The most impressive venue at this year’s Biennale of Sydney (through June 9) is not Cockatoo Island, the giant, Arsenale-like former shipyard in the city’s beautiful harbor—it’s Carriageworks, a multidisciplinary art center converted for the exhibition into a massive black box for film and video.
Peeking out from the darkness at Carriageworks is a five-channel video installation: Running Men (2008-14), by the Australian artist Daniel McKewen, which depicts familiar Hollywood figures such as Daniel Craig and Tom Cruise sprinting toward the camera, uncannily isolated in fields of black. While his work builds on the earlier use of Hollywood cinema as a medium by artists such as Douglas Gordon (also included in this biennial), McKewen presents his runners with a distinctly contemporary eye, conditioned by fandom and the vicissitudes of online media.
McKewen, 30, based in his hometown of Brisbane, is one of the youngest artists in the Biennale of Sydney. His work is also now on view in Melbourne in “New 14,” an exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (through May 18). McKewen is one of the founders of Boxcopy, a nonprofit artist-run space in Brisbane devoted to emerging and midcareer Australian artists.
McKewen spoke to A.i.A. in the cavernous main gallery of Carriageworks, where he discussed the creative potential of fandom, the burgeoning art scene in Brisbane and his personal and professional response to the biennial’s funding controversy.
JASON FARAGO In your piece, we have five video monitors, each of which features an actor in a Hollywood film running like mad. How did you begin to isolate these individual performances?
DANIEL MCKEWEN Most of the work I make starts in a fannish moment, for want of a better description: those kind of resonant moments in a film or a television program when I feel an affective compulsion to rewatch. Particularly with this work, each of these actors—Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, Cary Grant in North by Northwest, Daniel Craig in one of the new Bond films, Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, and Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones—is a different example or representation of masculinity that stands in a dual position or has dual roles. Particularly with Cary Grant, where it all started. In one sense: he’s Cary Grant, right? But there’s that famous quote: “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant—even I want to be Cary Grant.” That struck me. Especially in North by Northwest, the whole plot is driven by the fact that he’s mistaken for someone who doesn’t exist. I feel an affinity with that kind of duality.
FARAGO There’s also the erasure of the background and the use of the loop. Each of the five men is running forever, but they’re also running from nothing or into nothing.
MCKEWEN Removing the context, and trapping them within this void, this endless scenario, enacts the ambiguity—the violent or even masochistic aspect of the work. I’m trapping them. They’re forever to be chased, never to reach their goal, stuck in this Nietzschean eternal recurrence. They’re just stuck there forever.
FARAGO It’s interesting how much headroom you give some of them. Daniel Craig is almost at the top of the screen, whereas it’s almost half-black with Cary Grant.
MCKEWEN With the composition, I was thinking about their eyelines and their running styles. But also what we imagine to be in that void. And so the composition styles strive to emphasize what we imagine Cary to be looking back at when he runs, or what we might imagine Daniel Craig to be running towards. Or the weight of something that might be bearing down on Tom Hanks. Tom Cruise’s eyeline looks up dreamily into the middle distance, leaving just enough space to be positive or negative.
FARAGO You mentioned masculinity, and in fact all of your characters are men. Why do male figures, indeed male heroes, stand at the center of this project?
MCKEWEN To be blunt, they’re really failed examples of masculinity. To trap them like this, to reduce their heroic masculinity into something more tortured: perhaps the fact that I can trap them like this—look at James Bond, with his hyper-robotic running style—means that I can exert more power over them.
FARAGO What is the Brisbane art community like? It’s really on the map for music—the Go-Betweens in the 1980s, and now indie groups like Cub Sport and Sheppard—but we hear much less about art there.
MCKEWEN In the past five or 10 years, GOMA [the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, home to the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art] has really helped to revitalize the scene. There’s a really strong underground scene of artist-run initiatives, pop-up spaces. It’s obviously a smaller scene, but it fights the good fight against the brain drain of artists and art workers going to Sydney and Melbourne. And I think it punches well above its weight in terms of attracting artists to come and do shows.
FARAGO You were one of the 51 artists who signed the open letter to the board of the Biennale of Sydney calling on them to cut ties with Transfield, the company that operates Australia’s immigrant detention centers. How has that weighed on you in these days before the opening of the exhibition?
MCKEWEN Juliana [Engberg, curator of this year’s Biennale of Sydney] and the biennale staff have been incredibly supportive all the way through. Their support has been unwavering for whatever we as artists wanted to do. I think the larger issues of art sponsorship and how money is used are complicated and nuanced, and it’s maybe unfortunate that those kinds of nuances haven’t been deliberated fully in print and online. But as an Australian, personally, I am totally against our government’s policy of mandatory detention—I think it’s barbaric and cruel.