This article was first published in ICA Magazine #9, January-March 1978. I am re-publishing it here with only minor adjustments because, after all these years and despite the callowness of an author then in his early 30s, I think it still has something worthwhile to say about an important Australian artist and works which remain stunningly original.

Looking Back

In the latter part of 1975, I was director of Sydney’s Institute of Contemporary Art. When a lean and wild-haired individual came into the gallery one day with a sheaf of drawings on butcher’s paper under his arm I was sceptical – lean and wild-haired individuals came into the gallery every day, exhausting me with their would-be avant-garde proposals.

When the drawings revealed a proposal for this same individual to suspend himself in a variety of apparently excruciating positions, I became even more sceptical. But I had learned to be equally sceptical about my own responses and had a fail-safe strategy for those occasions when I wasn’t sure.

On such occasions I would call my late brother, Tony, down from upstairs where he ran his own advertising and design consultancy. Tony was also a well-known painter. He had set up the legendary Central Street Gallery and now put up the money for the ICA to operate out of the same building. Quick to dismiss what he saw as shallow, he was always attracted to the subversive and genuinely exploratory, even if it were not to his own taste.

He took one glance at Ken Unsworth’s drawings and said we had to put this show on.

The show was Five Secular Settings for Sculpture as Ritual and Burial Piece. It was presented just twice – the second time only because the first had created such a sensation amongst the fifty odd people who had been able to cram into the gallery space, that many others who had not been present demanded the chance to see it for themselves.


“There is only one liberty: to come to terms with death. After which everything is possible.” – Albert Camus

Form and content – at least from the historicist perspective – have always been the two poles between which art has interminably oscillated. Arguably, we may say that the best art always achieves a significant degree of equilibrium between the two. Alternatively, we may go further and, echoing the sentiments of Samuel Beckett, deny that any such dichotomy exists.

Clement Greenberg argues that art has always tended to work in ten year cycles of style. The history of post-War art would certainly lend support to this hypothesis.

During this thirty year period of oscillation between form and content, ‘subject matter’ in art remained problematic. For Abstract Expressionism the ‘topic’ was the artist’s own psyche which was not so much rationally articulated as expressed with the greatest possible degree of immediacy. This combination of abstraction and the non-rational made for an art so immanently personal as to be largely untranslatable.

The formalism of the sixties, on the other hand, made art itself the ‘topic’ and the artist’s personality, his emotional life and individual values were rigorously extirpated.

Inevitably, the minimalism of the sixties was followed by a return to emphasis on content with conceptualism and its hybrids outlawing the object altogether in order to stress the didactic element in art. While rejecting formalism, conceptualism nonetheless shares the de-personalised character of minimalism, premised as it is on a collectivist mentality which abjures the individual and asserts that art, like the individual, should act in the service of the collective will.

As a general proposition, therefore, it may be said that post-War art has eschewed the articulation of personally felt moods and attitudes in favour of either a private language, art for art’s sake or collectivism.

Still, that can only be a general proposition. What remains is the problem of the unique and instinctive artist. “The history of modern painting, to label it with a phrase,” said Barnett Newman, “has been the struggle against the catalogue.”  There have been great artists since World War Two – Newman was one of them – and none of them conforms to the simplicities and meretriciousness of the catalogues and floods of art journals, books, dissertations and manifestoes.

The German novelist, Hermann Broch, spoke of art as a “despairing attempt to build up the imperishable from things that perish”. All good art is unique and strongly personal because it is from the particular of the personal that we can best draw insight into the nature of the general. One can’t paint a painting for or about everyone; all that can be attempted is the rendering of one artist’s aesthetic, emotional and intellectual response to their condition in the hope that this shared humanity will help that response resonate with others.


If the post-War period in art appears more than usually relativistic, there remain a few artists who stand out for their clarity of vision. One such artist was Barnett Newman. Of his own great series of paintings, The Stations of the Cross, he said:

“The first pilgrims walked the via Dolorosa to identify themselves with the original moment, not to reduce it to a pious legend; nor even to worship the story of one man and his agony; the agony that is single, constant, unrelenting, willed – world without end.

         The ones who are born are to die

         Against thy will art thou formed

         Against thy will art thou born

         Against thy will dost thou live

         Against thy will die.

