This sense of immediacy from an implied threat, balanced or challenged by an attitude of cool egoism, runs through most of Gladwell’s work. Skating with a video camera behind a boy on a BMX bike along a pavement, we follow the bike rider into a fast food store where he does a wheelie among the lines of customers and then scoots out onto the road again. It’s a cheeky transgression of the regulation of that sort of commercial space, and seems motivated by an adolescent thrill in violating a code that isn’t really physically dangerous but snubs a local authority by showing off. It’s a type of guerilla activity, hit and run. Yet in slow motion, with the camera floating and shadowing the bike as if depicting an out-of body experience, the scene emanates a slightly spaced out, even spooky ambience. Like a ghost cursed to repeat some blurry, half-remembered misdemeanour or frivolity, or perhaps a dreamer trying to catch up with his elusive, mischievous, obscure object of desire.
“My videos have skateboarding or breakdancing in them,” says Gladwell tellingly, “but in distorted ways. The dominant way of seeing these is as fast and furious, as macho. When I slow the actions down you see details; you see the play with gravity. It’s … graceful.” In the video called Tangara, grace and gravity couple in a simple technical device, but with an unearthly effect. Hanging upside down, seemingly effortlessly, from the passenger handrails in the centre of the empty carriage, Gladwell performs like a kid on monkey bars in a playground enjoying the sheer pleasure of turning the world on its head. “Tangara,” he explains, “is an Aboriginal word, used by the State Rail Authority as the name for some of its trains. It means something like, let’s go!” As the train takes a curve he sways slightly from side to side. The sequence is shot with the camera upside down, so that when projected he appears to be floating and lightly grasping the bars to stop drifting off endlessly into space. “Skateboarding redesigns the object that it uses, like a park bench. It’s really simple to transform space. It’s a direct action on the scene. In the same way, I wanted to find a para-function for the features of the train carriage. And when I did, it made me weightless.”
Tangara defamiliarises the commuter train, but transforms it into the space and imagery of a type of daydream. The weightlessness becomes a metaphor for drifting away from reality, perhaps through a mode of play that is similar to childhood fantasy. “Science fiction was one of my earliest interests, as a child. And, I admit, I keep going back to it. The concepts of science fiction for me as a child were immense, too big to process. In Star Trek the Enterprise travelled faster than light, at ‘warp speed’. Science fiction can propose things on a terrifying scale. It’s our way of expressing an older idea: the sublime.”
These themes converged on a majestic, cinematic scale at the recent Melbourne blockbuster survey exhibition, 2004, where Gladwell showed Godspeed Verticals, commissioned for the show by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. On one of the two screens of this work, two breakdancers perform in exquisite slow motion on the deserted platform of a brightly lit, high tech subway station. Between routines they ride dreamily up or down the escalators, alone and patiently waiting to start the action over again as if it were an addictive but blissful ritual they are compelled to repeat. It seems to be simple documentary footage, but the subway has an uncanny feel, as though this could also be the transit to another world or a spooky fantasy about the end of time.
On the other screen, human bodies seem to fall from the top of the image to the bottom, like rain in a dark void or like the damned falling into hell. As you look closer, you see that they’re simply lying stretched out on skateboards and rolling across a warehouse floor with the camera positioned overhead, looking straight down. Spotting the mechanics of the illusion isn’t hard, but it doesn’t dispel the strangeness of the image. Gravity is both defied and re-instated. We see these nameless bodies flash by for an instant in the rapture of speed, against eternity. This is a sort of sci-fi and also street level sublimity. Perhaps it is simply a childlike game, but perhaps Shaun Gladwell’s art is also producing an image of spiritual transport in an entirely new idiom.