Art and Extreme Sport, according to Shaun Gladwell
The sky is heavy and the ocean below it seems particularly wild. In front of the camera lens, set up to film a fixed shot, Shaun Gladwell, is performing graceful figures with his skateboard on a concrete platform. There is an element of slo-mo here, because in reality the sequence of movements is very fast. The location is Bondi, Sydney’s famous surfers’ beach. Titled Storm Sequence (2000), this video recalls one or two pictorial predecessors in the Romantic tradition. The face-toface between man and the landscape brings to mind certain paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above a Sea of Clouds. Turner, too, for his storm scenes, with ships close to sinking. The artist also quotes Courbet’s Beach at Palavas, because of the huge sky taking up most of the sky. In 2013 Gladwell shot BMX Channel, which can be seen as the pendant of Storm Sequence. The weather is just as wet, but this time Gladwell takes us to the English seafront at Bexhill (Sussex), where a solitary BMX rider twists and glides under an ash-gray sky.
A PIETÀ IN THE OUTBACK
The artist is himself a confirmed skateboarder (he was Australian champion in the Freestyle category, which has a strong choreographic dimension). He is also a biker, rides BMX and surfs. When studying art, it occurred to him that what he was doing at the weekend was just as important as his activities at the atelier. He has found a way of reconciling his twin passions for art and extreme sports. If you think about it, the fusion seems logical: surfing and skateboarding (and to some extent biking) are the only “sports” (if you can call them that) to have engendered a real visual culture, to the extent that many professional skaters and surfers—Mark Gonzales and Ed Templeton come to mind—also develop an artistic practice. Gladwell studied painting, but brushes were not up to the job of grasping the essence of his subject, i.e., movement. In his films, he captures the way in which a body (his, or the performers’) reacts to its surroundings. How it inhabits the frame, be it the landscape or the work itself. That is why his art has so much in common with dance and architecture. Even so, painting is everywhere in his work, a constant inspiration. I was among the many people who discovered his work at the 2009 Venice Biennale, when he represented Australia. I was struck by the surreal beauty of the landscapes crossed by that Ford Falcon Interceptor, like something straight out of George Miller’s film Mad Max, filmed in slow motion, the vehicle ridden by a helmeted man under a magnetically stormy sky ( Interceptor Surf Sequence, 2009). In another work, the same figure dressed in black stops his bike by the side of the desert road and tenderly cradles the lifeless body of a kangaroo that was knocked down by one of the countless trucks that drive across this Australian no-man’s-land at breakneck
speed. The Christ-like dimension of this Apology to Roadkill (2007) also conjures up the history of the Pietà. The masked figure seems to be bearing the whole weight of the world on his shoulders. These decomposing bodies of kangaroos have an artistic source: a photograph by the remarkable Australian painter Sidney Nolan from 1952. It shows a man trying to mount the sun-dried corpse of a horse, an apocalyptic mount that gives an idea of the reality of life in the Outback.(2) As for the masked man, he could also be inspired by the story of Ned Kelly (1854–80), a kind of Australian Robin Hood clad in armour and metal helmet, the subject of a series of paintings by Nolan in the 1940s. Gladwell doesn’t just “paint” with his camera. He also makes “real paintings,” but within the framework of a series of films, the Planet and Stars Sequences ( 2003– 13). Whether a snowy park in Poland, a beach in Korea, or a street in New York, the artist appears wearing a gas mask, kneeling over a cardboard support on which he is spray-painting. Constellations, planets and comets appear on it, then these distant landscapes are finally covered with black monochrome. This is a fleeting conception of the sublime. As brief as our time on earth in relation to cosmological time, as short as the artist’s videos, these visual haikus concentrate intense beauty into a very limited amount of time. This black monochrome leads us to abstraction, which also informs Gladwell’s video art. When he films his skateboard slaloming around a white line in Double Linework (2000), he is evoking Barnett Newman’s