No one gets anyone’s permission to be born. No one asks to live. Who can say he has more permission than anybody else?”

Thomas Hess, who quotes these remarks in his book on Newman,[i] suggests two possible meanings for Newman’s series of paintings. Either they are about a confrontation with death and that the meaning of the Passion is resurrection or the triumph of death – or else (the meaning favoured by Hess) it is a Kabbalistic declaration to be. It is, he says, “…the tragedy of death, and of ‘being’, living in the face of death. There is the conceptual struggle of the artist, the intellectual and emotional decisions which he confronts…And there is the joy and exultation of working and accomplishing, of reaching the vision. Vir heroicus sublimis! It is this passion – it is such a trinity – I believe, that informs the Stations of the Cross.”

These three performance works of Ken Unsworth are analogous to Newman’s great work in more than one sense. Like Newman’s work, they are threefold in their preoccupation.

Firstly, they are concerned with that most absolute and fundamental human agony which Samuel Beckett described so astonishingly when in his play, Waiting for Godot, he has a character say: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps.” His characters, Vladimir and Estragon, represent a confrontation with inevitable and apparently arbitrary death. Like Newman, they question the value of a life which is both conferred and taken away without discernible logic.

Secondly, these performance works concerned themselves with the nature of Unsworth’s art – namely, sculpture.

And thirdly, they are to do with the life of “man-as-an-artist” (Hess), man as a creature born to act and create – homo faber.

These three themes are the subject of each of the three performance works with each performance being a fresh exploration of the themes, each more subtle and complex then its predecessor. And the analogy with Newman’s Stations of the Cross is not mere whimsy. The third of works, Face to Face[ii] is astounding for its parallels to Stations of the Cross – even if that parallel was fortuitous.


Five Secular Settings for Sculpture as Ritual and Burial Piece was presented just twice at Sydney’s Institute of Contemporary Art on October 27th and November 17th, 1975. It consisted of what might be termed five sculptural moments or tableaux, each lasting just one to two minutes, with the Burial Piece lasting about fifteen minutes. The gallery space was divided in two by a curtain which was opened to reveal each setting. In each setting Unsworth employed his own body, always suspended in some way. Each was strongly punitive in character, while the monumental last setting was overtly crucifixional.

  • He is suspended horizontally, several feet from the ground by ropes and within a ‘forest’ of ropes hanging from the ceiling.
  • He is tied hand and foot and suspended beneath a free-standing wooden grid.
  • He is bound to a metal pole, leant up against the wall, head upwards.
  • He is bound to a metal pole, leant up against the wall, head downwards.
  • He is suspended (braced behind the ears) from two massive wooden beams which, with his head as the apex, form a triangle. Front spotlighting throws a dramatic shadow on the rear white-painted wall of the gallery.

The last setting acted as a bridge to the Burial Piece and served to provide some coherence to the otherwise disparate elements of the whole performance. To pursue the analogy of the Passion: if the fifth setting was the crucifixion, then the Burial Piece was a portrayal of the deposition, entombment and resurrection. Here, as the curtain parted, the audience saw Unsworth standing in a glass booth. This was then gradually filled with sand, bag by bag, until he was completely buried. Now the amplified heart beats which had accompanied the burial ceased. Then an assistant, using a sledge hammer, smashed the glass allowing the ‘corpse’ to be ‘resurrected’, as the sand tumbled out to the floor. And the heart beats resumed as the curtain was again drawn.

For this performance, Unsworth wrote in a programme note:

“Although these settings as sculpture as ritual are in fact sculptural, the idea of the sculptural object succumbs to ideas about what can happen to the object, what happens when something happens to the object. The exposure time becomes critical, for it’s the after-image that delivers…that evokes memory…of things not quite grasped.”

Here he is drawing attention to the purely formal aspects of the pieces: an evocation of the traditional sculptural confrontation with problems of balance and suspension and volume in space, notwithstanding the obvious difference that they were ephemeral and that the sculptor’s own body formed the major element in each piece.

For the time that each piece lasted, it was static and available for contemplation. However, as the curtain closed on each piece, the viewer was left only with the ‘after-image’ and, finally, only the memory of an experience. The presence of the sculptor’s body enduring its ‘punitive agony’ ensured that the work was emotionally charged, while the conceptual coherence provided by the last setting of the Burial Piece provided a narrative to the performance as a whole.


