SHAUN GLADWELLTripitaka, 2015-16, still from video: 9 min 45 sec. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, Analix Forever, Geneva, and Mark Moore Gallery, Los Angeles.

Monyet Gila: Episode One

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

London-based Australian artist Shaun Gladwell and Indonesian-Australian artist Adri Valery Wens share gallery space at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in their current exhibition, “Monyet Gila: Episode One – The Episode with the Crazy Monkey.” According to the exhibition curators, Melbourne-based Natalie King and 4A director Mikala Tai, the artists have set about to “artistically excavate and reappraise” the ancient Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the 16th-century Chinese classic Journey to the West, the latter being one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature in which a group of pilgrims journey towards enlightenment in search of Buddhist texts. Each artist creates work inspired by their individual heroes: Wens tackles the poems of Hanoman, the flying monkey god and hero of Ramayana, in a three-channel video and large color photographs; while Gladwell, in a nearly 10-minute video entitled Tripitaka (2015–16), mines personal memories of a Japanese television series called “Monkey” (1978–80), based on Journey to the West, which aired on Australian television during his childhood.

In a recent interview with Sydney radio station 2ser, Gladwell related that, one day, while speaking with Wens, he discovered their mutual fascination with these epic poems that had a monkey as a protagonist. Whether this serves as enough of a premise to build an exhibition is a moot point. However, the exhibition curators explored this common interest between the artists, and the result is a somewhat loose exploration of these folkloric tales.

At 4A, Gladwell’s appropriated footage runs at an almost tortuously slow motion pace, concentrating inordinately on the actress Masako Natsume, who played the role of an androgynous monk named Tripitaka in “Monkey.” The appropriated footage is projected onto a wall-size screen inflating the images beyond what would have been seen on television screens in the 1980s. Gladwell explained to 2ser that the inspiration for his video came from his fascination with the character of Tripitaka and with Natsume herself. She was, as Gladwell expressed, “a super exotic babe.” 

Gladwell has a reputation of being an intellectual artist whose knowledge of Western art history, philosophy, literature and visual pop culture inform his practice. But he seems to have missed the target with Tripitaka. Appropriating clips from the television series, slowing the film down and looping the work does not pay homage to the program, but instead becomes a hollow echo of the original, devoid of any conceptual depth. Tripitaka is little more than a visual litany of nostalgic images, which, while important to Gladwell, has little to offer the audience.

Wens’ works, meanwhile, at least wrestle with what the curators describe as self-portraiture through performance. In his photographs and video, Wens attempts to move the conceptual framework beyond personal reverie into socially relevant territory by relocating the character  of Hanoman to the streets of Jakarta. In the photographs Hanoman (2016) and Rahwana on Jalan Kalilio No. 15, Senen (2016), an actor playing the monkey god is seen in full colorful mask and grotesque makeup, staging a performance among the bustling Jakarta streets, thereby physically linking myth and reality. In Wens’ eight-minute-long three-channel video, Subali/Gareng/Sueriwa (2016) displayed at 4A along with the actual masks, the actor of Hanoman enacts a similar but curiously vacuous performance in an empty 1960s-era cinema. Climbing over the empty theatre seats, Hanoman appears less as a fearsome deity and more of a comic character.

“Monyet Gila: Episode One” struggles to gain any momentum, but given that Journey to the West has one hundred chapters, one can only hope that subsequent episodes of exhibitions will be more lively.

ADRI VALERY WENS, Rahwana on Jalan Kalilio No. 15, Senen, 2016, pigment on silver rag paper. Courtesy the artist.

Installation detail of ADRI VALERY WENS’ three-channel video Subali/Gareng/Sueriwa, 2016, for “Monyet Gila: Episode One" at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, 2016. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

“Monyet Gila: Episode One” is on view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, until April 23, 2016.