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Our Kenundrum was the title of a dance performance gifted to the artist Ken Unsworth on his 78th birthday by the Australian Dance Artists, a group he has gathered around himself over the last eighteen years to continue to develop a practice that can only be summed up as a conundrum. Normally, this group of senior dancers—the oldest is 72—start with Unsworth’s figure drawings, suggesting body shapes, stage designs and props in his mind. Music may be commissioned. Then, it is up to the dancers to create an evening’s performance for an invited audience in Unsworth’s South Sydney studio.
I have seen three of these events. The price of entry being simply a willingness to discuss ideas raised afterwards over wine and cheese. But many more have been recorded in an amazing festschrift publication. Unsworth’s multiform career is described by the former Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) Senior Curator, Tony Bond with assistance from others: Jill Sykes on dance; René Block, the German curator, on Unsworth’s international reputation; Felicity Fenner on the little-known paintings in his life; the late William Wright interviewing him; and Anna Johnson extracting more meaning from his works on paper than the others have chosen to attempt.
Coincidentally, the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV’s) celebration of Unsworth’s career, Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly, has limited its horizons by selecting only installations from the artist’s diverse provocations, which include land art, sculpture, body art, drawing and painting, multimedia and dance. A further disadvantage lies in the scatter of Unsworth’s works around the Ian Potter Centre’s foyers on three and a half different levels. Were they intended as a divertissement as patrons make their intended way into shows such as Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions, Polly Borland: Polyverse or Colony: Frontier Wars? Or, were dedicated Unsworthites expected to find their way around the Potter’s erratic escalator network in order to draw sustenance from a scatter of pianos sawn in half, skeletons playing ball, a model of Unsworth himself as St Francis having his head pecked by a raven, or the newly realised Alphaville which resonated with dystopian planning, sounds of discomfort, flapping curtains and a huge emptiness. It was not a display designed to extract coherence. More a conundrum.
A lost half-landing containing America or Kafka: The Oklahoma Express, a work from the early ’80s, was in many ways the most thought-cohering. Though perhaps I was contrasting it with Brett Whiteley’s prominently displayed The American Dream downstairs—one of his most garish works—in finding Unsworth’s model train, eternally circulating a tilting white wooden church, a rare, incisively political work. Arguably, a society based on a religion that Unsworth has little faith in—many of his angels are headless—lacks stability.
As Bond outlines in the book, Unsworth is constantly ‘challenging our sense of equilibrium’. How do his works stand up, we ask? Especially Tattooed Piano (2010) greeting one in the NGV entrance foyer. The whole, precipitous edifice of a grand piano is ‘balanced’ in a prostrate, bowler-hatted mannikin’s mouth.
Were it not for the biographical information that the book’s interviews elicit, one might ask whether Unsworth’s illustrious career—four international Biennales and any number of Sydney Biennale appearances—is really having a lend of us. Both Bond and Wright clearly regard this as formative. A thrice-adoptive childhood produced an unloved, lonely child and Wright identifies ‘a buried story in your work’, developed from reading Tolstoy as a substitute for emotional engagement with his parents. In the book, and in interviews about both exhibition and book, everyone makes a fuss of the fact that Unsworth’s mother denied him access to her piano, which she reserved for practice of the music she performed in church on Sunday. Interestingly, no one mentions the mechanical canes, beating in several artworks; could there have been childhood corporal punishment?
But then Unsworth happily married a pianist—Elisabeth Volodarsky, who persuaded him to stop trying to be a pianist himself and get on with his art. She also suggested that since he was ‘always painting objects’, perhaps he should start making them in three dimensions. But here we have one of the fundamental conundrums in Unsworth’s life—for Bond identifies from the start that his ‘art is always centred on the body’—not objects.
The body art he pioneered at Sydney’s Central Street Gallery in 1975—inspired by seeing Gilbert & George sing in New York—was indubitably corporeal. Though not as painful as that of his successors Mike Parr and Stelarc. Bond suggests that it was also ‘a subversion of minimalism with his body’ and coincidentally related to the propped-up metal sculptures of Richard Serra, whom Unsworth had never seen.