zip. As for the ubiquitous cruciform motif, it is a direct reference to the painting of Kazimir Malevich, but also to the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci commonly titled Vitruvian Man. The outstretched arms signify the effort to attain the (physical and spiritual) balance needed by Gladwell and his performers to pull off their feats of skateboarding, capoeira, hip-hop, or astride a motorbike shooting through the desert. To stretch out one’s arms is a way to measure the world and, conversely, animated by harmonic resonances, to chisel and reconfigure space on one’s own scale. However, the idea of abstraction acts in a more structural way, if we consider its etymology, which derives from the Latin ab traho, that is, “to draw out of” or “wrest from”—in this instance, wresting from the real. The formal strategies implemented by Gladwell in his films (and photographs) do in effect tend to achieve that wresting from reality specific to painting. The extreme slowing, for example, creates a space-time that is different from our own.(2) As for the ubiquitous process of reversal, it literally wrests the body from the ground: it counters the effects of gravity and institutes a lunar atmosphere. In Pacific Undertow Sequence (2010), a video with a reversed image, Gladwell sits on a surf board, underwater in the sea, with the sand becoming the sky and the waves unrolling their crystalline tubes back to front. We are no longer on earth, but in an unknown world. Getting free of gravity is precisely the aim of surfers, skateboarders, BMX riders, FMX bikers and other celestial acrobats: to get close to the stars. Thus, Gladwell’s camera acts as an amplifier of their desires. Reversal and slow motion carry us up to the planets where bodies are subjected to other physical laws—the same planets, perhaps, that the artist furtively paints on those bits of cardboard all round the world, before then covering them with black paint.
THE BEAUTY OF THE GESTURE
Skateboarding, surfing and BMX ceased to be “underground” years ago. Fashion got its teeth into these juicy pursuits. However, Gladwell focuses on the relatively well preserved zones of these practices, not out of some last-ditch reflex of elitist purism—he is much more inclined to share— but because he is a dogged seeker of singularity. Where skateboarding is concerned, Gladwell does Freestyle, which is very much a minority pursuit, less spectacular than “traditional” skateboarding whose proponents ride up and down ramps to the sound of saturated guitars (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit). Similarly, when he films Matti Hemmings in BMX Channel, he is doing Flatland, an equally choreographic sub-genre of BMX. The aim of each film is to provoke wonder by solemnly presenting the talents of individuals chosen for their originality. In Broken Dance (Beatboxed) , the rhythm generated by the mouths of two human beatboxes with very different styles brings to life two hip-hop dancers. When Gladwell films his performers he “paints” their portrait with an almost Flemish acuity, following a tradition that, from Van Eyck to Frans Hals, captures the subject’s interiority as manifested in their effort to concentrate. To achieve this result, to capture the Zen beauty and ephemeral perfection of a movement (in its preparation and its execution, one must create the sensation that the performer is acting for himself—almost in himself— and not for some hypothetical audience; suggest that this remarkable action is gratuitous, occurring by surprise, like a miracle in Old Master paintings. That is why Gladwell sometimes hides his cameras, so that his subject, not knowing where exactly they are, may eventually forget them. Gladwell rather nicely calls this the “Edward Hopper effect.”
Translation, C. Penwarden
(1) The artist regularly mentions the Joseph Beuys performance, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, as one inspiration for Apology to Roadkill. (2) Gladwell grasped the poetical potential of extreme slow-motion when watching the Freestyle performance by Rodney Mullen in Future Primitive (1985), a film by Stacy Peralta.
« BMX Channel ». 2013. Vidéo HD, monocanal, couleur, son, 12 min. Vidéo: Hopi Allard. Performer: Matti Hemmings. Single-channel high definition video, 16:9, colour, sound
« Planet & Stars Sequence (Hastings Pier) ». 2013. Vidéo HD, monocanal, couleur, son, 10 min Vidéo: Wouter Van der Hallen. Single-channe l HD video on 60” plasma screen, 16:9, colour, sound