A Different Drummer was created for the Biennale of Sydney (November-December 1976) and presented at the Art Gallery of NSW. It typifies the way in which Unsworth’s work became an on-going exploration with each work growing out of the work before. In this case, the theme of life as a cycle of birth, death and re-birth is re-visited, this time in a rather Manichean mood.

The performance was set in a sterile, white room. Diagonally across the room was a heavy wooden beam supported by two wooden pillars. Unsworth, dressed in a white tunic (like a hospital orderly) begins the performance standing at one end of the beam holding a wooden, mechanical doll. In the foreground, another wooden mechanical doll – a drummer – starts to rap out a tattoo on his drum. Unsworth places the doll on the beam and it starts to crawl with painful slowness along the beam. When it reaches the end of the beam it falls to the ground, lying there to the wails of a baby. High up on the opposite wall, a silhouetted figure nods its head in penitence. Unsworth walks around the beam to pick up the fallen doll. The drummer pauses his tattoo and turns to watch. Unsworth picks up the doll and returns it to the beam for the cycle to repeat itself.

Clearly, this is a parable of life and death as an eternal cycle. Placed by an anonymous paternal figure on the ‘beam of life’ the child/man makes its painful progress along the full length of the beam until it reaches that arbitrary point where the beam ends. The pain of this journey and its end is relentless because, having completed one journey, the child/man is submitted to another and another without end:

“…the agony that is single, constant, unrelenting, willed – world without end.”

What comes out of A Different Drummer is that life is a compulsion and that free will in its most profound sense is illusory. We are placed on the ‘beam of life’ without being asked and our progress along that beam is pre-determined, as is its end. We are like the two mechanical dolls – wired to a distant, invisible electronic board to which even the drummer to whose beat we crawl is also wired. Even the paternal, ministering figure which places the doll on the beam participates unquestioningly in the relentless ritual.

There is a cynicism in A Different Drummer which, in Sculpture as Ritual, was only perplexity. The ritual of the earlier work was a mystery endorsed by our faith. In the latter work there is no longer a mystery, merely an apparently pointless ritual, the purpose of which the participants have either long since forgotten or were never told.


The third of Ken Unsworth’s performance works was Face to Face, presented at the ICA on November 7th, 1977.  In performance time, this was the longest of the three, consisting of seven ‘settings’ and lasting approximately 45 minutes.

Like A Different Drummer, this work reflected Unsworth’s preoccupation with the ineluctable cycle of birth and death. However, where the previous two performances consisted either of a series of static and ephemeral images or of one extended and repeated image, the seven settings making up Face to Face are each made up of either a number of detailed images or else an on-going action. This makes Face to Face the most dramatic – or theatrical – of the three.

The action of the seven settings was as follows:

  • A huge, raised beam. Hanging upside down from the beam at one end is a cocooned figure. The figure stirs, becomes more agitated and finally cuts itself free. It then begins a strutting progress along the beam, interrupted by absurd muscle-man poses. The figure disappears into darkness when it reaches the other end of the beam.
  • After some violent rapping noises, the figure emerges from behind a black screen in the middle of the performance area. Pursued by its own shadow, the figure circles the area.
  • The figure pulls a cord to light a single, naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. Immediately, we hear the ticking of a clock. Small wooden blocks are picked up and hurled from one side of area to the other. The light goes out; darkness; violent noises.

Light and clock again. The figure’s appearance is altered by the addition of a patently false beard. On the white wall he draws the outline of his hand and then hammers a nail into the centre of the image. Light off; sounds of a milling crowd.

Light and clock. The appearance of the figure is again altered to seem aged by the addition of a rubber skull cap. The figure moves from one side of the gallery to the other, slapping the walls as he goes. Light off; sounds of an eerie, empty space.

Light switched on again. This time no ticking. Hesitantly, the figure the figure moves a few paces away from the light cord, before returning quickly to extinguish the light a final time.

