Art and Ex­treme Sport, ac­cor­ding to Shaun Glad­well

Art Press - - MOTOPOÉTIQUE -


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.


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.


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) [2012], 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

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