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An Acclaimed Sculptor Unveils His New Exhibition, Aged 87

Studio Visit

An incredible new exhibition opens this morning at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, in Melbourne.

87-year-old sculptor Ken Unsworth is unveiling a collection of brand new and career-defining installations from across his five-decade-spanning practice.

We photographed the acclaimed artist in his Sydney studio and, just yesterday, met up with him in Melbourne as he applied the final touches to Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly to discover more.

14th September, 2018

Acclaimed sculptor Ken Unsworth’s studio in Sydney. Photo – Alana Dimou.

Ken has been preparing works, including four exclusive new installations, for his exhibition ‘Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly’. Photo – Alana Dimou.

‘Mind games’ (2014) features two skeletons seated at a table, and references the game of life and death, and Ken’s fascination with the human body. Photo –  Eugene Hyland, courtesy of NGV.

Ken’s assistant Victoria at work in the Sydney studio. Photo – Alana Dimou.

Hand-blow glass elements in preparation for the exhibition. Photo – Alana Dimou.

The pieces have come together to form the new work ‘Memory’. Photo – Alana Dimou.

‘Featuring works that span across Ken’s five-decade career, the exhibition highlights his ingenious ability to create interactive installations that will spark visitor curiosity,’ says NGV Director Tony Ellwood. Photo – Alana Dimou.

‘Memory’ (2018) erected in Ken’s studio. Photo – Alana Dimou.

The completed work, installed at NGV Australia. Photo –  Eugene Hyland, courtesy of NGV.

Ken was Australia’s first visual artist to be awarded the Australian Creative Fellowship by Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1989, and in the same year was also honoured with a Member of The Order of Australia.Photo – Alana Dimou.

He references his personal experiences of love and death through his art. Photo – Alana Dimou.

Elements of ‘Saint Francis of the Birds’ (2018) in the studio – which he jokes is ‘a place where all sorts of strange crimes and misdemeanors occur!’. Photo – Alana Dimou.

Another enigmatic artwork: ‘Tattooed piano’ (2010). Photo –  Eugene Hyland, courtesy of NGV.

Ken has taken part in Sydney Biennale and multiple Australian Sculptural Triennials, along with represented Australia in international Biennales in Paris, Venice, and Istanbul. Here, he and his assistants – Mike, Victoria and Christopher – are at work on the installation for NGV Australia. Photo – Alana Dimou.

‘In concert’ (1983-84) greets you at the NGV Australia entrance. Photo –  Eugene Hyland, courtesy of NGV.

‘When snowflakes turn to stone’ (2018), features a larger-than-life resin-cast skeleton surrounded by suspended stones and highlights Ken’s reoccurring exploration of the human body. Photo –  Eugene Hyland, courtesy of NGV.

Elle Murrell
Friday 14th September 2018

‘There comes a point where the interest turns into a necessity… If you don’t have that, then you’re sort of just dabbling around the edges.’ – Ken Unsworth.

Entering NGV Australia, I weave through a hoard of on-excursion-hyper school kids and find myself at an imprisoned piano, gilded with a name: Elisabeth Volodarsky. Elisabeth is the late wife of revered contemporary artist Ken Unsworth. This is In concert (1983–84), one of 11 dynamic, gravity-defying sculptural installations on display in a celebration of his unique art practice, entitled Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly‘.

The story, I’m told, is that when Ken first met Elisabeth, she enquired as to his occupation, and he replied, ‘an artist’. Immediately following their encounter, Ken quickly went home to create the artworks that would back-up his pitch. Throughout their long life together and today still, Elisabeth is a vital muse. ‘I wasn’t particularly creative,’ Ken recalls of his childhood. ‘I didn’t really understand what art was, the question never arose, and then, even though I trained as a secondary art teacher, it didn’t inspire me to become an artist. It was only in my mid-20s, having met Elisabeth, that set me on this road.’

Over the six decades that have followed, Ken has created everything from installations to mechanical relief works, land art events and innovative performances. Yet, he simply sees himself as ‘a sculptor’. In exploring his personal experiences of love and death, Ken brings together juxtaposing elements in his compositions, which feature the likes of resin-cast skeletons, hand-blown glass forms, functioning electrical components and grand pianos – symbolic of his love for Elisabeth, an accomplished concert pianist.

Having grown up in Melbourne and rural Victoria before moving to Sydney with Elisabeth, Ken is humbled to be returning to show work at the ‘prestigious NGV’. As he passes between the installations making final checks, he comments on the meandering layout, which further adds to the showcase’s intrigue. ‘It is a collection of work, some very early and four new pieces, but each of them had to be selected based on the physical structure of the gallery and to accommodate themselves within it,’ explains Ken.

The installations are displayed throughout the building’s foyers. All are utterly unique, and have you second-guessing what you’re looking at – especially when they’re moving! ‘I don’t start off trying to make a point across to an audience,’ Ken tells. ‘I make work that is essentially intuitive and I hope that somehow or another it speaks to people who come across it, and they interpret is terms of their own experience.’

The 87-year-old still has an inspiring passion for his practice and has no plans to slow down (despite or perhaps even in spite of having just had knee surgery!). Ken’s sharp eyes light up as contemplates next projects. ‘There comes a point where the interest turns into a necessity, and that necessity is the guiding force behind doing things,’ he muses. ‘If you don’t have that, then you’re sort of just dabbling around the edges.’

Those flocking to NGV Australia in the coming months will certainly experience the complete opposite of a half-hearted effort. But will they discover their truths, just see madness, or be deeply moved by Ken’s homages? In any case, this collection of curious sculptures will suck you in and have your own mind ticking over!

Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly
September 14th, 2018, to February 17th, 2019
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square, Melbourne, Victoria
Free Entry

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net