Shaun Gladwell on life in Afghanistan

The Australian artist’s three-week sojourn with troops will form basis of new work


Shaun Gladwell, the Australian multimedia artist who represented his country at the 2009 Venice Biennale, and who has just returned from being an official war artist in Afghanistan, told The Art Newspaper that his experiences were “inspirational” and will inform his next body of work.

Gladwell was speaking on his return from Oruzgan province, where he lived and worked for three weeks alongside Australian soldiers in October 2009. He says he will spend the next six months in his Sydney studio, working to “digest” his experiences while in the field. “I’m cherishing [the trip], and starting to analyse what’s taken place at this particular time,” he said.

Before settling back into his studio to work with the raw photographs and moving images he shot in Afghanistan, Gladwell returned to Venice to pack up his Biennale work—a video series titled MADDESTMAXIMVS—Planet & Stars Sequence, 2009, set partly in the Australian outback.

Gladwell said it had been a long-held ambition to undertake a tour of duty with Australian fighting forces, stemming from the stories his father had told him about being a soldier in the Vietnam War.

“It was…like an entry point for me into thinking about this experience I have just had in Afghanistan,” he said

Several years ago, Gladwell contacted the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra and made it known he was keen to spend time in a conflict zone as part of the AWM’s official war artist scheme. About the time of the Venice Biennale opening last year, the AWM gave Gladwell the green light (The Art Newspaper, November 2009, p8). In return for the trip, a number of the resulting works will enter the permanent collection of the AWM.

Gladwell’s video pieces have often focused on wide-open landscapes. In one of his much-praised early works, Storm Sequence, 2000, he is shown in slow motion executing difficult manoeuvres on his skateboard on the Bondi Beach boardwalk, as angry clouds build in the background. In Apology to Roadkill, part of MADDESTMAXIMVS, Gladwell cradles the carcass of a kangaroo beside a highway cutting through the desert.

Yet despite his familiarity with inhospitable settings, Gladwell said the thing that shocked him most about Afghanistan was the landscape.

“It was just so vast and enormous and grand. At times it was inhospitable and it was also incredibly lush and green and dense in a matter of metres…I was impressed by the enormity of that space,” he said.

It surprised Gladwell that the troops on the ground had a thorough knowledge of the culture of the civilians with whom they interacted on a daily basis.

“They had a real connection to the local culture, which is really impressive. A lot of the guys had connected with the language and knew a lot of cultural practices and had quite an understanding of how that culture operates on a day to day level,” Gladwell said.

The artist said he had not been censored by the military. “I wasn’t interested in photographing sensitive material, in terms of the technology or weapons. My interest was really the experience of the soldier as a thinking and feeling subject. I’m interested in how bodies move through space and the capacity of bodies to perform in certain situations. Particularly how it relates to landscape. These are issues I’m always interested in. That informed the way I was dealing with that experience in Afghanistan. But I didn’t try and direct anything.”