Sydney Morning Herald Column

Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow

Published July 26, 2019
Shaun Gladwell paddles his way to art world glory. 'Pacific Undertow' (2010)

We all have our blind spots and Shaun Gladwell (b.1972) is one of mine. For almost two decades I’ve watched people getting excited about his slow-motion videos of a figure on a skateboard, on a BMX bike, on a motorbike, on a surfboard, on a train… As someone who has never had the slightest desire to ride a skateboard or even a motorbike, I’m singularly ill-adapted to appreciate this stuff. Why is it exciting?

Brief answer: I’m not sure that it is. For most people, with all these activities the exciting bit is the doing, not the viewing. An avid surfer will not necessarily be a fan of Gladwell’s 11-minute video, Pacific Undertow (2010), in which we watch from an underwater vantage point as he sits on his board. A dedicated skateboarder may find nothing especially interesting in the 8-minute Storm Sequence (2000), which shows Gladwell balancing on his skateboard on a rainy day in Bondi.

The people who are getting worked up over Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, are the cognoscenti– the curators, the academics, the ‘cutting-edge’ collectors. I was invited but this is a party I can’t join.

Shaun Gladwell, ‘Storm Sequence’ (2000). The J.M.W. Turner of the skateboard

Part of Gladwell’s appeal may be ascribed to the idiot reflex of fashion which believes anything widely praised must be cool, but this is too glib an observation. There’s modish talk about “the body”, and about his background in street art, but in Blair French’s catalogue essay one finds a better explanation. It’s not the visual experience, it’s the tissue of ideas and references that go into each piece.

For anybody with a smattering of art history these references are easy to spot, but such ‘Ah-ah!’ moments are catnip for curators. Take for instance the work Gladwell showed at the 2009 Venice Biennale, under the title, MADDESTMAXIMUS. The name points us towards George Miller’s Mad Max films, which were shot in the vicinity. The lone motorbike rider recalls Sidney Nolan’s iconic image of Ned Kelly on horseback, the outstretched arms refer to Leonardo’s famous drawing of Vitruvian man. When Gladwell gets off the bike and coddles a dead roo it’s a reprise of Joseph Beuys explaining paintings to a dead hare.

Beyond this, the black-clad rider might be seen as symbolic of the loner, the wayfarer, the outlaw or another stock character from art, film or fiction. In the MCA show the Venice ensemble is represented by the 3.50-minute segment, Approach to Mundi Mundi (2007), which simply shows the rider on his motorbike.


Shaun Gladwell, ‘Approach to Mundi Mundi’ (2007). Vitruvian Man on a motorbike

This kind of legibility may be found throughout the exhibition. What isn’t immediately discernible is explained in the catalogue. This includes numerous references to “French theory”, which was a touchstone of artistic credibility in the 1990s, and obviously still confers a certain kudos.

There’s a tendency to hail any artist who has read a few books as a philosopher. Gladwell has done his homework more diligently than most but his creative engagement with ideas is less convincing. We read that he has an “interest” in the Sublime, in appropriation, the history of abstraction, and so on. But having an interest doesn’t ensure that masterpeces will follow.

His standard procedure is to use new media to reconfigure art historical themes. Natasha Bullock puts it succinctly when she writes: “his work is a twenty-first-century transformation – an innovation – of time-honoured traditions in art.”


Shaun Gladwell, ‘Reversed Readymade’ (2016), Duchamp in motion

In time everything becomes a tradition, even the iconoclastic legacy of Marcel Duchamp who believed that art should address the mind rather than the eye. In Reversed Readymade (2016) Gladwell takes Duchamp’s bicycle wheel on a stool and presents it as a makeshift unicycle. For Duchamp the readymade was distinguished by its “visual indifference” but Gladwell is anything but indifferent to the traditions in which he is working.

For the most part it’s the Shock of the Old. Gladwell, who is actually a talented painter and draughtsman, is giving us a 21stcentury version of the Sublime by making videos of the ocean rather than painting pictures. His lone rider updates Nolan, his handheld skateboard videos are to be seen as a kind of drawing. Skateboard riding itself becomes performance art. His beard seems to be borrowed from Camille Pissarro, or maybe Gandalf.

This way of reading Gladwell’s work gathered momentum when people began referring to Storm Sequence in relation to J.M.W.Turner, as if there were some miraculous equivalence. Gladwell on his skateboard was equated with Turner dashing off the details of a stormy day with oil paint on canvas.

In conversation with Blair French last week at the MCA, the artist seemed a little embarrassed by this dopey association with Turner, which has been repeated ad nauseum. I’ve never understood why Storm Sequence became a kind of instant classic and it seems Gladwell doesn’t know either.

Of course it’s not necessary for artists to know these things. Artists make work, it’s up to the rest of us to venture interpretations, plausible or far-fetched.


Shaun Gladwell, ‘Pataphysical man’ (2005). Don’t try this at home

Gladwell also said, in response to a question about art and sport, that anything done wholeheartedly needn’t be put into one category or another. Soldiers were like dancers were like artists were like athletes. This is an appealing idea but I’m not sure it applies to the experience of most of these videos.

To continue taking my critical cues from the catalogue, I paused over Denise Thwaites’s discussion of Gladwell’s Virtual Reality installation when she spoke of “the adrenaline rush we have long witnessed, but not quite tasted, in his work.”

And this, finally, is the problem. When looking at a painting by Turner, one can decide exactly how long one needs to take it all in. Standing in front of a video by Gladwell we feel obliged to stay and watch a sequence of events unfold over time. Yet because there is no real narrative it’s not like watching a movie, but rather a slowly changing tableau vivant. Even though the image is moving it feels curiously static, as if nothing much is happening. We may be watching some activity that provides an “adrenaline rush” to the participant, but for the viewer it can be a pretty dull ride.




Shaun Gladwell: Pacific Undertow

Museum of Contemporary Art

19 July – 7 October, 2019


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July, 2019