The Theater of Life: Ken Unsworth

One could compare the mature work of the Australian artist Ken Unsworth with that of Louise Bourgeois, as they both rely on personal obsessions and a range of potent, recurring symbols: with Bourgeois, her childhood and sexual references; with Unsworth, his wife and her performance as a pianist, as well as death, destruction, and the possibilities of a “Stairway to Paradise.” Just as Bourgeois has used some symbols repeatedly, such as multiple breasts, cells, and rooms, Unsworth has used the grand piano, skulls, ladders, and stairs again and again in a variety of installations. Both artists have a highly developed sense of the theatrical, deliberately and skillfully establishing an atmosphere that envelops the spectator.

Rapture, 1994. Piano, straw, burnt sheet music, and plastic mice.

It is always much easier to discuss a lifetime’s work when an artist develops and progresses in a simple linear manner, so that one can follow the changes from A to B to C. With Ken Unsworth the progression is not so clear-cut; during his career, A, B, and C often occur simultaneously or reappear years later. The extremely comprehensive retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which filled several large galleries on two floors of that institution, was not organized in any chronological fashion; instead it was arranged around areas of the artist’s work—maquettes, sites, stones, body as object, reliefs, installations, and drawings.

One of the earliest maquettes, Rose Shed (1971), combining mild steel wire, bandages and thorns, has a Surrealist quality and an inherent viciousness. During the same year, Unsworth produced Cantilever 11, which can be linked with Minimalist sculpture, then fashionable in Australia. In their sheer diversity the maquettes show a restless, ever inquiring mind: sheets of slate suspended, bundles of sticks tied together, stones suspended, with innumerable variations on each idea.

Suspended Stone Circle (1974–78), originally only 28 by 38 by 25.5 centimeters, grew to 1,100 centimeters in diameter, becoming Suspended Stone Circle 11 (1984), in which over 100 large river stones were suspended from slender wires in a huge circle of breathtaking simplicity. Held up from three points on the ceiling of the gallery, the rocks appeared to defy gravity, levitating about 45 centimeters above the floor. The delicate pattern of the innumerable fine black wires and the subtle shadows of the rocks on the gallery floor belied the immense weight of the stones—and the five days of arduous work to install the piece. Once assembled, the simple logic of the construction was immediately clear, yet what a leap of imagination it took to initially envisage the possibility. And the public loved this construction, which was acquired for the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1988 and last year was voted by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper as Sydney’s most popular artwork.

Temperature, 1984, ’87, ’98. Brick wall, timber table insert with cast iron vat, compressed air cylinder, water, and industrial thermometer, interior view of installation.

Unsworth’s maquettes for steel structures explore unlikely relationships, an interest that removes them from the restrictions of Minimalist sculpture. The basic forms of cube, cylinder, sphere, annulus, and rectangular prism resemble the Minimalist vocabulary, but Unsworth’s sculptures balance precariously, defy gravity, combine mass with slender line, or sprout vicious spikes like medieval instruments of torture.

The works in the “Sites” section represented by photographs, drawings, or maquettes) mark a significant move out of the studio in the early ’70s and into the environment. The works often came close to Minimalist sculpture, yet again the basic geometric forms were given a further meaning, sometimes mysterious or symbolic, other times delightfully amusing. Razor Back (1975) and Stick Mound (1977) were both simple geometric forms, but as they were built by driving sticks into the ground they took on a sense of mystery as though they were objects left over from some unknown ritual. Shark (1978) consisted of ridges of earth, precisely forming a huge spiral in the landscape. Within the spiral was a series of triangular projections, looking remarkably like the dorsal fin of a shark, a fearful sign known to all Australian swimmers, yet made ridiculous because the fish appeared to swim in the dry soil of the landscape.

Good Thoughts, 1995–98. Glass, plaster, steel, water, gramophone horns, and sound, installation view.

Another facet of Unsworth’s art is his unique ability to explore a wide range of human states, from humor to pathos, from terror to laughter, from sublime thoughts to physical pain. His first series of performances, Five Secular Settings for Sculpture as Ritual and Burial Piece, which occurred at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 1975, certainly involved the artist in a high degree of risk and physical pain. He hung from his neck between two massive beams of wood; he was tied hands and feet and suspended from a diagonal pole; with hands and feet secured in a rack he hung down towards the floor—and most dramatic of all—he was completely buried in a glass case, which was slowly filled with sand. Even the video, which shows the slow shoveling of sand into the vertical glass case, the gradual disappearance of his body, then the complete covering of his head, is agonizing to watch. As the seconds, then the minutes tick by, one wonders how long he can hold his breath—will he indeed escape? Then an attendant smashes the glass and sand pours out, revealing the artist still standing, still alive. Unsworth has said that by practicing meditation and controlling his breathing he was able to hold his breath for up to three and a half minutes. For the audience the suspense must have been frightening. One could make comparisons with two other Australian performance artists, Stelarc and Mike Parr, who also took themselves (and their audiences) to the extremes of physical endurance.

