Ricky SWALLOW | Model for a sunken monument

Australia 1974
USA 2002, England 2003-2006, USA from 2006

Model for a sunken monument 1999
synthetic polymer paint on composition board
108.2 (h) x 222.0 (w) x 242.2 (d) cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of the Joan Clemenger Endowment, Governor, 1999 DC3.A-L-1999
© Ricky Swallow


Ricky Swallow’s sculpture has long revealed a connection to, and reinvestment in, the objects and images that were significant in his childhood. His back catalogue is replete with model-like recreations of a hand-held Game Boy, a BMX bike, his family’s telescope and first portable tape recorder, as well as a series of revolving diorama-like worlds that sit atop old record players.[1] It is perhaps not surprising, given the overwhelming impact and popular appeal of George Lucas’s Star Wars for his generation, that Darth Vader also made his way into the ‘boys-own-zone’ repertoire of Swallow’s early work.

The artist’s interest in the imaginative and otherworldly possibilities of sci-fi cinema (with its embrace of both illusionism and special effects) is reflected in works that draw upon popular films, including Planet of the apes 1968, Westworld 1973, ET 1982 and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey 1968. Within this context, the strange and self-conscious exactitude of many of the artist’s sculptures―the fact they so closely replicate real objects but in fact do not (and cannot) work―makes them seem like obsolete film props. Just as the make-believe nature of a prop or puppet is revealed when no longer animated by living actors, Swallow’s work is ‘empty’ and shell-like as if the life has somehow been sucked out.

In Model for a sunken monument, Darth Vader’s stratified, topographical form slowly melts, and the hard, angular surfaces of his fearful visage undergo transformation; he is caught in a suspended moment of mellifluous ooze. The unsettling stillness which characterises Swallow’s recent carved wooden sculptures is also evident in this slowing eroding Sphinx from 1999. Darth Vader’s form resembles the human skull, a recurring motif in the artist’s oeuvre. Replete with contemporary fashion, design and sub-cultural associations such as Goths and skaters, the skull also makes reference to concepts in art history like the vanitas. It circulates within the artist’s practice as a marker of the passing of time. On a fundamental level, the skull is a poignant reminder of our impending deaths. For Swallow it also becomes a symbol of the time it takes to physically craft his works and, ultimately, to view them. As the artist has stated: ‘I still think the time invested in a piece is somehow contained or embalmed in the object in the final result and also contributes to the time an audience can spend with a piece ... There must be an equation there ... Again I’m thinking of the phrase “to give something time.”’[2]

This sense of time past, and of the importance of memory, is also highlighted by Vader’s status as ‘monument’, as expressed in the work’s title. The sculpture’s commemorative role is achieved through the medium’s ability to ‘freeze’ its subject in the past, as soon as the work is complete. There is of course a certain irony to the artist’s inadvertent claims―sculptor of monuments/monumental sculptor?―his choice of ‘bad guy’ sitter, and the fact that this work captures a moment in what appears to be its own demise. Firmly weighted to the ground despite its slipstream physicality, Swallow’s sculpture does not tower above its audience on a traditional museum plinth, As we circumnavigate it, gravity pulls the work’s dissolving hard/soft form into a strangely still pool at the edge of our feet.

Kelly Gellatly
Curator, Contemporary Art
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


[1] See, for example, Swallow’s  Model for no escape, Model for surveillance, Model for isolated vandalism and Model for a correctional facility, all dated 1999, and in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Peter Fay 2001

[2] Ricky Swallow, quoted in Justin Paton, Ricky Swallow: field recordings, Craftsman House, Victoria, 2004, p 13