Introducing Shaun Gladwell: surfer, skater + superstar of contemporary art.

Gold Coast City Gallery is enjoying the quintessential Australian leisure activity at the moment. Cutback: Surfing Through Art is an exhibition of seven contemporary Australian artists exploring the art of surfing and the alternative aspects of the culture surrounding it. One of these seven artists is Shaun Gladwell. He is the winner of last year’s Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Photography Award and – rumour has it – his winning piece was the driving force behind this exhibition.

Shaun Gladwell’s The Flying Dutchman in Blue (Coogee 2) is the winning piece of the photography award and this March Gladwell came back to the Art Centre to talk about his work, this piece and life in general. This is part of the Centre’s wonderful tradition of bringing back the winner the following year and offering us a chance to hear a bit more and see what has been happening since.

For those of you whom Shaun Gladwell is a new acquaintance, he is an Australia-born, London-based artist working with video and photography amongst other mediums and uses such themes as surfing, skateboarding, breakdancing and BMX riding in his work. Gladwell has studied in Australia and London and has undertaken numerous international residencies and commissions. In addition to various solo and group exhibition around the globe, Gladwell has also represented Australia at the 53rd Venice Biennale and travelled to Afghanistan as the official Australian War Artist in 2009. Many in Europe, UK and also here on his home soil consider Gladwell to be one of the leading contemporary artists in Australia. A bit of an international superstar of Australian art one might say.

The Flying Dutchman in Blue (Coogee 2) is a re-visioning of his video work commissioned for Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman. Gladwell describes his piece.

“The Flying Dutchman in Blue (Coogee 2) is a photograph exploring my interest in the romantic tradition and notions of the sublime. The power of the Australian surf is the stage for this figure that strikes a balanced and level pose seconds before being engulfed by the overpowering force of the wave. The Vitruvian symmetry and order of the body is to be challenged by the erratic forces of the Tasman Sea.”

“The power of photography is called upon to provide an instantaneous moment of stillness before the body is perceivably subsumed and disappears. A gesture of ambivalence, the figures outstretched arms are (n)either defiant of the surrounding forces (n)or submitting to the power of the ocean.”

The more than 2 hour-long video accompanied a live performance of The Flying Dutchman by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Gladwell switched all references from sailing to surfing and turned the famous German opera into an Australian surf film. “I wasn’t prepared to meet the opera on its own terms. I wanted to translate it into my own Australia experience, in an abstract way.”

Gladwell’s international fame, artistic credentials and the admiration of the art world put aside, the very informal, chatty and passionate way he talks about his work is an absolute treat. For another seventies child growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, trying to find one’s identity amongst the urban street sub-culture arts, listening to Shaun Gladwell talk about growing up, his love of surfing and skateboarding and his art was like looking back on my own youth. And to hear about his continuing passion for surfing and the street culture, how his hobbies and passions break through in his work still today and even the odd reference to midlife crisis, makes it all very here and now.

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Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Photography Award 2015 prize announcement will be made on Saturday 28 March.



The Flying Dutchman in Blue (Coogee 2) 2013 by Shaun Gladwell
digital print on archival paper
Collection: Gold Coast City Gallery
Winner, 2014 Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Photography Award


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