Fear, particularly fear of death, recurs as a theme in a number of Unsworth’s works, such as the large relief Dreams of Panic (1991). Death is depicted as a centrally placed figure with an outstretched skeletal hand, holding a cane that projects from the wall. In the manner of a blind person, the cane repeatedly, constantly taps the floor. Death is a blind visitor tapping his way through the dark. Another relief, Elegy (1994), enshrines an upright piano on a stage, between black curtains. Everything is burnt, destroyed. The performer has departed. While dramatic, the reliefs on the whole are sculpturally the weakest of Unsworth’s works, as the narrative often becomes dominant and the drama becomes melodramatic.

Piano Trio (Teaching Three Pianos to Sing in Unison), 1998. Three grand pianos, motorized parts, three metronomes, and sheet music, installation view.

Yet another relief, In The Air (1992), also contravenes accepted sculptural practice as five old brass gramophone horns project strongly from the otherwise flat surface and a lump of plaster with a china figure sits separately in front. Nevertheless, the lack of compositional control is forgiven as one absorbs the subtle and delightful essence of the work. The china figure is a kitsch ornament, the sort of cheap prize given away at a fun fair. The young girl, in a long flowing evening dress restrains a dog, which leaps forward with great energy. A modern version of Diana and the hounds? Trite it may be, but the figure, full of joyous energy, is an immediately recognizable symbol of youthful love of life. And if one listens intently, then one picks up the sounds emanating from the speakers, which are actually plugged into the surface of the relief, suggesting the earth’s surface. It is the gentle sound of crickets chirping. What is In The Air? Is it spring? The possibility of falling in love? In a fascinating way the kitsch figure gives the artist a direct point of communication with a wide audience.

In a similar manner Unsworth used a popular song of the ’30s, “I’ll Build a Staircase to Paradise,” endlessly repeating in the extremely simple, but magically evocative installation Staircase to Paradise (first version 1985, re-erected 1987, and modified for the 1998 exhibition). In a small darkened room, a simple staircase rose up steeply and disappeared through the ceiling. Bathed in a soft pink light, the staircase hovered above the ground in a mystical manner without any visible means of support. The artist’s ability to reach his audience was illustrated when the author overheard a conversation between a father and his very young son. “What’s up there?” asked the boy. “Whatever you want son,” replied the father. This perfect answer left the boy to discover his own understanding of the work, just as the artist would wish.

I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, 1985, ’87, ’98. Painted timber, light, and sound, installation view.

Fly By Night (1984), which appealed to a somewhat more sophisticated audience, subtly debunked opera and made sly fun of religion. Five winged rocks hovered high in the space, gently moving their wings, like adolescent angels still learning to fly. A tape endlessly played a ponderous rendition of “Softly Awakes My Heart,” from the opera Samson and Delilah. On the floor a motorized toy dog grew excited, more and more agitated, and then barked hysterically at the apparitions in the sky. As with so many of Unsworth’s installations the work opens up a wide range of personal interpretations and ambiguous meanings.

The range of his production does not indicate that Unsworth has moved with the current fashion. Rather he has an ability to extend, alter, even ridicule contemporary modes of expression. He frequently brings together a series of visual and aural components in an unexpected juxtaposition, forcing the spectator to rethink and reassess. The artist says, “I like the idea of awakening a response—sadness, nostalgia, disconcertedness, a pang of fear maybe. The sense of something being just out of reach.” He keeps his audience on the alert for the unpredictable.

Unsworth is also prepared to make demands on the spectator, as with Good Thoughts (1995–98), which required time and contemplation from the audience. In the center of a small room a glass cube, filled with water, stood on top of a pedestal. Submerged in the water a plaster head lay in a position of serene repose. From the ear an endless stream of bubbles rose to the surface, like “good thoughts” made visible. Wires from the glass tank were strung across the space to connect with seven old-fashioned speakers high in the ceiling, which made the good thoughts audible in the faint sounds of a Korean Buddhist chant.

