Ken Unsworth is one of Australia’s much-loved and respected artists whose artistic oeuvre encompasses the fields of drawing, painting, installation, sculpture, theatrics, dance and performance. His career spans over six decades and he is still going. Unsworth has exhibited at major events and art institutions at home and abroad. A few times a year he creates a unique visual art experience in his studio, which is accessible for a short period of time to friends and fellow creative spirits. This week I was thrilled to be invited!
Arriving at Unsworth’s studio in inner-city Sydney I found a small-fronted warehouse quietly nestled among a row of terrace houses. Behind the building’s humble façade is a place where creative ideas and artistic collaboration flourishes. What auditory, visual, kinetic encounter awaits in The Embarkation to the Isle of Cythera?
The Embarkation to the Isle of Cyhtera is Ken Unsworth’s New Installation
In the small vestibule that is the entrance, a never ending wailing cry enchanted with the sounds of choral song called out. Having not seen any images of the work beforehand I was intrigued. I moved into a darkened space and noted the black drapery cascading from ceiling to floor, a bold and magical stage. Unsworth later tells me that the mis en scene is a vital component to the presentation of his work.
An air of arcane romance floods the set revealing the powerful presence of the mysterious wailing protagonist. I see – a revenant apparition anchored to the present time by the complex construction of her wood-formed figure and the boat that brings her on this journey. The shape of her full-length gown and the detail of the pleated collar, frame her in a time reminiscent of the Elizabethan era.
I wondered if she’d been lost at sea, returning now yearning for the homeland she once knew. Arms outstretched all the while wailing as she rocks with the simulated motion of a voyage floating on the currents of the sea. And what of her carved wooden crew? Are they clinging for dear life or about to jump ship? At the rear of the boat a loan oarsman determinedly rows. Is this an ocean of eternal promise?
With my own thoughts about the work fresh on my mind, I joined Unsworth and his team for morning tea upstairs at the far end of the gallery. I ask Unsworth to tell me a little about the work and he says, “normally I don’t talk about the work.” But he humours me with a brief hypothesis.
“What has been interesting is that people who have seen it have been able to enter with the work in many different ways, they saw different things in it, and that is what I think any artist hopes that somehow the work will evoke all sorts of different responses. That’s why I don’t like to explain, what I thought the work was about.” He shares the notion that his ideas are a fluid process “the works evolve or appear to me as a whole in the minds eye. And sometimes something from somewhere else triggers an idea and another part floats into the picture.”
Once the idea had been realised the next step for this work was the making of the boat. Unsworth says he likes to give his assistants “a bit of free reign so they aren’t inhibited by what I ask them to do, they almost take it on as something of their own.”
The boat was constructed using many pieces of wood bolted together, then the focus turned to what was going to be in the boat. Unsworth says that he had the idea “of a goddess or an avenging angel or a woman triumphant, being carried on a journey. A bit like the Flying Dutchman, this journey is endless.” The creative team also enthusiastically carved 50 to 60 small wooden people sculptures, some of which became crew on the vessel and others that will likely turn up somewhere else later.
Unsworth originally made a full-size carving of the towering figure using PVC. With a warm smile and a chuckle he says his assistants “happily totally ignored it.” “Because I’ve been able to let them use their own imaginations, they’ve actually produced a figure that was very different to what I had in mind, but in another way it’s a great exemplar of it. Even though there’s this terrifying cry, there is also a gesture of humanity in the figure,” he mused.
Ken Unsworth’s works are held in numerous public collections and galleries including the beautiful Suspended Stone Circle II (1974-1977), which is on permanent display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. You can watch the precision process of the installation of this incredible artwork here on YouTube. Unsworth first exhibited in the Biennale of Sydney in 1976, and subsequently participated in five others, the most recent was in 2000. In 2018/19 Unsworth held a major exhibition of works in ‘Truly, Madly’ at the National Gallery of Victoria and continues working on a grand scale today. He has participated in artist residencies at the Cité des Arts Paris and at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, and in 1989 Unsworth was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his valuable contributions to the field of Sculpture.