Performative Landscapes: Shaun Gladwell: Stereo Sequences, ACMI, Melbourne.

Text by Emily Bour

Arriving at Shaun Gladwell’s Stereo Sequences exhibition, currently showing at the Australian Center for the Moving Image in Melbourne (ACMI), one is greeted at the top of the stairs by the large-scale video work Pataphysical Man (2005). The image of the shirtless, helmet-wearing man spinning gracefully from the ceiling is, of course, upside down, but the cumulative effect is hypnotic. Such is the appetiser for the works that await visitors below.

Curated by Sarah Tutton, Shaun Gladwell’s major show launches Horizons, a series of ACMI commissioned works that will continue to show throughout the upcoming seasons. This decision alone is rather telling of Gladwell’s rising star status in the art world, since his emergence onto the international scene in 2000. Engaging in a multi-dimensional practice that includes painting, photography and sculpture, Gladwell is famous for his video works recording subculture sports, from BMX bike riding, to skateboarding. This subject matter has become his signature mark.

The ambitious nature of this show could be said to demarcate from Gladwell’s earlier, more amateurish modes of production. There are eight major pieces; the largest of them entitled Parallel Forces (2011). The multi-channel work presents four pairs of parallel images along a darkened corridor. Each pair displays machines of motion with a cameraman filming outwards, towards the viewer, who must venture between the choppers, muscle cars, racing bikes, and moving walkways. The observer (now the observed) must negotiate their own real-time trajectory down the hall. It is a somewhat nauseating affair. However, the artist looks to question the gaze and the hierarchy of viewpoints, not just in art history but in a modern world so mediated by the camera.

Thankfully, the sense of physical unease is thwarted by Centripetal Forces (2011), one of the most visually enchanting video series of the show. The projection panels are suspended from the ceiling, beckoning the viewer to lie down on the structures below and immerse themselves in the work. It is a solar-system formation of one central, circular screen, surrounded by rectangular satellites. We are shown a range of performers, each negative image displaying a different spinning body from a bird’s eye view. Different styles all take their part, from the traditional to the contemporary, the ballerina to the pole dancer. This simple study of movement is, however, grand in its intention, alluding to the capitalised notions of Space/Time/Movement with poetically charged enquiry. Gladwell is moving onto a different platform here, teasing out a dynamic beyond the physicality of the body, expanding it to the ethereal.

Though perhaps a bit literally, this work bears a link with Planet & Stars Sequence: Bondi (2011). In this dual projection, the artist wears a gas mask, framed against the splashing waves. Aerosol cans are used to produce images of mini-universes which, once completed and displayed to the camera, are immediately erased. He starts again. In Ihor Holibizky’s interviews, Gladwell speaks of the desire to: “make the popular representation of certain subcultures problematic”, which undoubtedly he has achieved. No meaning is fixed, and the artist does not wish to be dogmatic: “I consider most of my recent work as speculative and also collaborative, which moves away from the largely impossible role of clear transmitter of intention.”

Repetition and introspection are central themes here. Nowhere is this more apparent than a reworking of a past work Endoscopic Vanitas (No Veins Version)(2011). Originally exhibited in 2009 at the Australian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, an open human skull suspends from a metal frame in an enclosed room. An endoscopic camera moves inside, and a second explores its exterior with an LCD screen displaying one of the images. The other is projected onto a mist screen that curtains the entrance. The image from the outside is difficult to decipher: a silhouette, a figure, an eye perhaps. We are told from the exhibition catalogue that this is his play on the ‘memento mori’, a reminder of our mortality. It is effective and appeals to the instinct, as I watch a child unwilling to cross the barrier, afraid. This work is challenging, a veritable collapse of logic: “I was thinking of Duchamp’s exhortation to ‘use a Rembrandt as an ironing board’ as relevant to the subversion in terms of function.”

As viewer, we are placed into positions that are unnerving, perspectives that we are unused to occupying. In Sagittarius/Domain +Prelude (2011), both shots are filmed from behind. In one screen, a figure is lying on a skateboard travelling on a moving walkway. He looks as though he is cascading toward a bottomless abyss, even though in reality his trajectory is purely horizontal. Gravity has been manipulated, and so has our method of thinking. Even as a formal experiment this work is arresting, and represents the germination of what may ultimately become the urban sublime.

Shaun Gladwell: Stereo Sequences continues until 14 August.

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Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery