ACROSS THE BOARD
His artistic talents have taken him to Venice, London, Paris and Afghanistan, but Shaun Gladwell will never part with his skateboard, writes Ashleigh Wilson
Judging from the reviews, there’s a reasonable chance the latest Mad Max film, Fury Road, will be a contender when Academy Award nominations are released next month. George Miller’s film has taken close to $400 million worldwide, and this month received eight gongs, including best film, at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards. Shaun Gladwell, though, isn’t a fan. He didn’t much like the third instalment either, back in 1985, the one with Tina Turner. “I guess I’m more a classic Max,” he says. “I withdraw my support after the second. The shoulder pads, that’s where I withdraw. It’s just not as brutal.”
The problem is scale, the way the canvas continued to grow after Mel Gibson first drove through the outback in 1979. The bigger the questions about society in a post-apocalyptic world, the more Gladwell disengaged. As well as the rawness of the first two films, he liked their narrow focus. “I liked how you were only seeing through a little lens, and for the rest you could ask, well, where’s society at for this to be happening? It wasn’t so literal, spelled out. And there were so many gaps. That’s the appeal.”
Gladwell’s skateboard sits at his side. It’s a freestyle deck, a customised board made in the US. He has just finished a quick demonstration, riding back and forth on the concrete, flipping the board between his feet in a blur of precision and grace. He’ll soon be sharing this enthusiasm with audiences on opposite ends of the country. The two projects are separate — one is for the Sydney Festival, the other for the Perth Festival — but they share a singular subject. And that explains why he’s here, talking once again about skateboarding, its presence in his art, his technique, his heroes, and how youth culture has morphed into middle-aged culture over time.
But now the conversation has drifted on to another passion, one he calls “my icon, my image, my single image”. This is Gladwell’s most recognisable character, apart from himself. There’s a debt to Mad Max, though other ingredients form this helmeted figure in black. He is thinking as much of the Broken Hill landscape, where Mad Max was filmed, as the artists who have spent time exploring the vastness of the country around them.
“I’m in that generation where I know the Australian landscape through several references,” says Gladwell, who turned 43 this week. “It wasn’t just art. It wasn’t just through the colonial vision. It wasn’t just through the modernists. It was through contemporary cinema. It was as much through Mad Max as it was Nolan.” From cultural theorists to pop art, Duchamp to Degas, Rimbaud to Nolan to Mad Max, it can be hard to keep up with the multifarious influences Gladwell pulls into his work. But the board at his feet is a reminder of the obsession that has been a constant in his life and art for so many years. It was via skating that he first came to prominence 15 years ago: Storm Sequence showed the artist spinning at Bondi Beach as the rain fell around him. The mesmerising, slow-motion work was sold at auction in 2007 for $84,000, the first video to be sold on the secondary market in Australia.
The skateboard has been a recurring subject ever since. He says he could talk about skateboarding all day. It’s a dedication that will take shape again next month in his new video project in Sydney. Gladwell calls it “my ultimate love letter to skateboarding”.
It should be pointed out, should anyone doubt his skills, that he really can skate. He’s been doing it since his early teens, and it shows. Of course he knows more about skating these days, which also means he knows how to fall better than he once did. One of his new videos — first shown at Anna Schwartz’s Sydney gallery in October and soon to be a part of the Perth Festival — documented him spinning on the spot in various locations across Paris and then falling to the ground. He was fighting against gravity, a slowing spinning top, and every stack was different to the last.
Talk to Gladwell about this work and various associations emerge in his mind: movement, the mechanics of falling, the use of public space, Paul Virilio’s observation about the seeds of destruction, how the invention of the ship was simultaneously the invention of the shipwreck. On a more immediate level, the activity in the video also looks, well, painful. Gladwell says he has more “experience of falling” as an older skater: “But that is offset by the fact you do have softer bones, brittle bones.”
Of all the different kinds of skating styles — soaring above ramps or sliding down rails are some of the flashier varieties — Gladwell loves freestyle the most. It’s old-fashioned and traditional, though that doesn’t mean it’s simple. “For me, freestyle skateboarding is interesting because you don’t need anything. You don’t need a ramp, you don’t need urban objects. You just have the bare minimum of requirements: a skateboard and flat concrete.”
