Todd McMillan: The Wanderer

Todd McMillan’s endurance works have involved standing on a cliff top for 12 hours and attempting to swim the English Channel. Carrie Miller discovered it’s less about the suffering than it is about futility.

Words: Carrie Miller

Photography: Zan Wimberley

“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” Like Woody Allen’s maxim, the art of Todd McMillan is a heartbreaking and hilarious paradox. In fact, it’s a series of them. His work trades in the concept of failure and yet is only successful when it flops; the artist is possessed by the abstract possibilities of language but makes art that can only ever be about the literal failure of words; he desperately seeks to understand the world and yet orients himself toward the incomprehensible; his work is steeped in vast existential ideas, but can be simply dumb and comical.

McMillan’s practice is well known for these absurdities but is arguably no better understood as a result. Perhaps one reason is the disconnect between method and outcome. Of the endurance performance works he is best known for, many have noted the romance of this practice, but what isn’t acknowledged is the absence
of the irreducibly corporeal nature of such endurance.

The impressive list of McMillan’s endurance performances which implicate his body in anguished ways include standing on a cliff top for 12 hours for his 2004 work By the Sea in 2004; attempting to swim the English Channel in 2009; endlessly and pointlessly hitting golf balls in after the mist in 2007; and kayaking into the sun for Homage (study) last year. As finished works they are not documentations of suffering but rather – as condensed videos, time lapse films and modest photographs – images with a romantic, impressionistic sensibility which appear to have had the visceral qualities with which they were created literally bleached out.

Unlike the majority of artists associated with the genre of endurance performance, McMillan does not make his suffering the narcissistic centrepiece of his work. In fact, for an artist so infatuated – wounded and seduced – with physical and emotional distress, he appears to be taking on the role of the artist as stoic wanderer. McMillan’s images are never clogged with self-indulgent melancholy – the look-at-me conceit characterised by false sentiment popular with his peers. Instead, he shows himself to be a generous artist and man prepared to travel long and often pointless distances – amateur reconnaissance missions, as it were – which result in luckless consolations for the brutal truths of existence.

In 2012 he went on an expedition to locate the rare shy Albatross off the coast of Tasmania. It marked a move away from endurance work, and while in his previous work it was the artist presented as stoic wanderer, in this major new piece it was the Wandering Albatross. Shot in the wild seas south of Australia, it also brought into focus the context of Antarctica (his next work involves an expedition there) as a site of endurance and non- endurance – a place that is both obsessively marked by human endeavour and yet is simultaneously a vast, unpopulated nothingness.

His latest body of work, which will be exhibited at Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney this September, represents somewhat of a shift in his practice, the artist being nowhere in sight in the work. Nevertheless, his practice remains critically tethered to the romantic tradition. This time McMillan is preoccupied with an old-fashioned material and its conceptual and aesthetic possibilities. He explains: “The cyanotype process is a 19th century photographic technique that sees a piece of paper made light sensitive. In order to expose it one places a negative beneath the glass and then holds the piece paper up to sky.

“The cyanotypes exhibited in the show reference booth Alfred Steiglitz’s Equivalents series and the tradition of romantic landscape painting. An act of mediation occurs between the subject matter and the material process: I am holding an image of a cloud up to the sky. I am bathing an image of the ocean in the sea.”

Highlights of McMillan’s career include winning the prestigious Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship, inclusion in Primavera at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 2012 and Desire Lines at Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, and a 10- year retrospective, Ten Years of Tears, at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart.

Perhaps the most interesting of the projects he is expecting to undertake in the near future is a trip to Antarctica. He is currently on the shortlist for the Australian Art Antarctica Scholarship. He has already begun making work with the support of Grantpirrie Projects, a philanthropy and art advisory service run by his former Sydney dealers Bridget Pirrie and Stephen Grant. Antarctica feels something like a spiritual home to an artist of McMillan’s sensibilities and sensitivities. Cold and alone, no doubt McMillan will feel right at home.

Sydney’s Sarah Cottier Gallery shows new work and cyanotypes by Todd McMillan from 4 September to 4 October 2014.

Sarah Cottier
DIRECTOR, SARAH COTTIER GALLERY

Sydney gallerist Sarah Cottier only recently began showing Todd McMillan’s work in 2013. She says: “Todd McMillan is a fascinating artist to work with. He is simultaneously melancholy and hilarious, self-deprecating yet ambitious, hopelessly and hope- fully romantic whilst at the same time conceptually rigorous. Although I have been following his work for many years, the gallery’s relationship began in 2012 following the closure of the much-missed Grantpirrie gallery.

“Todd’s photography, film and video works elegantly synthesise the heroics of the high romantics in both art and literature (Byron, Coleridge, Casper David Friedrich) and the spare modern sentiments of Beckett. In his work we repeatedly see the futility of a lone individual in the face of infinite, overwhelming nature – hopelessness confronting (and somehow equivalent to) the sublime. Melancholy, longing and awe all find refined – and occasionally humorous – resolution in the hands of this most intriguing contemporary artist.

“Todd is an excellent drinking companion and a thoroughly well-read individual. Our drunken, literary conversations have traversed the works of Gerald Murnane, Charles M Schulz, Paul Auster and [singer Steven] Morrissey, so, there is never a dull moment. Todd is also a pivotal force in a generation of extremely well informed and active artists (including Christopher Hanrahan and Jamie North, who also exhibit at [Sarah Cottier Gallery]). His commitment to and engagement in the contemporary art world also find expression in teaching [at the University of Technology, Sydney] and curating.

“For me, highlights in Todd’s career have been his solo exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art in 2013: a very elegantly installed show that covered a decade of moving image works (endearingly titled Ten Years of Tears). Todd’s installation at Primavera in 2012 was also exceptionally beautiful and included the breathtaking 16mm film work Albatross.”

Nicole Durling
CO-DIRECTOR OF EXHIBITIONS & COLLECTIONS AND SENIOR CURATOR, MUSEUM OF OLD AND NEW ART

Nicole Durling curated Ten Years of Tears for the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, presenting a decade of Todd McMillan’s work. “I have always found Todd McMillan’s works calmly reassuring – even though they have a trembling, fearful quality about them,” she says. “The enduring pain I feel in watching Go On from 2007 is overcome by my admiration for the individual’s tenacity to repeatedly ascend the stairs. The simple repetitive actions in his work express a humility that is increasingly scarce in a world overwhelmed by selfies as a form of individual expression. There is also a poetic beauty to his work where the subject and medium sustain each other. They are both conceptual loops – leaving, returning and leaving again.

“Empathy is difficult to express sincerely in contemporary art, however McMillan is one of those rare artists who has the ability to capture it. The work exists in a place that is neither cynical nor optimistic, neither happy nor sad, but it is far from indifferent. It expresses a brave acceptance of the absurd nature of our very existence.”

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 69, JUL – SEP 2014.

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