tony schwensen

Tony Schwensen’s work tends to produce a similarly double register of meaning in which the artist’s clown-like persona—The Fat White Straight Bald Guy of his 2005 Performance Space installation—tends to conceal the very real depths of the images he constructs. I’m thinking of the video work he contributed to the ABC for its 50th birthday video portrait commissions dedicated to Peter Jackson, an elite Rugby League champion undone by the trauma of being a childhood victim of abuse. This is a genuinely moving study of the man and the issue that led to his suicide. Schwensen is one of the few artists I know who can successfully marry this contemporary understanding of vernacular Australia and elite art practice without surrendering an authentic point of view in either domain.

In Rise, a hundred hour long “meditation”, Schwensen claimed to be investigating the futility of attempting to live a self-sufficient life in contemporary Western society with its “rampant and thoughtless consumption.” His time consuming tasks were carried out beneath the banner of the wall text: “Hopes None Resolutions None”, Samuel Beckett’s famous contribution to a planned publication of the New Year’s meditations of celebrity writers.

Schwensen’s self-imposed performance tasks were to include continuous manual water desalination but, appropriately for a work examining futility, the pump gave out after nine hours, thrusting the artist into the fundamental experience of Beckett’s characters, the feeling of duration...the negation of activity and the focus on the passing of time. Adorno noted this as the essential characteristic of Beckett’s Endgame in which Clov’s opening words are “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.” Poor old Schwensen must have muttered these words to himself on a few occasions stuck as he was in gallery for 100 hours with a broken pump and nothing to do.

But duration is also the central experience of much recent performance art. In this sense Rise is typical of the kind of work that Schwensen has been developing over the last five years in that it’s a durational performance in which the unfolding of the event over time is doubled by the presence of the artist engaged in repetitive acts on a video monitor. In Rise two monitors were arranged one on top of the other showing the artist’s mouth in close-up enunciating the slogans “Love it” and “Leave it” as in the redneck mantra about Australia (love it or leave it). In Schwensen’s rendering it’s not a choice—you love it and you leave it—something the artist is practising as well as preaching: he has recently relocated to the US. His unique approach to performance art as time-based physical art and mediated self conscious irony is a way of capturing something elemental in the consciousness of the place he is exploring in his work. He will be missed.

Edward Scheer