Ken Unsworth

Vibrant and engaged in a daily studio practice at the age of eighty-nine, Ken Unsworth moves easily between the extremes of different mediums and concedes he is never completely satisfied with any of them. Mastery, he asserts, is not the point. As Beckett wrote so playfully and wisely: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

The work of Ken Unsworth is often labelled as conceptual. His first public solo exhibit saw him pale, bare and pinioned to the wall in a series of performance works that fused the fragility of flesh to the geometric thrust of sculptural form.

Anthony Bond, in his new monograph on the artist, accurately points out that after being exposed to the theatrical work of Gilbert and George, the young sculptor from Victoria saw that the body itself was an expressive medium, an art material in its own right. He hoisted himself into the frame and that idea continues to reverberate subtly.

Five secular settings for sculpture as ritual, and burial piece was staged at 1 Central Street in 1975, a tall narrow space in an alleyway off George Street that fostered both ‘The Field’ painters of the late 1960s and the experimental and minimalist generation that followed. The somewhat lofty title of this work was in fact directly descriptive. Here was the sculptor becoming the object. And here was ritual bleeding into the corporeal space. Imagine sitting there in the dark and the lights blinking on to reveal a series of postures that looked like modern dance as torture. In each ‘setting’, the artist suspended belief: wedging his skull between diagonal beams, hanging upside down like carrion and submerged in sand inside a large glass box. The potential for injury and suffocation was counterbalanced by the blunt poetic of shame offered up by a male body rendered vulnerable.

Here, in an era of massive, macho wedged sculptures slicing into the sky was something very different: the spectacle of a deliberate anti-hero. A body as prone as a puppet plunged into darkness and uncertainty; human suffering rubbed raw of spiritual redemption.
In a word, doubt.

Any discussion of Unsworth’s oeuvre has to begin here and not with the iconic work he is better known for. His Suspended Stone Circle (1974) which was shown at the Venice Biennale of 1978, made Ken Unsworth internationally famous. It remains one of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ most beloved pieces and is slated to be a focal point in the new contemporary wing. But, as Unsworth readily admits, it also enclosed him into a minimal aesthetic he was keen to depart from when invited to other important shows after Venice.

Sticking with stone decade after decade would have made him canon. Yet the idea that an artist builds their integrity through devotion to one medium or a singular motif was anathema to Unsworth, and it is this stance that makes his work harder to unravel but all the richer to unearth. The spirit of subversion, of kicking against the pricks and provoking incongruent visions in a single effort is something he has sustained across almost seven mediums. His work can be mordant, poignant, slyly erotic or hermetically secretive, but it is always, in some way, physical.

In Memory (2018), part of ‘Truly Madly’ at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) this year, the body of the artist returned. Clad in the same remotely biblical undergarments of 1975, Unsworth inserted himself in the shape of an effigy and his form, eight decades aged and cast from life, is trembling in the cold daylight of the gallery. Hanging above him are pendulous glass droplets that look like polished blood.

In another, even larger, installation When Snowflakes Turn to Stone (2018) the body of the artist decomposed entirely and instead we were presented with a giant skeleton. From between the thigh bones juts a gleaming pink glass sheath, part sword, part balloon. Not many contemporary artists tackle ‘manhood’ like this. The dance between sex and death is a thematic preoccupation for Unsworth that seems lifelong. It’s a wildly courageous artwork and it survives the most unsympathetic setting possible.

‘Truly, Madly’ may have been conceived as a small survey show of Unsworth’s most recent work. It was also an opportunity for the artist to complete major pieces that were drawn but never constructed across his lifetime. Almost all of Ken Unsworth’s installation and conceptual projects rely on the enclosure of gallery walls. Many of his works use deep shadow as a critical component.

Here is an artist who has always taken meticulous care to control conditions of sound, light and presentation. In the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square in Melbourne, the work was placed in transitional spaces soaked in daylight and interrupted by jagged rooflines, escalators and the traffic of visitors. As a consequence, the seclusion needed for Unsworth’s very particular aesthetic got lost. Some might argue that this can lead to a more dynamic exchange between spectator and spectacle. The open gallery. But context is not arbitrary for work of this intensity.

