Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly has been developed in close association with artist Ken Unsworth and is the first major exhibition of his work to be held in Melbourne. It is presented in the atrium galleries at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.
Eighty-seven years of age at the time of writing, Ken Unsworth is a senior Australian artist. Widely recognised for his contribution to Australian art, his career includes many highlights, including receiving the Captain Cook Bicentenary Sculpture Competition Award in 1970 and the Australian-American Educational Foundation Grant in 1971; and representing Australia at the 1978 Venice Biennale (along with artists Robert Owen and John Davis). He was also awarded a six-month residency at the Australian Studio at Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris in 1979; a three-month residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin in 1980; and a Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) residency in 1987. In 1989 Unsworth was made a Member of the Order of Australia and in the same year he was awarded an Australian Creative Fellowship. In 2015 he was made a Fellow of the National Art School, Sydney.
Ken Unsworth draws upon an extraordinarily diverse repertoire of skills, techniques and devices. He is an enigmatic creator known for his conceptual sculptures and sculptural installations, mechanical works, land art events and innovative performances that combine theatre, dance and art. Once described as a ‘dead serious clown’ by curator Tony Bond, Unsworth is an artist with a unique and idiosyncratic approach to his practice.
Following what he refers to as a ‘fairly traditional upbringing’, Unsworth first studied architecture before attending Melbourne Teachers’ College and the University of Melbourne and later the National Art School, Sydney. From 1955 he worked as a secondary teacher and then as a lecturer in art at various tertiary institutions. From the mid 1960s he taught as well as working as an artist and continued this until 1988, when he made the decision to devote himself primarily to his art.
In 1955, while teaching in western Victoria, Unsworth met Elisabeth Crouch, a talented French-speaking musician who had arrived in Australia two years earlier from the United Kingdom. At the time they met Elisabeth was teaching at a girls’ school nearby. The couple married in 1956 and in 1961 relocated to Sydney, where Unsworth commenced studying at the National Art School and where he and Elisabeth would spend the rest of their lives together. Ken and Elisabeth were a devoted couple and until her passing in 2008 she dedicated herself to supporting Ken’s career as an artist – a commitment he continues to acknowledge.
The first school I went to after I graduated was in Dimboola. My adoptive father was living in Hamilton at the time and he wrote to me and said we’ve just had this French woman join the Hamilton repertory company. The funny thing was when I read that I knew I would meet her and then it went out of my head … I had friends in Hamilton who ran the music store and some time later I was visiting them and heard someone playing the piano downstairs and I went down and there’s this dark-haired woman … I asked her if she would like to have a cup of coffee and from then on we were inseparable!
In 1968 Unsworth began exploring the possibilities of working in three dimensions; prior to this he had concentrated on drawing and painting. Frustrated by what he felt were the limitations of these mediums, and spurred on by Elisabeth, he created his first sculptural work.
I had a job teaching at Bathurst Teachers’ College and I was struggling with painting and one day Elisabeth said to me, ‘Instead of drawing objects, why don’t you make them instead?’ Kinkee bird is the first sculpture I made and I still have the original set of drawings – she was the one who set me on path of making things.
In 1970 the couple travelled to the United States. It was here that Unsworth witnessed the Arte Povera movement and saw the possibilities of working with simple materials and using unconventional processes. On his return to Australia he began making his suspended stone installations and the first of his performance pieces, in which he used his body as a key component in his practice.
I realised that not only are river stones natural, but the human body is of natural material and that’s what led me to my first exhibition. I saw the possibility of being able to use the human body as the structural element within a sculptural process, not like body art but something quite objective; that was in 1975. My use of the human figure, surrogate figures and skeletons are part of that. And the logical extension of that was the idea of movement, related to sound, that logically led into music and continuous movement which you only get with dancers, and so it became part of the material I use.
One of Unsworth’s earliest performance and ‘body as sculpture’ pieces, Five secular settings for sculpture as ritual and burial piece, was a series of staged performances that took place at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 1975. The work consisted of five parts, with Unsworth using his body as a sculptural element. In one part he was suspended by the neck between massive pieces of timber. This was followed by the creation of a series of ‘body sculptures’; one of the most dramatic involved Unsworth’s spread-eagled body being propped against a wall by a steel tube wedged into the small of his back. While in Berlin Unsworth had come into contact with the Fluxus movement and, along with his own instinctive use of humour, madness and irreverence, the tenets of Fluxus became a motivating force in his work.
Since 1976 Unsworth’s use of light, sound and movement has become central to his work, as has the artist’s involvement of himself in his work, which began with the 1976 series of ‘psychodramas’, A Different Drummer.
More recently Unsworth has presented events in his studio in Alexandria, Sydney. In these he combines dancers and musicians with specialised lighting and sculptural elements in a choreographed mix of theatre and performance art.
Unsworth continues to use the figure in his practice; however, in a number of his new sculptural works, including St Francis preaching to the birds, 2018, and Memory, 2018, the corporeal body has been substituted with life-size figures of the artist cast in resin; these works are either static or mechanically activated. They draw upon Unsworth’s continuing fascination with the body as an object and his ongoing interest in the use of the human figure in his art.
The exhibition presents Unsworth’s earliest sculptures and re-commissioned kinetic works, produced during the 1980s, through to his recent works, in which he brings together elements and concepts that have preoccupied him throughout the course of his creative life. Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly surveys significant aspects of the prolific career of this intuitive artist, who seemingly possesses limitless energy and imagination. It is also a reflective celebration of life, death and love.
There’s a lot of nostalgia and sentimentality in having an exhibition in Melbourne. I’m actually a Melbourne boy – born and bred in Richmond … Interestingly I’m now seen very much as a Sydney artist. I really like the idea of being able to put my work in front of a Melbourne audience and to see what their reaction is to it … The way the exhibition has been shaped has given me the opportunity to show a couple of major works from the past and some newer pieces – there’s a nice balance.