As a by-product of last year’s flawed Biennale, Sydney was introduced to an extraordinary new venue. Cockatoo Island is an old naval shipyard, an industrial fantasia, only fifteen minutes by ferry from Circular Quay. Over the past six months the island has been used as concert venue and as a drawing camp for students from the National Art School. Now Cockatoo Island is pulling the crowds again, as thousands of people set sail to see Ken Unsworth’s A Ringing Glass (Rilke), an elaborate tribute to his late wife, Elizabeth Volodarsky.
There are many reasons why Unsworth’s work is a unique experience. Not the least significant is that it is entirely self-funded. At a time when arts organisations and museums are suffering severe budget cuts, it is startling to find an artist willing to invest so heavily in his own vision. The cost of this enterprise has not been disclosed, but it must run to hundreds of thousands. This may be taken as a testament to the feelings Unsworth held for Elizabeth and the depths of his grief. On the other hand, there is also an element of Wagnerian megalomania. By means of one great Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work of art’), Unsworth has brought his career to an unforgettable crescendo.
Why not? The artist turns seventy-eight this year, and has no direct descendents. Rather than hoard his savings like a miser, there is something splendid in putting on an enormous party and four room-sized installations. No-one could fail to be impressed with the scale and ambition of this event, and if there is a bit of ego-gratification mixed in with the tribute to his spouse, it doesn’t lessen the impact.
There is a fascinating essay to be written on male artists who have survived their wives. One thinks of Monet sitting by the death-bed of his wife, Camille, and finding – to his horror – that he has become engrossed in studying the purple shadows on her face. Then there was the composer, Berlioz, who was summoned to a Parisian cemetery, which was being reclaimed, and handed an armload of his wife’s bones.
In contrast to these moments of private despair, Unsworth’s event has the air of a grand celebration. It began with a dinner for almost two hundred guests in a purpose-built ballroom inside the old Turbine Hall. To prepare for the evening, Unsworth had paid for his guests to take private dancing lessons so they could hit the floor between courses. Everyone entered to the tune of a stately promenade by Handel, before moving on to the Tango, Waltz, Foxtrot and Quickstep. Music was provided by the Sydney Lyric Orchestra and a string quartet; Natalie Gamsu sang numbers such as That old black magic, What’ll I do?, and Just a Gigolo, finishing with Goodnight Irene. Two specially devised works of modern dance were included in the evening’s fare. At one point, violinist, Mark Berryman played a “posthumous duet” with a recording of Elizabeth Volodarsky at the piano.
I went to the rehearsal but not the dinner, and feel relieved at having avoided the dancing lessons. Those who were present and dancing have come away with rapturous memories of the evening, captured on a video that is playing constantly in the ballroom.
The voyage to and from the island played a crucial role in the way the event was received. As in a fairy tale, guests travelled across the water to an enchanted land, where strange and wonderful things occurred. At the conclusion of festivities they said a final farewell to this magical place, and were ferried back to the real world. Visitors can get a taste of this flight from the everyday by simply taking the ferry to the site, where, as a special bonus, they may also see William Kentridge’s video projections that formed the indisputable highlight of last year’s Biennale (until 26 March 2010)
Neither should one discount the evocative power of the trip itself. As I returned from the island one Sunday, storm clouds formed themselves into fantastic shapes and a bright, eerie light spread across the harbour.
The four large installations that guests had to negotiate on their way to the ballroom, represent a cryptic chronicle of the lives of Ken and Elizabeth Unsworth. In the first, Razed by Glass, a glass trigger gives a tinkling sound, and a gigantic skeleton is cranked upwards by a mechanical device. Upon reaching a certain point it lashes out and thumps the ground with a cane. The pose of the skeleton reminded me of Marsyas, in Titian’s famous painting of the satyr who challenged Apollo to a musical contest, and was flayed alive when he lost. The skeleton is like a demented music master waving his baton, perhaps trying to beat the palm of a poor student. Death, held in bondage, thrashing about blindly.
The second piece, In the Shadow of Stars, consists of a darkened room filled with twinkling constellations. Against the wall is Elizabeth’s sick bed. As we watch, a window in space opens up, and her face appears. This is the artist’s most direct and intimate reference to his wife.
The third, Toyland Fever, is a room of toy pianos held floating in the air. Each is tied by long strings to a child’s iron bed frame, also suspended in air, and surrounded by cherubs. An oar is attached to the bed, transforming it into a boat to traverse the cosmos.
The final installation, The last song from the four last songs for Elizabeth, is a room in which the scattered components of a grand piano hang from the ceiling, mingled with round stones, a gilt mirror, and a framed photograph of a child seated at the piano, presumably Elizabeth. The title refers to the fourth of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Im Abendrot (‘Twilight’), which might be understood as a joyous embrace of death.
Without knowing the biographical references behind each installation we are obliged to treat them as a series of striking poetic images. Like most artists, Unsworth would probably prefer viewers to form a personal relationship with these works. In taking his title from one of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus he is signalling his willingness to embrace ambiguity. Rilke’s love of metaphor has endeared him to artists of all persuasions, who respond to the perceived profundity of his allusions even if they cannot decode the detail. Yet Rilke is also one of the most self-conscious of poets, who cultivated his own genius like a gardener tending a rare and delicate plant. He is a slightly dangerous influence because he makes a fetish of ‘the poetic’, and often seems more interested in creating obscurity than expressing a thought or feeling. This is a charge that might also be laid at Ken Unsworth’s door.
Rilke dedicated his sonnets to a dancer who had died at the age of nineteen, Unsworth’s tribute is to a woman – a pianist by vocation – who led a full and active life. The most important difference is not to be found in the mysterious, teasing sequence of Unsworth’s installations, but in the grand theatrical event that brought two hundred people together for a night they will never forget. In orchestrating this shared celebration of a human life, Unsworth has engineered his own fleeting victory over death.
While Unsworth is routinely referred to as a ‘sculptor’, he is better described as a maker of theatrical environments, a manipulator of found objects, willing to sacrifice any degree of formal coherence in search of a suggestive image. To dramatise this distinction one cannot do better than take a look at Paul Selwood’s Perspective Cutouts, which finishes today at the Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney University. Although his work has gone through many stylistic changes, Selwood is first and foremost a sculptor who puts form before poetry. We respond instinctively to the play of forms without stopping to wonder what it all means. With Ken Unsworth, we can never stop wondering.
Selwood’s Perspective Cutouts are a series of elegant wall sculptures made from panels of rusty metal. By varnishing one panel and leaving another untouched, he creates a convincing illusion of perspective. All these works are perfectly flat, but convey a powerful sense of three dimensions. It is no exaggeration to say they seem to leap off the wall.
In a 2006 interview on the website seriousart.org, Selwood discusses to his work in terms of “refined classicism”. This is couched as a move away from purely abstract art, where the intention was to make sculpture with no obvious external references. Instead of trying to avoid allusions to architecture or landscape, he has begun to embrace them. The Perspective Cutouts, with their clean, crisp planes and overt monumentality, are the most complete examples of this evolution in Selwood’s thinking. From this point it would seem he has to backtrack or start making architecture.
Paul Selwood: Perspective Cutouts, Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney University, June 19-July 11, 2009
Ken Unsworth, A ringing glass (Rilke), Cockatoo Island, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 11, 2009