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