I interviewed the Australian artist Shaun Gladwell on November 13, 2009, after his return from Afghanistan where he had spent the month of October as an official Australian War Artist. My subsequent article appeared in The Art Newspaper.

I have decided to publish the full text of my Gladwell interview on this website, in response to a reader’s email which asked how Stephen Dupont’s experiences in Afghanistan would have compared to Gladwell’s, given that Dupont is a documentary photographer and Gladwell worked in Afghanistan as an official Australian War Artist.

I thought the best way to satisfy the reader’s query was to present the full transcript of my interview with Gladwell. In this way, his comments can be compared with Stephen Dupont’s, whose interview also appears on this website.

A few years ago, Shaun let the Australian War Memorial know that he was interested in being a war artist. “I had an interest in that way of working,” he said. After a few years the AWM rang him to say they had considered him and it was possible. They contacted him around the time of the Venice Biennale ’09, in which Shaun exhibited. A curator from the AWM came to his studio and “a relationship formed slowly over a period of time”.

Here is the Gladwell interview, edited very lightly:

ArtWriter: Why were you interested in gaining a commission as an Australian War Artist?

Shaun Gladwell: It was an interest I’ve had through my family. My father had a history with the military and he had served in Vietnam and my grandfather had served in World War II and my great grandfather was in World War I. Yet I didn’t really choose that path at all. And yet I was always interested in their experience and tried to imagine what it would be like for them. It was very difficult. I could never really empathise. Also I had become aware of the British Imperial War Museum. They have a similar program. There were a few artists that were involved in the British commission, people like Steve McQueen who I knew and Langlands & Bell who I don’t know but I know of their work, so there was a few things that connected the dots and led me to think about this kind of way of working.

Tell me about your father’s career in army?

He’s retired [from the army]. He stayed in the army reserves for a little while. It certainly had an impact on his life. Over the years he’s been more forthcoming about his experiences and that has been interesting for me to think about and try and understand. It certainly was something that was close to home.

Was your father already in the army before Vietnam?

He was a professional soldier but he did enlist during the conscription period so it didn’t take him very long, he was deployed rather quickly. He was quite young as well. He signed himself up rather than being conscripted.

You were an army kid?

Yeah, I was just aware that that was a part of his history. He started his family once he had returned from Vietnam so it was all before I was born. It was a fresh experience for him. It was something I was thinking about and it was kind of like an entry point for me into thinking about this experience I have just had in Afghanistan.

Did he say anything to you about your trip to Afghanistan?

After all the anecdotes and stories that he had told me over the years I think I was a bit more prepared to deal with military culture. It was a very different conflict that I saw compared to what he must have been involved in. In a way of course there’s the same organisation but a different era and different field of conflict. Also there was this real difference that was something I wasn’t prepared for. Just because it’s such a different environment in Afghanistan and different kind of cultural logic. There was similarities and differences for sure.

What shocked you most when you got to Afghanistan?

It was probably the landscape, that was the thing that really shocked me. It was just so kind of vast and enormous and grand. At times it was inhospitable and it was also incredibly lush and green and dense in a matter of metres, the way the water was used and irrigation has been developed. [There were immense mountain-scapes then really severe desert.] I think I was impressed by the enormity of that space.

[Shaun has made artworks about vast Australian landscapes, so I asked him why he was still shocked by the vastness of Afghanistan.]

Yeah, I think the mountains. I’m really taken by landscapes. They become a real point of interest for me. But also I guess the vast scale of the military presence over there, that was also pretty overwhelming, the size of certain military bases and the infrastructure. I was overwhelmed by the size of the environment I was in and also the kind of system that I was operating in as well.

Are the army personnel impressive?

That’s always been of interest. I guess it’s a very different conflict to a war where there was conscription. Everyone deployed at the moment, especially in the Australian contingent, they are professional soldiers who are highly trained and very engaged with cultural protocol and engaged in their work and that was pretty amazing to just know how much local knowledge they had. The surrounding culture as well as the landscape. So that was a real surprise. They had  a real connection to the local culture, which is really impressive. A lot of the guys had connected with the language and knew a lot of cultural practices and had quite an understanding of how that culture operates on a day to day level.

There’s not so much a front line in Afghanistan?