Was Kinkeebird in the Drawing Room a body work? This 1967 sculpture was the direct result of his wife’s objectifying suggestion and his debut as a sculptor. It was paired with the quite dissimilar, geometric work, Salaam, and both were accepted (and praised) in the Alcorso-Sekers Travelling Scholarship competition of 1967. Indeed, critic Elwyn Lynn called Kinkeebird ‘the moral winner’. It does appear to be, mounted, legs akimbo, on a tumble of multi-coloured limbs; but it might be a moustache. Or, it might be an example of Johnson’s observed ‘furtive eroticism’.
An instant sculptor at the age of 36; some distinctive land art at the Mildura Triennials of the ’70s; the physical performances of that decade; and the Venice Biennale only eleven years later. In 1984, Unsworth had to become an instant painter too, when John Kaldor’s invitation to link with Mike Parr and Imants Tillers in a New York show, An Australian Accent turned out to have no space for his 3D creations. Oddly, Fenner’s appreciation of these canvases comes first of all the artforms considered in the book when it is surely the least known—though reference to recent painting by the now 87-year-old whets the appetite. Fenner discerns ‘a metaphysical evocation of the psyche’—a pretty good insight for all Unsworth’s work—and links him to Anselm Kiefer via both bitumen paint and neo-expressionism.
But the most consistent linkage is with Joseph Beuys, the German ‘social sculptor’. They almost met once, and the German’s concept of the piano covered in a thick felt, denying it everything but the potential of sound to illustrate his assertion, ‘I want to get to the origin of matter, to the thought behind it’, reinforced Unsworth’s pianistic obsession. It produced several versions with spiked seats, and the 1986 Sydney Biennale’s Hymn to Beuys, included a phone alluding to the near-miss occasion when Beuys called in instructions to collaborators because illness forced him to stay away from a Fluxus event. Unsworth balanced his flying piano in the work with a number of large river stones—another obsession which produced the work that he is most widely associated with, the 1985 Paris Biennale Suspended stone circle II, containing 103 suspended, Nepean River stones that take four or five days to install at the AGNSW each time this popular work is shown.
Stone works date back to a Central Street work, Propped stone piece (1976), but Bond attempts little in the way of explanation for this obsession, apart from the ‘equilibrium’ challenge. Does the natural texture of stone not have a role? Making for an appreciation of the Australian ecosystem that is perhaps best exemplified in Unsworth’s Shark (1978). Calm, concentric circles of earth forming an Aboriginal motif, threatened by slate shark fins emerging from the depths.
Clearly, summing up Unsworth is nigh on impossible. A ‘personality split between wild emotion and ordered thought’ is Bond’s best suggestion. Johnson is therefore fortunate to have been given the artist’s works on paper to comment on. She identifies this torrent—often numbering a hundred raw drawings in a day—as ‘seeds in the vault, (often) unborn in the corporeal plane due to a mixture of financial, physical and cultural limitation’. Fortunately, Kinkeebird made it from paper to ‘corporeal plane’. But even Johnson is forced to conclude that, ‘The drawings allow the unconscious to bleed out. Nothing is processed into a conclusion, but to a sensitive eye it is obvious that a story is being told.’
Johnson also refers to the watercolours produced during the painful period as his wife Elisabeth lay dying, as ‘Unsworth’s most intense works’. The festschrift fails to support this claim with illustrations—one of several disappointments; no index or list of works, no links from verbal description to appropriate illustration, and a series of oddly unidentified poetic texts between the essays.
Ken Unsworth, Five secular settings for sculpture as ritual (fifth setting), 1975. Animated installation, mixed media, light and sound, dimensions variable.
Ken Unsworth, Concrete slab construction, 1973. Concrete slabs and compacted clay, dimensions variable. Mildura Sculpturscape ’73.
Ken Unsworth, Suspended stone collection half circle, 1976. River stone and wire, dimensions variable. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Ken Unsworth, In concert, 1983–84. Mixed media installation, light, sound and movement, dimensions variable.