Video artist Shaun Gladwell, who is representing Australia in this year’s Venice Biennale, has spent October in Afghanistan as an official Australian war artist, the Australian government announced last month.
The minister for veterans’ affairs, Alan Griffin, announced that Gladwell had been commissioned to tour Afghanistan, where he would live and work alongside active Australian troops. Gladwell’s task was to create a body of work that includes video and photography, which will become part of the national collection.
“With Australian forces committed operationally overseas, it is important that their experiences are captured by leading artists and photographers,” said Griffin.
The national collection is held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, whose history of commissioning leading artists to document Australia’s experience of war and peacekeeping dates back to World War I.
Gladwell’s precise location and movements in Afghanistan were being kept secret for security reasons, but the artist will be able to speak freely about his experiences on his return, said Australian War Memorial assistant director Nola Anderson, in charge of the national collection. She said that Gladwell had been chosen because of his “exciting use” of contemporary media. “If you’re not contemporary and relevant now, then you haven’t got a chance to develop a record that’s going to be meaningful,” she said.
She referred to Gladwell’s short film Apology to Roadkill (2007-09)—part of the Venice installation—which shows the artist in motorbike leathers, pacing the outback landscape and cradling the dead body of a full-grown kangaroo. “He has captured something—this intersection between the human figure and the landscape,” said Anderson, who believes the blasted terrain of Afghanistan will offer a similarly bizarre and apocalyptic backdrop for Gladwell’s videos.
“Some of the landscapes that appear in his videos are really imposing in much the same way that I imagine personnel in the field have to cope with—a new, strange, sometimes aggressive landscape,” said Anderson. “So we’re looking for that sort of powerful suggestion of what’s going on there, but through Shaun’s medium.”
Gladwell undertook pre-deployment training for the experience. “They [war artists] take their packs, they stay in the quarters where the defence personnel stay, there’s no special favours; they do everything the way defence personnel do,” said Anderson. Although Gladwell is able to go with troops “on actions” and is accompanied by a soldier, he is not “embedded”. “It’s not as front line as that,” said Anderson.