Yeah, and the guys that I spent time with were very good at connecting with locals and making sure that their presence there wasn’t like a major disruption or that the initial kind of reception isn’t a hostile one, it’s actually a really friendly one.  I guess that was kind of heartening to see there is this side to the conflict, and the children of any village that we would roll through would always be the first to run out and wave and the soldiers were really good at being receptive to that. That kind of stuff was heartening. There was also some stuff that was really quite harrowing in terms of the conflict. That stuff kind of gave it a context and also gave me a bit more of an overall picture. It’s just not a conflict that involves combatants going head to head; there’s kind of a complex negotiation taking place over there.

What was the harrowing experience you mentioned?

I think probably the most confronting thing that I saw was a field hospital in Kandahar which was quite tough because I saw a lot of casualties. It’s probably not any different to an emergency or trauma ward in a hospital anywhere in the world, but just the fact that you see casualties through warfare and that’s the difference, and different kinds of casualties. I didn’t actually record that experience; it was just something that I took on board as something that will kind of inform the work perhaps, but I didn’t feel it was appropriate to record that, but that was really quite tough.

Were the casualties military or civilian?

The hospital was dealing with everyone. I was pretty impressed with the hospital staff because they were doing an incredible job as well. They were working pretty hard and around the clock. It was in Kandahar, a hospital that was dealing with the Coalition but at that stage it was a Canadian role 3 hospital. Jointly run by the Canadians and a few other forces. A lot of Australian doctors were working in that hospital.

Were you filming most situations?

Yeah, if I felt like it was of interest to me in terms of my work I would either photograph or at some points I would even video things or sketch things. At other times it just didn’t seem appropriate or wasn’t possible because they were moving too fast through different situations.

Did you get to meet local people?

Yeah, I did. There was one or two markets that were set up that some of the troops were able to access that was supporting a lot of local business which was great. In patrol situations we were moving through villages so there was interaction there. So there was an opportunity to connect to the local culture, which was great.

Are the local people living in totally traumatic way?

It’s hard for me to assess that because I didn’t know what had gone before. But from what I can tell through the successive occupations before this phase of the conflict I can imagine in certain areas of Afghanistan there has been this ongoing trauma, and that’s quite tough. But I find that hard to comprehend because it’s so far away from my own experience but it certainly did inform the way I was looking at those regions. People in certain areas of Afghanistan are impoverished and living in subsistence situations. That was quite confronting. I guess the frightening thing was there was quite a lot of reconstruction and mentoring work, a lot of aid effort. I was in Tarin Kout in the base we share with the Dutch in Oruzgan province. There was also at that point quite a lot of people from AusAid. Looking at a children’s school they had constructed in the township of Tarin Kout. It was great to hear a report of this school and how it had gone from strength to strength. For all of the kind of tragedy that I was experiencing, there were these stories of hope that were offsetting that. It was a situation where I was pretty lucky I didn’t get into a full-scale combat situation. It was just lucky I didn’t get caught in the middle of that. But it was kind of a bit of tension going out on patrols, that’s for sure. We did get to move through a lot of landscape. We were right out there in the middle of this wild and various landscape which was tense and wonderful in equal measure. I also went to Kandahar. Travelled through and stayed in bases. I did have to move pretty quickly through some areas because I wanted to see as much as possible. It wasn’t like casual travel; it was more being part of patrols or operations in those areas.

How did you work out your itinerary?

I asked them what I’d like to do and they kind of built an itinerary around that. They’d really help me try and get to as many things as I’d asked to see. I was also interested in base life. It was good to get a variety of experiences.

What is the purpose of the patrols you went on?

Every one [of the patrols] has a different aim. There’s different kinds of sections of the military involved in these patrols. Some are for strategic, combat role, others for mentoring, reconstruction, protecting aid workers, others are for resupplying other bases. There are quite a few things taking place over there at any one time.

How did you find the Australian military personnel?

I thought I would be judged against and put into a kind of category which is the kind of journalist category, but actually the military were really quite good with journalists and with me because I was kind of this artist and I thought it would be difficult but in actual fact they were great. [Shaun lived with the troops and ate the same food as they did.] It was a better way for me to understand what they were going through. In bases you’re living and working and eating with the guys and girls, so it was quite a good experience in terms of trying to connect in that way.

