Shaun Gladwell, The Sunlight School, 2015, single-channel HD video, 16:1, colour, silent. Commissioned bu Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation

Autumnal Sydney has been graced with two exhibitions that clearly illustrate the benefits of a rigorous curatorial eye – the extraordinary and magisterial The photograph and Australia by Senior Curator Judy Annear at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and at UNSW Galleries, the luxuriously intriguing survey Collection+: Shaun Gladwell (SCAF Project 25)[1] curated by Swiss curators Barbara Polla and Paul Ardenne. In a no-brainer coup, Director Felicity Fenner dedicated all spaces in UNSW Galleries to a re-presentation of the work of alumnus Shaun Gladwell, revealing the potential of this gallery to be a vital cultural destination rather than just a clearing house for often tired staff and graduate shows.

As an adjunct project to the survey exhibition the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) commissioned Gladwell to make a new work The Lacrima Chair (SCAF Project 24). This is an ambitious installation that seems to be a response to the recent ‘‘what if?’’ anxieties around contemporary air travel – read Malaysian Airlines Flights mh370, mh17, AirAsia Flight qz8501 and more recently Germanwings Flight 9525 as contexts. On a more personal note the work is a response to the sense of utter isolation you can feel on long haul flights – tears of exhaustion and frustration, of homesickness, of fear.

Entering a darkened room through a fog curtain, there is a large screen projection of a faux 1930s pioneer airwoman whose red lipstick provides an unnerving focus while she flounders gracefully in the sea. As a counterpoint, on the back of an isolated throne-like airline seat there is a much smaller projection of a shadowy figure being buffeted by jets of water in a carwash. If you want a total experience you can don a rain cape and sit in the chair to watch the large screen while being drenched with soft rain. To further confound the reading of this installation Gladwell has fixed a spotlight onto an extra large tome entitled Patafunctions a facsimile of the journal Semiotext(e). This mysterious installation is literally a new departure for the artist.

Collection+: Gladwell (SCAF Project 25) is a most handsome exhibition. In the catalogue essays Polla and Ardenne carefully locate Gladwell’s art within the Grand Tradition of historical European culture citing the heritage of Romanticism and Surrealism as well the influence of postmodern heroes such as Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault et al. Most convincingly, and reiterated in the exhibition, is the exploration of ‘‘the Corpopoetic’’ and of the Doppelgänger.

The best of many highlights is BMX Channel (2013) a spooky echo of Storm Sequence (2000), the work depicts a cyclist who performs an extraordinary freeform acrobatic routine set against the high horizon lines of the grey English Channel. The bravura performance gains focus with the fluttering Union Jack and the seemingly random flight of seagulls and is further contained/framed by the reassuring elegance of a neo-Baroque white balustrade and pavilions. For an artist who has a tendency to over-egg the pudding Polla and Ardenne’s texts and exhibition provide a wonderful opportunity for Gladwell to reconsider his practice as well as being an ideal launchpad for the future.


  1. ^ Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, New South Wales