Shaun Gladwell exhibition: Morning of the Earth

Start Date: 21 Nov 2013

End Date: 21 Dec 2013

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Above: Shaun Gladwell, The Flying Dutchman In Blue (Coogee) 1, 2013. Digital print on archival paper, 154.6 x 219.6 cm framed. Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

Shaun Gladwell's exhibition takes its title from a seminal Australian surf film from 1972. The movement and aesthetics of surf culture infuse Gladwell's video and sculptural works of the last two years.

The central piece is a six-channel video titled The Flying Dutchman in Blue. Originally commissioned as a single-channel video by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra to accompany a concert performance of Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer earlier this year, Gladwell exchanged the sailors in Wagner's original version for surfers, and had them literally ride through the drama.

The casting criteria for the project required a very specific skill set: performers who were professional contemporary dancers as well as highly experienced surfers. The resulting video depicts movement at the very edge of dance; performers constantly improvising due to the unpredictable and turbulent power of the Tasman Sea's winter swell.

This dramatic coastline on the east coast of Australia is where the drama of the opera plays out, sometimes through an obvious, descriptive series of gestures and at other times, through highly experimental and abstracted sequences of movement that depart from the opera's original libretto. There is also a new character that appears, the role of Erik (Joshua Heath) is given a spirit guide (Daniel Boyd). This additional character locates the opera within the vast Indigenous cultural history of Australia.

Other aspects of the video are critical of the opera and its author. Many of the performers are seen recording each other with cameras. They are not simply looking at one another but recording and analysing their own motivations and the surrounding environment. This self-imaging and questioning calls upon a history of artistic and philosophical doubt and a reference to Frederick Nietzsche's detailed critique of Wagner.

In one reading of this project, Gladwell has bypassed the controversy surrounding Wagner by suggesting we all just 'go surfing.' However, for Australians, the beach is not only a recreational space but a politically loaded site. Australia has constructed a major narrative within its national identity, firstly, through adversity on the distant beach of Gallipoli in the First World War and more recently its self image as a harmonious multicultural society was shattered during the Cronulla beach riots of 2005.

The Flying Dutchman in Blue may appear beautiful and even sublime in an extension of the Romantic tradition, yet, at its core, Gladwell contrasts the utopian philosophy of surf culture within the late 1960s and early 1970s against the problematic constructions of a 'national identity.'