Todd McMillan’s art cuts to the core of melancholia and absurdity


When Todd McMillan starts taking a video, it’s like “punching in at work”, he says. “I find myself actively seeing and actively enduring time.”

Early in his career in the 2000s, he made video works that circled endurance, time, futility, melancholy and the sublime. He stood on a clifftop for the timelapse video work By the Sea, 2004, and filmed an attempt to swim the English Channel for Ague, 2009. He also recorded footage of the shy albatross off the coast of Tasmania for a body of work he made in 2011 and 2012. More recently, he has made paintings of clouds that were not so much copies than imaginative summaries of hours of footage shot on residency in Sweden. Video is partly a diary practice for McMillan, but it has also become a way for him to distil his experiences and gain distance on them. He does not want to record his subjects, but explore the symbolic and emotional meanings around them.

When lockdown made travel difficult, he found himself going back to videos he’d made in Antarctica in 2015. He and his partner, the artist Sarah Mosca, were working towards their second collaborative exhibition, and had begun talking about Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino’s fantastical descriptions of Venice. “In that book, the closer you get to a description of a place, it all falls apart,” McMillan says.

Calvino’s experimental book became the framework for their current exhibition Sunrise, Sunset at Penrith Regional Gallery, which considers what it means to bear witness. Mosca’s archival photos of statues, Echoes, 2022, and Signs, 2022, are printed on glass and displayed in freestanding supports. Walking around them raises questions about documentation, authenticity and photography.

McMillan’s Antarctica footage has been transferred to a flickering 16mm film. It shows rock and ice rising out of sea and is titled Venice, 2022, as though the desolate landscape could be Venice in the future, or was once in the past. “Using this footage from Antarctica and calling it Venice blurs the line between the sign and the signified to a point where it becomes, for me, more alive,” McMillan says.

Beside it, he has placed a painting of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. The bridge connects the palace and the prison, and earned its name from prisoners viewing the city for the last time. McMillan’s Bridge of Sighs, 2021, is foggy. It’s not possible to see the other side, or which way things might be going.

Todd McMillan, Mountains (Antarctica), 2022, oil on board, epoxy, 30 x 30 cm.

Another work conjures Venice through a video of shifting sea, displayed on a flatscreen and flanked by sandbags. It’s subtitled with lines of dialogue from the 1959 movie of Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach. The lines form a kind of lament and drive the sense that time is running out. Absence is felt throughout Sunrise, Sunset. Like a character in a Beckett story, McMillan’s works are always circling something.

He’s expanded on these ideas for his upcoming solo exhibition, Bridge of Sighs. The new paintings feature seascapes, mountains and hazy glimpses of sky, but, as McMillan says, “I’m not trying to capture the essence of the sea or trying to correctly or successfully render a mountain. They’re more from a description read than something seen.”

He sees these new works as “a collection of short stories” that are “not pointing to the journey ‘across the bridge’ but rather attempting to describe it over and over again”.

Two of these paintings return to the motif of the albatross. The shapes are blurred. “I spent weeks getting rid of them, putting them back in… to a point where they’re just there,” he says. “In literature, the albatross is meant to represent the human soul and yet, it’s on the precipice of extinction. Whether the soul exists or not doesn’t matter to me. It’s that the albatross might go, and there’ll be the word left that pointed to the bird, that pointed to the thing that possibly meant the most essential part of us. It’s that sense of vertigo.”

Another painting could be the moon, or it could be the sun burning through cloud cover. For McMillan, the ambivalence of these works is about creating “a moment of pause, or reprieve, between two states”. This idea of reprieve is core to his practice. “Melancholia, as a condition, has always been at the heart of my work,” he says, but it’s never been about making people feel worse, or promising things will get better. “I’m certainly not the person to be saying that,” he laughs. “It’s more, there is importance in this thing. Not to revel, but to be sympathetic, and to think or feel that thing.

“We experience time from birth to death, and there are moments that are worth recalling and telling again. Because what is the substance of our lives, except for the things we thought were significant?”

Bridge of Sighs
Todd McMillan
Nicholas Thompson Gallery
(Melbourne VIC)
6—23 July

Sunrise, Sunset
Sarah Mosca & Todd McMillan
Penrith Regional Gallery, Home of the Lewers Bequest
(Penrith NSW)
Until 14 August

This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Jane O'Sullivan