Mikhail Baryshnikov, Dancer and Choreographer

The lives and works of many of the actors, choreographers and musicians captured in Wilson’s video portraits are defined by action, rhythm, movement and performance. And yet most sitters are depicted in extended moments of stasis. ‘I have been fascinated with stillness and the movement that is in stillness…’ Wilson observes.

In this video portrait the celebrated ballet dancer, choreographer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov is portrayed as the martyr Saint Sebastian, pinned to a column with arrows. Only the drip of blood from his wound disturbs the otherwise static image. The portrait is accompanied with a classical score by Wilson’s long-time collaborator Michael Galasso, evocative of transcendence through pain. Wilson draws on the Italian Renaissance depiction of the martyred saint for Baryshnikov’s pose, in particular Andrea Mantegna’s painting Martyrdom of St Sebastian c. 1456-59.

Both Mantegna and Wilson are indebted to classical sources for the pose of St Sebastian. The Ancient Roman sculpture of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love displayed nearby depicts the partially clad marble in the contrapposto position supported by a caryatid column in female form. Aphrodite’s weight rests on one leg and her knee is bent, the pose emphasises the curve of her hip and sensuous line of her draped torso and brings a sense of vitality to her body.

Robert Downey Jr, Actor

Although Robert Wilson’s video portraits do not have a fixed interpretation, they are laden with stories. In this portrait of the actor Robert Downey Jr, Wilson has based his composition on Rembrandt’s famous Dutch painting The anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, 1632. In Wilson’s work Downey Jr’s body is bathed in the green light of an operating theatre. His head faces the viewer, while his left arm – a dummy – is being operated on. The body appears lifeless, yet it is obviously still breathing, evident by the actor’s gently rising chest and the movement of his eyes. The video portrait features the distinct vocals of American musician Tom Waits, whose narrative song adds to the surreal atmosphere.

Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan, born 1966, is a foremost contemporary Chinese artist who has established a powerful reputation for his provocative and influential practice working in performance, installation and photography. His time-intensive performances test his own physical and mental endurance. He now lives in Shanghai after working for eight years in New York. One series of works involves sculptures made from incense ash on a massive scale that slowly decay; suggesting ideas of duration, impermanence, and the cyclic nature of destruction and renewal. Wilson has depicted the artist as if floating in clouds at dawn or dusk, surrounded by fluttering Monarch butterflies. Monarchs have remarkable migration patterns, travelling some 3000 kilometres annually from Canada and North America to Mexico, returning to the same forest for hibernation each year.

Paired with Zhang Huan is a beautiful Standing Buddha from nineteenth-century Thailand in wood, lacquer and gold. The Khmer style statue depicts the enlightened being of Gautama Buddha making the abhaya gesture of fearlessness with his right hand. The figure is carved without an upper garment as the sculptor would have intended the image to be draped in an actual monk’s robe as an offering from a lay person. The gesture of fearlessness, according to Thai Theravadin Buddhist tradition, relates to an event in the historical Buddha’s life when he arrived at the ancient Bihar city of Vesali that was being cursed by drought, famine, plague and demons. The Buddha stood with great stillness in deep concentration, recollecting the transcendental virtues he had achieved in previous lives, this caused tumultuous rain to fall thus cleansing the city of pollutants. As Wilson says: ‘The still life is a real life.’

William Pope. L, Artist

This portrait of the American artist William Pope.L situates him within an idyllic scene of green grass and blue skies, behind a white picket fence, accompanied by the nursery rhyme, ‘Mary had a little lamb’ sung off-key. William Pope.L is an influential black artist who has focused on the politics of race for over forty years, using humour and absurdity in his performances and installations. His body is painted white, he is clothed in only in his underwear and boots and sports a paper crown and holds up an egg as he surveys his kingdom. In this gallery William Pope.L is surrounded by representations of saints, martyrs and goddesses and comfortably holds a majestic pose, representing a mirror to the stereotype of the ‘white American dream’. Robert Wilson writes, ‘An artist recreates history, not like a historian, but as a poet. The artist takes the communal ideas and associations that surround the various gods of his or her time and plays with them, inventing another story for these mythic characters.’

Prophet Isaiah, Apostle St Peter, Sundar Singh, Christian Waller

This set of three windows by the Australian painter, writer, designer, and stained-glass artist were acquired for the Gallery by James and Diana Ramsay in 1995 from the Diocese of Bendigo. The windows had been displayed at All Saints’ Church, Bendigo. To commemorate the Gallery’s 1996 extension, they were installed permanently in this room. After some years off display, they have been revealed for this exhibition, given their inherent and transforming use of light and stylised portraiture. The figures represent the time scale of the Christian church: the Old Testament, the time of Christ and the modern era. The windows depict, from left to right: Isaiah, the Apostle Peter, and Sadhu Sundah Singh, a twentieth-century Indian Christian mystic.