A break-dancer continuously spinning on his head, a surfer flipped under the ocean recorded in slow-motion and a motorcyclist driving with arms parallel in the air. 

These are some of the rule-breaking pursuits Shaun Gladwell presents in his largest survey exhibition to date; Pacific Undertow at the MCA. 


Shaun Gladwell. Image credit Anna Kucera

The celebrated UNSW Art & Design alumnus is renowned for his distinctive video practice that explores contemporary culture predominantly through forms of skateboarding, beatboxing, breakdancing, BMX bike-riding and surfing.

Gladwell depicts the vigorous activities to investigate the human body in motion, often set against urban, desert or coastal environments recorded in slow-motion, where the artist sees the body in motion as his own studio.

“The first studio you have is your own body, so it was an easy way for me to start developing my ideas.

“I strip back all these kinds of human institutions and I realise the human body is the only thing I really own. This is a machine that supports my existence and it was the best place for me to work on, it’s how I present myself to the world and a great way to see it as a studio.”

Gladwell’s Pacific Undertow spans across two decades of his artistic career to date, featuring early paintings and videography such as his breakout film, Storm Sequence (2000) set at Bondi Beach, to newly developed augmented and virtual reality experiences.

Shaun Gladwell, Pacific Undertow Sequence (Bondi) 2010

Shaun Gladwell, Pacific Undertow Sequence (Bondi) 2010

“One thing about Pacific Undertow was that I spent a lot of time in the Northern Hemisphere and the past nine years in London. Throughout that whole time, I just wanted to keep coming back here, be connected to what my peers were doing and what I was interested in - the Australian landscape and culture.

“All the wanderlust that I had for the world didn’t match the homesickness I had for here, so Pacific Undertow is really me being brought back for all the good reasons.”

Having the opportunity to present the large-scale exhibition has been a professional highlight come true for the artist.  

“Knowing that I have great support from museums, family and friends and being able to have the opportunity to show my work is a privilege.”

Shaun Gladwell Install. Credit Anna Kucera

Shaun Gladwell Install. Credit Anna Kucera

The artist completed a Master of Fine Arts and recalls studying at UNSW a pivotal moment to the foundation of his practice.

“I knew I wanted to study this thing and be able to make stuff happen, it led me to the madness of tertiary education. I think once you line yourself up with studying art in a tertiary situation, you start to know you’re in committed to this thing.

“I remember meeting a group of artists at COFA (now UNSW Art & Design) and we decided to live together. It was wild, but really productive as it felt like we had our own artist collective. It was a huge thing; it transformed my life really.”

For emerging students, the artist says it’s important to experiment with mediums that reflect their lifestyle both from cultural and personal perspectives.

“If students love the mediums that work for them, they’ll never be exhausted by working with them. And that’s the best place to start.”

Pacific Undertow is open daily from 10am-5pm.

Find out more about the UNSW Art & Design Master of Fine Arts

When: 19 July - 7 October
Where: MCA - 140 George St, The Rocks