Todd McMillan: The wanderer - Art Collector

Issue 69, July - September 2014

Todd McMillan’s endurance works have involved standing on a cliff top for 12 hours and attempting to swim the English Channel. Carrie Miller discovered it’s less about the suffering than it is about futility.

Todd McMillan, By the Sea, 2004. Still, 16mm fiolm, edition of 3, 1 min 12 sec, looped

“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” Like Woody Allen’s maxim, the art of Todd McMillan is a heartbreaking and hilarious paradox. In fact, it’s a series of them. His work trades in the concept of failure and yet is only successful when it flops; the artist is possessed by the abstract possibilities of language but makes art that can only ever be about the literal failure of words; he desperately seeks to understand the world and yet orients himself toward the incomprehensible; his work is steeped in vast existential ideas, but can be simply dumb and comical.

McMillan’s practice is well known for these absurdities but is arguably no better understood as a result. Perhaps one reason is the disconnect between method and outcome. Of the endurance performance works he is best known for, many have noted the romance of this practice, but what isn’t acknowledged is the absence of the irreducibly corporeal nature of such endurance.

The impressive list of McMillan’s endurance performances which implicate his body in anguished ways include standing on a cliff top for 12 hours for his 2004 work
By the Sea in 2004; attempting to swim the English Channel in 2009; endlessly and pointlessly hitting golf balls in after the mist in 2007; and kayaking into the sun for Homage (study) last year. As finished works they are not documentations of suffering but rather – as condensed videos, time lapse films and modest photographs – images with a romantic, impressionistic sensibility which appear to have had the visceral qualities with which they were created literally bleached out.

Unlike the majority of artists associated with the genre of endurance performance, McMillan does not make his suffering the narcissistic centrepiece of his work. In fact, for an artist so infatuated – wounded and seduced – with physical and emotional distress, he appears to be taking on the role of the artist as stoic wanderer. McMillan’s images are never clogged with self-indulgent melancholy – the look-at-me conceit characterised by false sentiment popular with his peers. Instead, he shows himself to be a generous artist and man prepared to travel long and often pointless distances – amateur reconnaissance missions, as it were – which result in luckless consolations for the brutal truths of existence.

In 2012 he went on an expedition to locate the rare shy
Albatross off the coast of Tasmania. It marked a move away from endurance work, and while in his previous work it was the artist presented as stoic wanderer, in this major new piece it was the Wandering Albatross. Shot in the wild seas south of Australia, it also brought into focus the context of Antarctica (his next work involves an expedition there) as a site of endurance and non-endurance – a place that is both obsessively marked by human endeavour and yet is simultaneously a vast, unpopulated nothingness.

His latest body of work, which will be exhibited at Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney this September, represents somewhat of a shift in his practice, the artist being nowhere in sight in the work. Nevertheless, his practice remains critically tethered to the romantic tradition. This time McMillan is preoccupied with an old-fashioned material and its conceptual and aesthetic possibilities. He explains: “The cyanotype process is a 19th century photographic technique that sees a piece of paper made light sensitive. In order to expose it one places a negative beneath the glass and then holds the piece paper up to sky.

“The cyanotypes exhibited in the show reference booth Alfred Steiglitz’s
Equivalents series and the tradition of romantic landscape painting. An act of mediation occurs between the subject matter and the material process: I am holding an image of a cloud up to the sky. I am bathing an image of the ocean in the sea.”

Highlights of McMillan’s career include winning the prestigious Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship, inclusion in
Primavera at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 2012 and Desire Lines at Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, and a 10-year retrospective, Ten Years of Tears, at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart.

Perhaps the most interesting of the projects he is expecting to undertake in the near future is a trip to Antarctica. He is currently on the shortlist for the Australian Art Antarctica Scholarship. He has already begun making work with the support of Grantpirrie Projects, a philanthropy and art advisory service run by his former Sydney dealers Bridget Pirrie and Stephen Grant. Antarctica feels something like a spiritual home to an artist of McMillan’s sensibilities and sensitivities. Cold and alone, no doubt McMillan will feel right at home.

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