His sound piece Alphaville was all but drowned out by chatter and footsteps. Outside of public institutions, Unsworth often mounts his own major installations and performances at industrial settings such as Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour; he stages small theatre, dance and music events at his factory studio and is planning to complete a large work, The Summer Bath House, for display there in 2019.

When I visit his Birchgrove home studio in Sydney he leads me to a pile of drawings by the window. Sitting on top of a mound of butcher’s paper that is several decades deep is the working sketch for The Summer Bath House. This piece, like so many of his works, stretches our perception of the ethereal and the concrete. A bathtub floats mid-air suspended within a veil of water, muslin curtains billow and a phone on a solitary plinth rings but goes unanswered. The fragility of the drawing, the lean spare lines and modesty of execution is like an architect’s sketch. And it is a fitting metaphor for an artist who drew for decades before ever manifesting a single work in public.

Unsworth’s best ideas are animated by risk. Some visions – a tattooed piano or a seated coffin – soar. Others, under the weight of their own melodrama, capsize. What remains consistent though is a pervasive element of tension. Uncertainty stains every gesture. In an art landscape fixated with sunlight and bounty, death is given its own harvest.

Unsworth stands in quite a small circle in this regard, saying, ‘I have symbols that reach back to the 1960s. I am sure the blackbird comes from my childhood in the fields of the Wimmera. I remember the dry thunder, the dust storms and the plagues of mice. It was a gothic, arid landscape and studding the horizon, sitting in bare trees were always black crows. They sit inside my paintings like a presence of menace or as observers. They often crop up in my installations. Yet I am always mindful of repeating my own iconography. If I see anything that infers repetition I like to trip that up if I can.’

Irony is his strong suit. In The Weight of Stone, a piece he mounted on Cockatoo Island in 2011, an angel floats above a triangle of steel cages that contain religious books and a single river stone floats in the central void. It’s as if his most famous material has been cast into oblivion, a millstone abandoned. It is only the most developed artists can plagiarise or gently question their own canon.

When I ask the artist if there are stumbling blocks to stretching across mediums he simply replies, ‘Yes’. Technical limitations lend a ragged timbre to his work. In the studio are several large canvases of lone figures stranded in mythical, almost volcanic landscapes. Unsworth paints them with rags, a technique he says relates well to the scale of his body and the frenetic quality of the line.

Unlike the gleaming containment of his piano sculptures and the stark minimalism of his dance pieces, the paintings are exposed and folkloric in their simplicity. Deeper in the studio are works unpublished and unexhibited, a large collection of watercolours made in the final years of his wife Elisabeth’s life. Deemed too personal for inclusion in his monograph, these works feature his recurring symbols. The naked tree. The stranded boat. The piano. And the body, melding into mountainsides or rising like a burning cloud, unmoored from the burden of gravity. For their meaning Unsworth shrugs and points to dreams and the unconscious. Tribal art. Japanese mythology. German art. Noh Theatre. It’s all embedded.

Ken Unsworth is an atheist and a mystic. Trying to pinpoint his contribution is like attempting to explain the cosmology of a Fellini film frame by frame. Over time the artist has accreted an internal logic of materials and imagery that speak among themselves. The way he works reminds me of the Ouroboros, the mythical serpent that continually nibbles it own tail.

Within the artist’s monograph, written by Anthony Bond, and published this year by ARTAND Foundation, there are generous threads of memoir and art theory. The recent attention harvested by the NGV has also helped illuminate an Australian original, yet his work persists as something of a public secret. The artist himself views his output with bemused ambivalence. ‘I am not nostalgic. Though threads of ideas permeate through bodies of work I would rather shatter my themes rather than continually revive them. The absorption and the focus dwells in the execution of current work. I am always moving onto the next one.’ Mortality is the subject, not the literal obstacle.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 45, 2019

Ken Unsworth: Indulgence
June – July 2020
137 Belmont St, Alexandria –– by appointment only

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