His artis­tic tal­ents have taken him to Venice, Lon­don, Paris and Afghanistan, but Shaun Glad­well will never part with his skate­board, writes Ash­leigh Wil­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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