Did you have freedom or were you censored?

No, I didn’t feel censored. I think I was advised on certain things if what I tried to do was too dangerous, not that that really happened. I didn’t really have that as part of my project anyway. I wasn’t interested in photographing sensitive material, in terms of the technology or weapons. My interest was really the experience of the soldier as a thinking and feeling subject and someone who’s having to try and assist quite a lot within their kind of environment and their experience of that landscape and how it affects them.

Did you got there with a plan in mind?

I didn’t try and have too many expectations because I figured all my preconceptions of the place would be quickly shattered and they kind of were. So I did try and just go in with a kind of openness. There’s always things I’m interested in in my work in general. Like I’m interested in how bodies move through space and the capacity of bodies to perform in certain situations. Particularly how it relates to landscape. These are issues I’m always interested in. That informed the way I was dealing with that experience in Afghanistan. But I didn’t try and direct anything.

Will it take a long time to absorb your experiences in Afghanistan?  Will your resulting work unfold over the years?

I think it is kind of on-going engagement. But certain things I want to work on sooner rather than later while this experience is fresh. In the next six months I will be pretty focused on what’s just taken place. [Shaun’s video and photographic art installation, titled Double Field, was launched at the AWM in July, 2010.]

Do you think the conflict in Afghanistan is winnable?

It’s really difficult for me to comment on that because I figured I was never really involved in a political discourse, I was more interested in the politics of representation. Difficult to assess because on a communal level I would see soldiers given a particular task and they were successful in carrying it out. We are only a small part in a bigger puzzle over there. The Australian forces working with the Dutch are in a pretty complicated and dangerous area but I know that we are moving forward where I know that a lot of other regions are moving backwards in a lot of ways. So it was very tough for me to generalise and conflate what I was seeing, and then thinking that that’s a fair assessment elsewhere. I know it’s not going to be resolved quickly and easily, that’s for sure.

Did you meet any of the Australian troops who were subsequently killed?

I had an opportunity to meet colleagues of two of those troops who had fallen in service and that was tough, but there’s quite a lot of respect for them and certainly their colleagues were amazing to just press on and it was interesting to see how they were dealing with that situation. It is a war zone, and those things are kind of at the back of a lot of people’s minds; at the forefront sometimes, which is quite tough psychologically. But it was amazing to see how strong a lot of those guys and girls are over there to press on.

Were they like the troops in George Gittoes’ films?

It’s good to remember the UN organising body have quite a few different nationalities. For every different nationality there’s a different operating logic and the Australians are known for having a very high level of morale and they’re quite famous for also being quite friendly and easy going. It sounds like a cultural cliche that I was quite sceptical of, but it’s actually quite true when I see how Australian forces are regarded by other nations and that was quite interesting. [Gittoes focused on the Americans] but the Australians have a different kind of presence over there. Certainly it’s not mutually exclusive. There is incredible mateship throughout that whole coalition and there is humour and there’s definitely this human side to it. We have a particular take on how all that takes place within a community of people and it’s quite exciting to see it all alive in a very different world to the homeland Australia.

That’s why the AWM sends artists over there?

Sure, that’s part of the challenge. The idea of trying to process all these very different experiences. It’s quite brutal and it does seem complicated and overwhelming, but at the same time it is human beings who in the Australian case we know well and how they operate and they’re all kindred spirits trying to get a job done. It’s very inspirational, that’s for sure, so I’ll definitely spend the next six months trying to digest it, in a sense. It was certainly an experience I’ll never forget.

Would you go back?

I kind of figure the time I had over there was kind of unique. The subject changes constantly and even if I had the opportunity to go over there again I can imagine it would be a very different situation so I’m really cherishing that and starting to analyse what’s taken place at this particular time because it really is a slice of time that I’m going to work with now.

Were you able to keep some souvenirs? Your helmet, perhaps?

Not the helmet. Helmet and body armour are quite heavy and also restricted back in Australia. So I had to hand that back in on the way home. That’s OK, I wouldn’t have too much need for body armour back here anyway. I had to return it for the next person who needs it over there.

© Elizabeth Fortescue 2009 (Full transcript added to www.artwriter.com.au on October 25, 2010)