “readymade sculptures”, whereby everyday manufactured objects become works of art; and played with photography, installation and performance art. All are just different ways of exploring how human bodies move in the world.
We only have 30 minutes to talk before Gladwell’s parents and son return to the apartment, but we cover a lot of ground. His eyes light up when he hits on an idea that excites him, which is often. Our conversation jumps around wildly. Mostly I put my prepared questions to one side and let him take the wheel.
In the garage there are paintings he refers to as his “closet neo-expressionist practice”; more of a hobby than a professional practice. Next door to that is a room for his significant collection of skateboards and sneakers. Upstairs, he sees me looking around at the toys stacked tidily at the edges of the lounge room. The Lego, he says, is his son’s. But he’s an enthusiastic co-pilot.
Some could accuse him of arrested development. He dresses like many an ageing skater: in baggy jeans, a grey hoodie and a baseball cap, and with a long grey beard. And he does, after all, cling to adolescent pursuits. But Gladwell interrogates those interests, mining them for secrets. He connects Lego to his interest in early 8-bit computer graphics, and we go off on a conversational tangent about the Lego movies and how they use cutting-edge digital technology to emulate old stop-motion animation and child’s play. It’s digital animation, but the memory of human hands on solid plastic is never far away.
Image-making is a big part of his consciousness. When he was a kid his mum had a Super8 camera and would record things and play them back to him. While in the military, his father carried a Brownie camera around Vietnam. “It was a huge part of my thinking,” he says. “What do you do? You muck around with cameras.
“I’m really interested in the work of my parents,” he says. “But I know they’d never call it work.”
In school he discovered John Berger’s TV series of short films Ways of Seeing, which digs into the political ambiguities of looking at art; Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten, a powerful short film about our size relative to that of the universe; and art history books such as Helen Gardner’s 1926 text Art Through the Ages, a seminal textbook still used in schools today for its global approach. Outside school, he skated – which comes with its own image traditions, such as amateur filmmaking and graffiti, which he was immediately into. It all fed into a practice that is as likely to incorporate a 16th-century painting into a new work as it is a skateboarding video. However far afield he looked Gladwell always brought it back to the personal.
“When I got to art school I had to look at a different way of framing things, to give it a theoretical underpinning,” he says. “I got interested in going back and rethinking what I was doing as a kid. Because I never really stopped.”
But Gladwell studies the past to build something new. Visitors to his MCA show will see the debut of current works that use virtual and augmented reality, including new prints and a 360-degree VR work inviting us into the interior of a skull. As well as a direct reference to Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors, this one’s about what he calls the “scale crisis” of VR. It’s another idea he’s plainly excited about. “We have an intimate knowledge of our dimensions. But once you get into an environment that challenges that, in terms of size or volume, the mind has trouble comprehending it.”
It reminds me of another recent work of his, Skateboarding Scale Crisis (Fingerboarding) (2019), at Melbourne’s Lyon Housemuseum. It’s a Tech Deck skate park, which you can get in and play with. Fingers become legs, and we become giants, playing with kids toys.
There’s a commotion downstairs. The family is back. Gladwell sighs. “And that’s the end of any comprehensible conversation,” he says.
By next year, he tells me, the cutting-edge VR tech he’s working with will be as retro as the box Brownie camera his dad used in Vietnam. Just then his mother walks in, the one who introduced him to filmmaking, and his son, the one who gives him an excuse to play with Lego. His whole career might be on show at MCA, but his whole life is compressed into this neat urban apartment.
Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow is at MCA from July 19 to October 7.
This story originally appeared in Sydney print issue 19.