  • On the right-hand side of the performance area stands a large, plate glass window. Some distance behind the window stands a table, while in between the two stands a single, unshaded light. When the light comes on, the figure is bending over the table winding up what transpires to be a music box. Wearing thick-lensed glasses, he approaches the window and peers myopically out to the audience. He then proceeds to paint the window black, interrupted regularly by having to re-wind the music box, each time removing an article of clothing. This continues until the window is completely blacked out.
  • The figure, inert and lit only by a tight spot, hangs upside down from the ceiling. His hair is ruffled by a light breeze. Sound effects of scuttling and rustling. Abruptly, the figure lashes out with a rod he has been holding, thrashing the floor about him. This sequence is repeated several times before the spot fades.
  • The figure is seated on a chair, backlit by a spot. A woman’s voice begins a recitation of poems by James Masson Gunn in a monotone. The figure begins to jerk violently in the chair. The sequence is repeated several times until the figure’s actions become so violent that he falls from the chair to the sound of breaking glass.
  • Against the rear wall of the gallery the figure is stretched out horizontally, supported by a host of dowling sticks, his face to the wall. The figure is coated with ashes. Over the speakers a cracked Sprechstimme sings “Are you lonesome tonight?” Lights fade with the conclusion of the song.

Like A Different Drummer, Face to Face forms a cycle which could conceivably be repeated ad infinitum. The cycle begins with birth: a suspended and cocooned figure struggles his way free to begin a strutting progress along the ‘beam of life’, made ludicrous by the fact that he is upside down. The next six settings expand on this initial small journey and conclude with the figure cocooned again, ready for rebirth and the repetition of the cycle. In between the first and the last images we are given a fractured view of life as a progress through time and space;’ life as an entity we choose to assume is whole, but which is never grasped apart from fleeting and discontinuous glimpses.

More than either of the two previous performances, Face to Face represents an astonishing, although certainly fortuitous, analogy with Barnett Newman’s cycle of paintings, The Stations of the Cross. And Newman is worth quoting again for the light he inadvertently sheds on this performance:

“I was trying to call attention to that part of the Passion which I have always felt was ignored and which has always affected me and that was the cry of lema sabachthani (why hast thou forsaken me?), which I don’t think is a complaint, but which Jesus makes.. And I was always struck by the paradox that he says to those who persecuted Him and crucified Him, ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do’. But to God, and Jesus is projected as the Son of God, He says, ‘What’s the idea!’

I suggest that a close parallel can be drawn between the Passion and Face to Face. Hence, the first two settings correspond to the first two Stations, since to be condemned to death is effectively to be born again (and an ontological inference inference to be drawn from Unsworth’s earlier performances). The next seven Stations consist of Christ’s progress to Calvary and correspond to the third setting – i.e. Everyman’s progress form birth to death. Stations 10 to 12 see Christ stripped of his garments, crucified and His ultimate death, corresponding to settings 4, 5 and 6, while the powerful final setting corresponds to the deposition and entombment.

If this analogy seems too fanciful, we can again invoke Samuel Beckett who once remarked: “I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe in them.” At the very least, the analogy with the Stations of the Cross provides a possible way into this very private work. What is certain is that Unsworth, in a purely instinctive way, has created his own version of the Passion as a religious myth which “…stands as one man’s agony”. In such profane times as ours when art has never been more determinedly secular and humanistic, Face to Faceunderscores the resilience and enduring potency of religious myth.


In a programme note for Sculpture as Ritual, Unsworth commented:

“I have gone off belatedly making sculptures as something finite, predictable and always there, and getting into the gut excitement of exploring means/options to give visual expression to ideas, things felt, premonitions…I’m not sure what these are or what they mean, but it’s important to carry them out and in this group, as episodic actions, as sensory experience, without theatricality.”

In the years immediately following that first performance, Unsworth has pursued his personal vision, fashioning new formal means, as they became necessary, in order to render each new phase of that vision. The most obvious characteristic of this development has been the growing stress on narrative. The performances have become more dramatic and there has been less emphasis on the aesthetics of static images.

The initial step was to break with sculpture as “something finite, predictable and always there”. The Five Secular Settings were still recognisably sculptural in the traditional sense except for the presence of the artist’s own body as an element in the pieces, the frontality of the images and their ephemerality. Even with Burial Piece the instinct was towards a more dynamic form until, with Face to Face, we are witness to a complete narrative.

And here, I think, we can see a key motivating factor in the development of performance as an increasingly important element in Ken Unsworth’s creative activity.

