Katie Cincotta’s visit to Venus Bay takes us into the intriguing world of Kevin Mortensen – renowned sculptor, painter and performer. We loved his incredible sculptures, his tales of Nordic gods and the stories of his artistic travels and adventures.
words katie cincotta photos warren reed
It takes four emails and six phone calls over eight days to make contact with Kevin Mortensen. