As I sit down with Ken Unsworth and sip coffee on his sun-speckled deck I feel I’ve hit the artworld jackpot. Unsworth’s home nestles Sydney Harbour, yet the white-haired former welder from Melbourne transmits a frugal nonchalance. His waterfront garden defiantly obscures the view with carefully planted native shrubs and he punctuates our chat with homemade veggie stew.
Unsworth is one of Australia’s most prolific and uncategorisable artists. Across six decades he has generated a vast body of work incorporating such recurring themes as levitating rocks, automated pianos and cycling skeletons. It echoes minimalism, body art, arte povera and vaudeville in equal measure, yet remains deeply idiosyncratic.
Somehow this complex catalogue has been ordered into key themes for a retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Surprisingly, it’s Unsworth’s first such show in his birth town.
‘The title is Truly, Madly’ he reveals ‘and it’s been a mad experience.’
The exhibition sprawls across all three levels of the NGV at Federation Square. It mixes older and newer works, including three new commissions, and continues Unsworth’s obsession with ‘the human body, the surrogate body, and the skeletons.’
One work, unites a tattooed angel, a piano and a figure slapping the floor with a cane. Another centres on a 17-foot skeleton with an elongated penis made of blown Plexiglas, surrounded of course by stones. Elsewhere a blackbird persistently pecks at a cast of Unsworth’s body refashioned as St Francis of Assisi.
Despite the mystery and symbolism in his work, Unsworth is frank and down to earth in person. He aims to make art every day although at 87 years old admits to ‘slowing down a bit’. Whilst he mostly works out of an old factory building in a nearby suburb, he maintains a small studio at home for ‘sitting and scratching my bottom’ and undertaking ‘my other sin of painting, which I keep very secret.’
The extent of this discreet yet long-standing practice is evident in a new monograph by Anthony Bond in collaboration with ARTAND Foundation that dedicates two of its 12 chapters to drawing and painting. Unsworth’s basement studio reveals his latest such work, an allegorical figurative painting recalling early Arthur Boyd. This side of Unsworth might seem surprising compared to his more epic sculptures, installation and performance art.
‘Drawing is a way of thinking,’ he explains, ‘and of expressing those thoughts and putting them into some sort of form. Drawing’s always been essential to my working life. It becomes like an encyclopedia. In fact I can remember every drawing I’ve ever made. It’s a very fluid, flexible, vital sort of activity.
Drawing is contiguous with the body, which is ultimately the key to unlocking Unsworth’s practice. His focus on the body emerged circuitously on a 1971 trip to New York City where he stumbled upon a book about arte povera. ‘I came back to Hobart and started using natural materials ike little river stones and thorns. Then I had this brainwave that the human body was a natural material.’ He quickly delineates his work from peers like Mike Parr who deliberately stress the body, instead ‘using the body as a sculptural element being driven by some other force.’
In Unsworth’s work the body is always in tension, attempting to transcend its limitations. Its trace is also present in the sculptures. Stones, after all, don’t float by their own accord. Similarly, a silenced piano requires the human body to coax forth its voice. Or some automated canes thrashing the piano into submission.
‘Fluxus is instinctively where my thinking is: humour, accidents and violence.’
The disjuncture between theatre and life has been central to Unsworth’s thinking since his ‘feral’ adopted childhood in Melbourne where he was captivated by magic, theatre and musical comedies. Later, darkness arose from periods spent in pre-unified Berlin and by such experiences as the deaths of his beloved wife Elisabeth and his stepson. One way to process and communicate this has been through humour, a lesson absorbed from Shakespeare.
‘If you weigh an idea down on somebody there’s an impossibility to accept it. Humour enables the message to penetrate far more effectively. That’s come naturally in my work – that sense of humour, that lightness of touch.’
Julian Day is an artist, composer, writer and broadcaster.
National Gallery of Victoria: Ian Potter Centre
14 September to 17 February, 2019