At this moment in time, what options present themselves to the sculptor interested in narrative? A reversion to representational modelling or carving is inappropriate. Minimalism by its very nature is incapable of narrative and is, anyway – like the varieties of ‘environmental’ sculpture – too gestural and reflexive for the monumentality of Unsworth’s themes. Similarly, didacticism of of most current performance art is also inappropriate to a sensibility like Unsworth’s which is so thoroughly exploratory and non-teleogical. That we even refer to his work as ‘performance’ is only for the want of a more exact term, for it bears almost no resemblance to à la mode ‘performance art. And, in so far as Unsworth’s work approaches theatre, it is analogous only to the visual and intellectual rigour of the late work of Samuel Beckett.

Ken Unsworth is an entirely instinctive and non-cerebral artist. One cannot discern anything derivative or indeed a single gesture of recognition towards the tradition or fashions of art – which is not say there haven’t been influences such as Anthony Caro, David Smith, the land art movement and people such as Richard Long, Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson etc.

But what I am calling his performance work is unique to him. Both in this and in more conventional object-making, Unsworth is consistently and rigorously explorative. Even in the static, constructive pieces, the process of arriving at the formal solution is more important than the end product.

Just as the individual pieces and installations always seem no more than provisional solutions to problems, so the performances represent successively more profound explorations of a single theme. The form those explorations take is always determined by inner criteria and is never contrived merely for effect. For example, the sensational Fifth Secular Setting or Jan Hemmett’s extraordinary electronic dolls for A Different Drummer or the staggering First Setting in Face to Face are anything but novelties designed to amaze and astonish. On the contrary, they present as the only possible solution to rendering particular ideas. For Unsworth, art is an activity or process consisting of the search for visual analogues (formal solutions) to “ideas, things felt, premonitions…”

If there is a reservation about Unsworth’s ‘performance’ work, it is the same as might be held about almost all other ‘performance art’, namely that it tends not to accept the formal theatrical implications. As long as the performances consisted of single, frontal images or extended and repeated images this didn’t matter, as Unsworth-the-sculptor was always conscious of how his viewers would to perceive the work from ‘out front’. Now that the work is becoming more dramatic, however, Unsworth needs to master a new kind of ‘illusionism’ – namely, the craft of the actor and the mime. Most performance artists abjure this as ‘theatricalism’. The consequent verbal and physical gaucherie of such ‘performances’ ensures only the total alienation of the audience. I think we may feel more confident with Unsworth, however,  as he will doubtless tackle this problem with the same pragmatism as he has set about solving the many technical problem which arose in the first three performance works.

On another note, if Unsworth is to continue his exploration of ontological themes, it will be interesting to see how this preoccupation resolves itself. Having confronted the existential crisis of recognising that “our little life is rounded with a sleep”, will Unsworth independently arrive at Newman’s Kabbalistic (indeed, existentialist!) injunction: to be? And, as Goethe puts it in his poem, Selige Sehnsucht (Blessed Yearning):

         And so long as you don’t grasp that,

         This: Die and become!

         You remain a dismal guest

         On this dark earth.

Or will his vision continue to reflect the bleakness of Samuel Beckett’s “Abode where lost bodies roam, each searching for it lost one. Vast enough for search to be in vain. Narrow enough for flight to be in vain.”


Five Secular Settings for Sculpture as Ritual and Burial Piece.

Presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 1 Central Street, Sydney on October 27th and November 17th, 1975.

Music: Peter Kelly, John Levine and George Jolesz.

Video: Ray Isles (for the ICA).

Photography: John Whitteron, and Tony McGillick (for the ICA).

Sound: John Conway

Assisting: Michael Phelps, Stephen Brockman, Mitch Johnson, Chris Gearin.

A Different Drummer.

Presented during the Biennale of Sydney November/December, 1976 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Technical adviser: Jan Hemmett

Video: Ross Webb and Tony McGillick (for the ICA).

Face to Face.

Performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 1 Central Street, Sydney on November 7th, 1977.

Lighting: Paul Warren

Sound: Ken Unsworth

Photography: Robert Walker

Texts spoken and sung by Elizabeth Unsworth.

Assisting: Michael Phelps, Chris Gearin, Stephen Brockman, Elizabeth Unsworth.

Video: Ross Webb

[i] Hess, Thomas B. (1971), Barnett Newman. Museum of Modern Art: New York.