Shaun Gladwell in interview with Barbara Knezevic and Hilary Murray, Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 5 June 2009

BK: How are you doing?

SG: I guess I am happy that it’s over [the opening], I feel a lot more relaxed than I did a few days ago.

BK: Tell us a little bit about the experience? It’s quite an enormous undertaking.

SG: Because I had been working on the project before I was asked to represent Australia, I saw it as an extension of the ideas I was already working on. That was a bit easier to deal with. I wanted to play with context; I think its interesting to have these national pavilions – they are becoming more and more rare. This is the last biennial that still has this idea of nationalism.

BK: How does that work for an artist? Representing a country rather than a country ‘presenting’ you? Is the Venice Biennale like some kind of cultural Olympics?

SG: It’s really complex. People can misread the work as being patriotic, and less critical of these issues. That’s the risk I am taking in this show – I am critical of that and amplifying that and playing with it.

BK: You are playing with cultural icons – the kangaroo and Mad Max and the outback landscape – that are recognizably Australian. A lot of your previous work was based in the urban landscape, so there has been a shift toward the vastness of the outback. It has a very different feel – what brought on that departure in the work?

SG: I was interested in the way people experiment with or negotiate space, and that was really what was driving the urban projects, this idea that there were all of these languages forming around space; people were finding creative ways of dealing with space. I thought, this is not simply an urban phenomenon, but is also happening in hinterland and bushland, even in the desert. Then I thought of all these references through art and cinema and sport, all that somehow connect with this idea of bodies negotiating with or playing with space. Or even in a broader sense being sensitive to their environment.

BK: You mentioned cinema, and obviously you are referencing Mad Max, but other films as well, such as Stone that reference the road-trip and ‘bikie’ culture. Obviously this is a very masculine trope in Australian cinema…

HM: There is a rather jarring femininity to your work.

BK: You were so maternal with that dead kangaroo (in Apology to Roadkill ) that it really turned that hyper-masculinity on its head. The interceptor, the motorbike and the black leathers are quite sinister and then suddenly you are cradling this animal. It is actually quite moving.

SG: I am interested in these movies, obviously Mad Max and that is a really strong reference. But also just the aesthetic of these films, such as the location and the ideas circling around the narrative, rather than the narrative itself. Mad Max was quite a fast and furious type of film, and my experience was slow; so in a way I am looking at various aspects to that film, but I am even more interested in the environment in which it was shot. In a way, I am dealing with these issues of masculinity and seem to be checking off all these boxes: the outback, Mad Max, iconic marsupials; you know, it seems to build up a cliché – but then that’s a preconception that can be negotiated.

BK: You do break it down quite a bit, there is a sense of renegotiation. It’s the fact that you’ve slowed down the film, as you have in your previous work – the viewer is expecting this car to be roaring along, and it isn’t, it’s almost poetic in the way it’s moving. And your bodily movement is quite gentle. The character is very closed off, anonymous, it’s like this kind of blank.

SG: That’s an interesting observation. I guess I wanted the figure to be black so it’s almost like a projection space, where the viewer can project their own ideas onto the figure, so that they saw the figure as being ominous or a possible assailant, an unknown. That kind of reading they might have; maybe they have other associations that they project or attach onto the figure.

HM: That’s true. The reverse image of the self can be projected onto it. As a female, when I look at the figure I can identify with him even though the figure is quite obviously masculine. There is a link to the viewer as we project onto it.

BK: When are you heading back?

SG: A few weeks. I want to see the show. I am a participant but am now eager to be a viewer.

See also John Kelly’s ‘review’ of the Australian contribution to the Venice Biennale .

Some images from the original article are no longer available.