Travel News

Shaun Gladwell: how I travel

The Australian artist on languages without words, and the magic of travelling in virtual universes.

By Helen Anderson
Shaun Gladwell
I was in my mid-20s before I travelled overseas. After six years of study, my wanderlust was so pent-up I took off and didn't look back. My whole life since then has been about travel,really. I'd like to know about responsible things like saving and investing, but I just pour it all into travel.
When I started exploring the world, everywhere I went I'd find people who could understand me throughskateboarding, TV, BMX. We shared a kind of language, a connection through globalisation and youth culture, that was profound and beautiful. I tried to learn Japanese, and my French is non-existent, but I have friends everywhere and the lack of a common language is no barrier to understanding. In terms of sociological theory, this idea of cultural convergence is really powerful, pitching itself against cultural differences and conflict.
My first big trip was to India in 2000, when the nation's population had reached a billion people. It was a huge experience, travelling from north to south. I'm a novice ornithologist, and I spent time in the wetlands of central India looking at a couple of migrating Siberian cranes.
The skateboard World Freestyle Round-Up just outside Vancouver was awesome fun in 2010, a big convergence of skateboard nerds. When we got bored talking about skateboarding we'd go watch cowboys and cowgirls get kicked off bulls – very similar to our experience.
I come from a military family. It was a very conscious thing for me to go to art school, but curiosity got me. My first experience in a war zone was Afghanistan [Gladwell was the Australian War Memorial's war artist in 2009]. I expected the geopolitics would be difficult to comprehend, and then there's the majesty of the terrain. Not long after that I'm in the far east of Turkey and then in Kuwait at an American staging base for 40,000 troops. I knew it would be very different from my father or grandfather's experience, but I really had no idea how huge it would be.
I can't wait to go to Tokyo next year to see skateboarding at the Olympics. I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime. When I started skateboarding we got shooed out of car parks and treated like ratbags, and now I'm about to meet the team that represents my country – how proud am I going to be.
I usually pack too much, but never enough socks. I take a diary and some pens, and my music, and now I have to travel with an HMD – a head-mounted display for virtual reality. I can be listening to my music in VR, or set up a VR party at a mate's house and invite friends from other cities. Travel now means it's possible to go to these virtual worlds, to travel with your buddies and to hang out wherever you happen to be. Or I'm co-pilot with my seven-year-old son on Minecraft – the entire nation of Denmark is rendered, it's getting nuts.
You can't order a good snack in VR. There's a limit to that world. But culturally it brings people together. I love the idea that we can connect through skateboarding or video games or plug into the same VR world.
Shaun Gladwell's Pacific Undertow, a survey of two decades of his work, shows at the MCA Australia, Sydney, until 7 October. mca.com.au
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