Born Sydney 1972

Lives and works in Melbourne

Represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

Shaun Gladwell explores the politics and poetics of human movement within natural, urban and digital environments. Gladwell examines the body’s relationship to its surroundings within a methodology he describes as performative landscapes, whereby the designed and intended function of objects and spaces are questioned, extended and inverted through experimental misuse. The artist engages a wide range of institutional and emerging ‘movement languages’ such as dance, skate­board­ing, BMX bicy­cle rid­ing, and digitally generated activity. Gladwell’s inves­ti­ga­tion of individual freedom and its spa­tial artic­u­la­tion is reflect­ed in the instal­la­tion struc­tures of the work itself, through the use of archi­tec­tur­al fea­tures, pro­jec­tion sur­faces, mul­ti­chan­nel and extended reality formats.

The Pit
By Sebastian Goldspink

Our first conversation centred around our mutual love of a 1985 VHS skateboard video we had both watched numerous times, entitled Future Primitive, in particular the section focusing on our favourite skateboarder, the visionary Rodney Mullen. Gladwell would later work with Mullen, in Gladwell’s 2015 film Skateboarders v Minimalism, which featured Mullen skateboarding in a museum amongst sculptures that referenced iconic minimalist works. Mullen’s part in Future Primitive was the blueprint for what Gladwell was attempting to emulate on that first occasion. Featuring Mullen in a nondescript parking lot, it is filmed in slow motion as he performs links of tricks in a poetic succession. The section, although only just over a minute long, has had a lasting impression on Gladwell – on both his skateboarding and his art-making. It is the perennial reference for his oeuvre: a solitary figure within the built environment, performing athletically with a sense of poetry, but slowed down. This could be a Capoeira dancer performing between petrol bowsers in Woolloomooloo or a special forces soldier on deployment in the ruins of an Afghan city. This footage provided the model that defined Gladwell’s self-portrait series of 2000, Storm Sequence. The artist skateboards against a backdrop of Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach as a storm rolls in, his movements buffeted by the wind and rain, not necessarily a downward spiral of movements but a spiral nonetheless. It is also a landscape, a vision of the east coast not drenched in sun and surf but in tumult. Like all of the most incisive portraits, it is simultaneously a landscape of the psyche.

It’s 2020, the east coast of Australia is being ravaged by bushfires and, through an unplanned series of events, I find myself uncharacteristically waiting for a train in Wollongong, south of Sydney. I hear a voice say sorry I’m late. It’s Gladwell, we are both pleased by this unexpected encounter and the opportunity to share the journey to Sydney, our carriage suffused with the lingering smell of the south coast fires. I talk to Gladwell about his work Tangara, 2003, filmed on a metropolitan train. The self-referential nature of this conversation is amplified when Gladwell spontaneously starts re-creating the moves from the film, which again featured himself as subject, as he hangs upside down from the hand rail attached to the ceiling of the carriage. He talks about climbing and monuments. It’s the eve of the pandemic, set against a backdrop of monuments being felled across the world.

The full version of this essay by Sebastian Goldspink is published in Free/State.