This is the kernel of the idea that Gladwell is bringing to the Sydney Festival. Skateboarders vs Minimalism is a video about skating and art, set to the music of Philip Glass. Gladwell considers its star to be the greatest living skateboarder: Rodney Mullen, a freestyle American skater and ballet dancer on wheels. In the video, Mullen is doing what he does best — though in- stead of flat concrete, he’s riding sculptures by Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Dan Flavin. Hence the title, the minimalist skater on minimalist art.
The filming took place this month inside the Torrance Art Museum in Los Angeles, where Mullen was invited to “creatively reinterpret” the sculptures with his board. And yes, the sculptures were replicas. Gladwell concedes it would be “reckless” to skate on the real things. “In a way,” he says, “the video is a kind of fantasy I heard about a very famous skateboarder walking into a museum, looking at these forms and going, ‘Wow I’m going to skate on these, no one’s around.’ ”
Gladwell has admired Mullen for years. He describes him an intellectual, a freestyle innovator and a wonderful spokesman for the sport. It made sense to Gladwell to combine the “founding father of minimal skateboarding” with these artworks. “I’m just putting these two elements together that I love and seeing what happens,” Gladwell says.
Mullen took some
before he agreed to take part. Once on board, he was also given no specific brief before filming. “You don’t tell anything to Rodney Mullen. You just stand back and gasp in disbelief. He’s his own athlete.”
The video will be played inside the Cutaway, the newly opened space inside Sydney’s harbourside Barangaroo development, throughout the Sydney Festival. The following month, Gladwell and his skateboard will be in Perth as part of that city’s arts festival. His video Self Portrait Spinning and Falling in Paris will be exhibited alongside works by Carsten Holler and Jon Tarry at the John Curtin Gallery. In a separate event, he will appear in conversation with Russ Howell, another American skating legend. Howell, considered the first professional skateboarder, is in town for the 40th anniversary of the Albany skate park, the Snake Run.
“He was a freak,” Gladwell says, “and then all of a sudden he looked around and it’s a multibillion-dollar industry.”
When Gladwell was a young man — he grew up in the Sydney suburb of North Rocks — skateboarding was the biggest thing in his world. So it made sense, by the time he came to think more seriously about art, for him to turn to the sport for subject matter. “I can’t really claim that I’m doing anything differently,” he says, “but what I can claim is that I’m interested in representing activity that has emerged during my life.”
Which is not to say he feels removed from tradition. A conversation with Gladwell inevitably winds itself towards a discussion of artists across history, both in Australia and abroad. On the question of skateboarding, he mentions Roman depictions of athletes, Degas ballet dances and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of Jane Avril dancing the cancan at the Moulin Rouge. Skateboarding is just “updating the subject matter” by connecting art and life. “What’s the difference between me hanging out and doing skateboarders? I’m not Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec but I’m involved in a subject matter that is dynamic and active.”
Now based in London, Gladwell is constantly on the move, working across Europe, the US, South America, Asia and Australia. Earlier this month, he was in Paris to take part in a cultural festival associated with the UN’s climate change conference, and then he flew to Los Angeles to shoot his video with Mullen. This year, he has travelled to Australia six times.
While Australia remains his primary inspiration — “I’m wired into this landscape creatively” — he decided to relocate to Britain after flying back and forth for the best part of a decade. Gladwell studied at Goldsmiths college for two years, so London felt like a second home anyway. “Instead of going to London once or twice a year, consistently twice if not more, I wanted to flip the switch and be based in London and come back here a few times a year, and concentrate on Europe.”
Gladwell’s work has been in demand for years across the continent. His first appearance at the Venice Biennale was in 2007, when Storm Sequence was featured in a group show on the invitation of director Robert Storr and later singled out for attention by critics. “If I had to pick the single young artist in this Biennale destined to future greatness,” wrote Richard Dorment in Britain’s The Daily Telegraph, “it would be the Australian Shaun Gladwell.”
Two years later, Gladwell was back at the Venice Biennale as Australia’s primary representative. His installation was called MADDESTMAXIMVS, and it included videos showing him riding a car and a motorbike