Afghanistan Recordings

Shaun Gladwell chose a different direction to the men in his family when he set out on a career as an artist.

Shaun Gladwell chose a different direction to the men in his family when he set out on a career as an artist.

Like his father, grandfather and great grandfather, he too ended up going to war – but it was his art that took him there. “In the end the interest got me, it kind of came full circle. I ended up going to war through being an artist.” In 2009 Gladwell was commissioned as the Australian War Memorial’s official war artist in a scheme that has been running since 1917. Gladwell joins a long list of Australian artists who have travelled to warzones to document and present the experiences of war from a different perspective. Artists have included Will Dyson, Arthur Streeton, George Lambert, Nora Heysen and Jon Cattapan, with Gladwell being the first digital artist to be chosen. The exhibition at Samstag is comprised of two parts – the Australian War Memorial’s travelling exhibition, which was a result of his 2009 trip to Afghanistan and Field Recordings which are works he has made since then. “I went in 2009 and I haven’t really stopped thinking about it or using it in some way in my work. It’s a long-term thing,” explains Gladwell. “Field Recordings is more about my relationship to conflict in general including this experience of Afghanistan.” When Gladwell set out on the expedition he had some idea of what he wanted to capture – the intensity and drama of the place – but then he was hit with things he hadn’t bargained for. “For me, I think, it was the landscape itself. The environment of Afghanistan is such an incredible part of the world. I wasn’t ready for how immense and beautiful and harsh it is – it’s so many things. It kind of just blew me away.” While it might appear that documenting Australian soldiers in Afghanistan couldn’t be further removed from Gladwell’s work – his best-known work Storm Sequence features him skating in the rain at Bondi – it’s not the case at all. Curator of the exhibition Warwick Heywood believes there are strong elements in these works, which have carried through from previous works. He says: “Shaun’s interest is in the body and shaping of the body, the way the body moves in space. He has an interest in sub cultures – which started off in skateboarding and became an interest in sub cultures in general. I think that is a strong element to his work.” It’s these sub cultures and how they relate to their environment that interests Gladwell. He was fascinated with how Australian soldiers were adapting to their environment, as well as how the southern Afghanis were surviving in it. “I am really interested in how people relate to their environments and how people can be in environments in really creative ways. When people are incredibly creative in whatever environment they find themselves in. That’s what I’m interested in as an artist,” he explains. A lot of the soldiers that Gladwell met were tech-savvy, as they have to use technology all the time. He handed them cameras and the works produced as a result of this are fascinating. In other works, Gladwell was behind the camera capturing images of the soldiers sleeping, exhausted and from behind or looking out. He was looking for different ways to represent what was happening over there. The exhibition features video, stills and paintings, as Gladwell says it is difficult to articulate the experience of Southern Afghanistan in just video form. “I do paint every now and then. I only paint if the idea needs to be a painting. I don’t just paint for the sake of painting. Some ideas needed to be video others are probably better as paintings.” Gladwell’s 2009 experience in Afghanistan obviously had an impact on him, as several years later he is still producing work influenced by it. This highlights the importance of the war artist scheme in the development of artists as well as depicting the experience of war to the public. Heywood says, “It‘s interesting that you send over various artists to the same conflict but they always come back with very different perspectives, often structured by their own interest. That’s not a bad thing that’s a good thing. It allows you new ways of thinking about the war.” Shaun Gladwell: Afghanistan Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art Continues until Friday, July 18   Shaun Gladwell: Field Recordings Anne & Gordon
Samstag Museum of Art Continues until Friday, May 16 unisa.edu.au/samstagmuseum   Image: Shaun Gladwell, Double Balancing Act (Detail), 2010

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