In the Air, 1992. Expanded foam, brass trumpets, plastic trumpets, plastic mask, ornamental statue, speakers, casette player, and winged head, 293 x 313 x 65 cm.

In total contrast to these joyous, humorous, or contemplative installations, Temperature (1984, 87, 98) was diabolically unnerving. A brick wall had been built from floor to ceiling in the gallery, with only a small hole knocked through the bricks at floor level. Most people squatted down, peered in, and left; few had the courage to crawl into the room on hands and knees. Those who did venture into the darkened room were silenced, or talked in whispers, as the setting was stark and intimidating. In the middle of the space was a very solidly built wooden bench with a gas cylinder set in one end and a large cast iron vat set in the other. The vat was full of murky water, from which protruded a very large industrial thermometer. It appeared that one had accidentally stumbled across a mysterious, but life-threatening experiment.

There were certainly black moments in the exhibition. In fact the color black occurred again and again—black pianos, black crows, black curtains—and the catalogue had the artist’s name in gloss black on a matte black cover. Undoubtedly the most persistent and distinctive image in the Unsworth survey was the black grand piano, which was used most effectively in the two major works that spectators saw as they first entered the exhibition spaces. Rapture (1994) is an extra-ordinary grand piano with seven keyboards, rising one above the other, like a grand staircase taking one to a higher level. In place of the maker’s name Unsworth substituted his wife’s name, Elisabeth Volodarsky, in gold Gothic lettering. Is he suggesting that his wife, as a concert pianist, is capable of transporting her listeners to a higher plane and inducing a sense of “rapture?” If so, the rewards are brief and transitory. On top of the piano was a mass of straw, and if one looked closely one noted that mice were eating the straw and that the musical score was burnt and almost destroyed. The viewer of this most evocative work was taken through a range of emotional reactions from surprise to amusement, from introspection to melancholy. Typically, Unsworth leaves the interpretation to each spectator, allowing for multiple explanations.

In the Air, 1992. Expanded foam, brass trumpets, plastic trumpets, plastic mask, ornamental statue, speakers, casette player, and winged head, 293 x 313 x 65 cm.

Going down the escalator to the other section of the exhibition one was immediately confronted by no less than three grand pianos, facetiously entitled Piano Trio (Teaching Three Pianos to Sing in Unison) (1998), all up-ended with keyboards on the floor and strings displayed vertically. Three metronomes ticked loudly and constantly. On each piano, bolted to the frames at different positions, were three mechanical devices with long sticks attached. At the press of a button the sticks were activated and they proceeded to whack the strings of the pianos with vigor and a certain viciousness. A number of broken strings indicated the force of the attack. Spectators jumped back in alarm, then burst out laughing, though one lady said loudly: “It’s no way to treat a piano!” Not quite John Cage’s “prepared piano,” yet both sound and silence were part of the work.

Most of Unsworth’s installations include sound and some of his drawings (Sound Composition 1 [c.1978], for example) actually look like experimental musical scores and conceivably could be played. Slapstick (1983–98) consisted of nine motorized sticks, which came to life in an entirely irregular manner, rose up, viciously hit the wooden floor with a hard, sharp sound that could be heard throughout the gallery, then subsided into unexpected silence. Just as the people in the vicinity lapsed back into normal gallery viewing, the sticks repeated their brief but disruptive performance.

Suspended Stone Circle 11, 1984. 103 river stones and wires, 1,100 cm. diameter.

The noise emanating from some of the installations had spectators, particularly children, running from gallery to gallery to check on the source of the activity. Litost (1984–98) attracted a lot of attention in this way, as a seemingly possessed wooden chair periodically shook and jumped violently, producing a nerve-racking, harsh sound. On a circular screen at the end of the darkened room a projected image of a similar wooden chair appeared to burn endlessly—one thought of the traditional vision of Hell as an endless inferno of flames.

Heaven and hell, rapture, humor, melancholia—Ken Unsworth has a wonderful ability to cover an extremely wide range of concepts—concepts that are sometimes subtle or esoteric and other times deliberately popular or kitsch. Remarkably he is able to make his ideas visible and accessible not only to the art cognoscenti, but also to the general public, a unique skill when contemporary art is often unintelligible to large sections of the community.

Ken Scarlett has written extensively on contemporary sculpture. His works include Australian Sculptors, and he is a frequent contributor to Sculpture.