SHAUN GLADWELLRiding with Death (Redux), 1999-2011, video still. Courtesy the artist & Anna Schwartz Gallery Melbourne and Sydney.

SHAUN GLADWELL, Midnight Traceur, 2011, video still. Courtesy the artist & Anna Schwartz Gallery Melbourne and Sydney

SHAUN GLADWELLRiding with Death (Redux), 1999-2011, video still. Courtesy the artist & Anna Schwartz Gallery Melbourne and Sydney.

Riding with Death: Redux

Shaun Gladwell

Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney

“Riding with Death: Redux,” at Sydney’s Anna Schwartz Gallery is Australian video artist Shaun Gladwell’s first solo commercial show in the city for five years. The show’s title is taken from his first video work, made in 1999—and exhibited here for the first time—in which macabre skeletal feet are shown in a strange dance with two real feet, on a skateboard. This work sets the tone of the exhibition as a meditation on life and death, and the role therein of machines.

Over the last decade Gladwell’s career has enjoyed a remarkable and meteoric ascendancy. In 2007 an edition of his work Storm Sequence (2003) was sold by Sotheby’s for AUD $84,000 (USD 59,000), which remains the highest price paid for a video work at auction in Australia. The video shows the artist skateboarding at Sydney’s Bondi beach, while storm clouds gather in the background. The artist’s concerns with spatial awareness and the balletic action of extreme movement when replayed in slow motion are themes that have since become signatures of Gladwell’s best-known work.

These themes, repeated and refined over the years, are also evident in Midnight Traceur (2011), shown here on a small screen housed in a shipping container set in the middle of the gallery. For 23 minutes we follow the nighttime exploits of a parkour practitioner seemingly released from earth’s gravity as he bounces and spins in slow motion through Sydney streets. Far from the random movements of his earlier BMX and skateboarding videos, Midnight Traceur is tightly choreographed and shot simultaneously on two cinema-quality high-definition cameras.

Machines and the urban environment loom large in Gladwell’s work; city streets, skateboards, BMX bikes, fast cars and motorbikes. Two of Gladwell’s own bikes feature in the audio installation MV + HRC Pärt Organ (after Frederick Seidel Men and Woman 1979) (2011)—one of which is the fastest road bike available, with a top speed of 320 kilometers an hour. In a related 20-minute video, I Also Live at One Infinite Loop (2011), Gladwell takes on the ultimate speed machine: a military jet fighter. The jet twists and turns over Australia’s Hunter Valley while Gladwell, strapped in the cockpit and surrounded by the paraphernalia of warfare, struggles to hold the camera steady. We see his camera pointing at another camera, filming him filming it, until there is a sense of disjuncture between what is real and what is a trick of the lens. Shot in a single take, the plane spins and the world is continuously inverted as the tight confines of the cockpit become “the studio space,” as Gladwell put it to ArtAsiaPacific at the opening. Meanwhile, the gallery space is filled with the chilling yet inspiring percussive tones of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4 – “Los Angeles” (2008), emanating from the tail pipes of Gladwell’s super-bikes.

In this sense, machinery for Gladwell is an allegory through which he examines temporality—time and place, themes that have increasingly preoccupied him. Nowhere is this more acutely felt than in the cockpit of the jet fighter where the artist struggles with the extreme forces that are exerted on his body and where arbitrary movement and instinct yield to precision training.

Gladwell’s imagination is also fueled by his keen understanding of music, poetry, popular culture and art history. His “MADDESTMAXIMVS (2007-09), a series shown in the Australian Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, poetically referenced and recast the well-known “Mad Max” films, where the characters are locked in a brutal dance between machine and the environment. Indeed, Gladwell’s first video work was a well-considered reference to a 1988 Basquiat painting of the same title, completed shortly before the artist’s untimely death. The painting shows a figure “riding” a skeletal Death, who seems to struggle forward, on all fours.

“To go fast on two wheels is the point of life, isn’t it?” American poet Frederick Seidel once wrote, in an essay published in Harper’s magazine in 2009. Seidel is obsessed by motorbikes and Gladwell knows his work well, inviting Australian author Peter Robb to read from Seidel’s motorbike poems on opening night.

Machines may be racing Gladwell into the future but he tames them, allowing the onlooker to pause for breath and to see beauty revealed in unlikely places. The taming process is also evident in Erased Hirst (2011), in which Gladwell has taken a limited edition Damian Hirst skateboard and in homage to Willem de Kooning, who in 1953 famously erased a Robert Rauschenburg drawing, has removed all of Hirst’s carefully applied dots. The remaining deck hangs like an emasculated machine, encased in an empty vitrine. Yet Gladwell’s erasure also frees it from the weight of being an art object, making it potentially functional again.

What makes Gladwell’s work so appealing, apart from its sheer aesthetic value, is the tangible sense that behind everything he does there is an acute artistic intelligence at work. He understands the role of art in a contemporary context: engaging, multilayered, aesthetically and culturally relevant, yet—most importantly—capable of revealing to the viewer a truth about the world and the fragility of life. His work continues to tackle the grandiose perspective of momento mori in an unpretentious and down to earth way.