Shaun Gladwell visits the outback


London-based Aussie art-star Shaun Gladwell was invited to spend time in the Northern Territory in conjunction with the group show Apologies to Roadkill. The exhibition also includes work by Joan Ross, Narelle Autio, Clementine Robertson, Linde Ivimey, Jayne Nankivell, Cassandra Trevilyan-Hayes, Julie Ashley, Jeanie Imangala and Helen Aland.

Tracey Clement spoke to the former Australian war artist while he was in the Territory about Mad Max, his impressions of the outback, looking at his home country from a distance, and his next big thing.

Tracey Clement: For many of us, clinging to the east coast of Australia, the closest we get to the outback is watching Mad Max. Yet it seems to hold a special place in the Australian psyche, something you seemed to point to in your Maddestmaximvs installation, shown at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Why was it important to you to actually go to the outback?

Shaun Gladwell: I think it is true that we have some sort of knowledge of the outback through films like Mad Max, or Wake in Fright, Razorback, Wolf Creek, or Rabbit Proof Fence: there are so many different cinematic portrayals. There is a huge history of trying to image the outback.

And for me that also extends to Australian art history. So people like Albert Namatjira, Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri: these artists have kind of given me an understanding of what the outback was before I even got here.

And I felt like I needed to go there because I felt such a connection to outback Australia through cinema and art, and maybe music and dance to an extent, but I just felt I needed to start coming out to the Northern Territory and having primary experience, rather than it being mediated.

TC: So was this your first time to the Territory?I thought your 2007 work, Apology to Roadkill, which this show is named after, was shot in the outback?

SG: That was actually shot in far western NSW in locations like Broken Hill and Silverton. The reason why I was obsessed with those places is because they were locations in Mad Max 2 and 3, already charged-up with references.

TC: Your work was made before Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations in 2008. It’s tempting to read it as deeper metaphorical apology. What were you really apologising for in Apology to Road Kill?

SG: I think I need to keep the work really open. But certainly it was made in thinking about the Howard government and their refusal to apologise. So the term apology is loaded, especially thinking about when the work was made, but I don’t want to lock it down to any particular meaning. Because it really is what it is. It’s a really descriptive title, and the action that it is describing is really quite straightforward.

I am in a very particular kind of position in this game, because I come from the Goldsmiths College school of thought, and one of their strategies is that the viewer’s interpretation is much more important than the artist’s intention.

Apologies to Roadkill installation at Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts & Culture Centre (GYRACC), February 2017. Works by: Shaun Gladwell, Joan Ross, Narelle Autio. Image courtesy GYRACC.

TC: So you studied at Goldsmiths in 2001-2002 and you live in London now. Has looking at your home country from afar changed your perceptions of Australia?

SG: Yeah, I think so. It feels like that. But it’s not like I’ve got more clarity because I’m surveying Australian culture from a distance or from a wider perspective at all. It’s like I’m more prone to misreading stuff, even romanticising it.

Coming back often helps rectify that. I mean I’m always coming back several times a year for different reasons: family and projects. I’m just lucky that I’ve always had a chance to come back without going for too long without an Oz fix!

TC: And what did you get up to on this trip to the Northern Territory?

SG: I visited the art centre and saw the show and I was lucky enough to go out to Beswick, an Indigenous community which is probably 100 or so kilometres away from Katherine. And I spent some time with an Indigenous man who has really strong ties to that community called Tom E Lewis. And he showed me around the place really, he and Sophie Rayner the curator of Apologies to Roadkill, and that was an amazing experience really. It was just great to go out with him and to talk about art and the landscape.

I went on a few hunts, but it’s wet season up here, so it’s pretty hard to track. We couldn’t get past a lot of water: the billabongs are just streaming and the creeks have turned into raging rivers. This kind of activity is not what I usually get up to in London! There isn’t buffalo hunting there!

TC: The curator talked about the visit being a two-way learning experience. What did you learn? What did you share?

SG: I think I was learning more than I was giving or sharing! But I did get a chance to talk about my ideas and where I’m coming from as an artist with both Tom E and others. And I’m really involved in virtual reality at the moment, that kind of image technology. So I brought my latest virtual projects and that was great. When we were in Beswick I got a chance to show some locals what I was working on. And they really loved it, especially the kids. The kids were really into it!

TC: What’s your next major project that you can tell me about?

SG: I’m doing a commission for the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. It’s looking at the 4th Light Horse Brigade battle that took place at Beersheba during World War I. That’s my next thing. This project is about the soldiers that went from Australia and found themselves in Palestine fighting the Ottoman Empire.

It will be a mixture of work: it’s an installation and there will be some virtual reality work, some standard video and some photography as well. It will premiere in the Tel Aviv Museum in Israel. I am racing to make it for the 100th anniversary of the battle in October 2017.

It’s quite amazing to be here in the Territory because I’m dealing with the Australian landscape, and some of the soldiers and the horses were drawn from these areas… It has kind of really inspired me for the next work.

Apologies to Roadkill: life and death in contemporary Australian art
Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts and Culture Centre (GYRACC)
27 January – 1 April

The cultural exchange program which brought Shaun Gladwell to the Northern Territory is a joint initiative of the GYRACC, Katherine Regional Arts and Djilpin Arts. It is hoped that the program will become an annual event, featuring a different artist each year.

Interview Words by Tracey Clement