The enigmatic Mr Unsworth
Despite being born in Melbourne, Ken Unsworth is virtually unknown in his native city.
In the early 1960s, when Unsworth was in his early thirties, he moved to Sydney and stayed there to build an outstanding career. He represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1978, the following year he was awarded a Keating (the lucrative Australian Creative Fellowship) and in 1998 he was the subject of a major survey show at the AGNSW. Nevertheless, he has never attained the widespread popularity of a Whiteley, Boyd or Nolan – the name is not an iconic brand – even if some of his works, such as the suspended river stones or his own body suspended between beams have become inscribed into our collective memories.
One reason for Unsworth’s lack of popular recognition is that he is not a template artist, but one whose oeuvre is characterised by a rampant diversity. In every new exhibition you have a double take – is this really Ken Unsworth? What is he doing now? Best known as a sculptor, installation artist and performance artist, the graphic element has been central to his practice. He can be characterised as the inventor of the creative absurd – a situation into which the viewer is placed and challenged.
In 2007, when commenting on his art practice, Unsworth observed, “[...] my role … is providing a situation where I might be able sort of to stimulate a response that’s utterly personal and even though it’s not unique to that person because it’s universal, we all fundamentally have the same fears and ambitions and desires, we are not unique in that sense. But the way in which we experience that, interpret it, and the way in which it shapes us is something that is different.”
The piano, from a very early age, has been an obsession in his life and developed into a key motif in his art. As a child, he was an amateur self-taught pianist. In 1955 he met and, subsequently married, Elisabeth, a concert pianist, who directed him away from the course of a failed musician to that of a successful visual artist. Elisabeth became his muse and inspiration through to her death in 2008. Joseph Beuys’s remarkable pieces with felt-covered pianos have been some of the most influential works on Unsworth’s development as an artist.
Unsworth’s pianomania has permeated virtually every facet of his work and has found expression in every medium from tiny sketches and drawings to monumental installations where the piano has been pulled apart, cast into the air and even encountered the circular blade of a saw.
Recently the National Gallery of Victoria has assembled a significant survey exhibition of Unsworth’s monumental pieces under the title, Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly. The curator of this exhibition, David Hurlston, Head of Australian art at the National Gallery of Victoria, has selected Unsworth’s sculptural installations from the 1960s through to work made specially for this exhibition.
The work is displayed in the large foyer spaces on all three levels of the gallery at Federation Square, so although in part the exhibition is fragmented, it also means that each installed sculpture has its own discrete space and autonomy. From the huge and somewhat oppressive Alphaville, where visitors are invited to negotiate nearly five-metre-high buildings while encountering an interactive display with a cacophony of recorded urban sounds, to the solitary Mind games, where two skeletons are involved in a game resembling a contemplation of life.
Pianos naturally feature widely in this exhibition, whether it be the huge installed In concert with a piano and circular saw within an enclosure or the Tattooed piano with a mechanical component and the sacrificial participant. Life-size casts are pecked by a bird; others gather to contemplate the futility of being.
There is a danger in over-interpreting Unsworth’s art or trying to arrive at a literary reading for something that has always been intended as an open-ended thought adventure. Of course, there is much in his art that is autobiographical – a comment on his stage in life, the tragic death of his stepson John, the loss of Elisabeth or his interaction with his cats. These are all elements in the making of the work, the artist’s personal journey, but not the meaning of the work, which is universal, appealing to everyman and laced with humour and philosophical musings.
I am drawn to a statement Unsworth made in 1999. “The artist, and I am thinking about the true artist, by which I think I mean, one whose imprint with the passage of time, is as clear and relevant as it ever was, accommodates insight, wit, magic, humanity, humour, invention and the use of invention in novel, clarifying and unsettling ways consistent with and responsive to the illnesses, the issues and the imperatives of the times. The artist is both shaped by, and shapes the cultural and political landscape that we inhabit.”
In this, we probably have the most succinct statement of Unsworth’s philosophy of art making and suggested guide to us on how to approach his art.
Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly is on display 14 September 2018 – 17 February 2019 at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square.
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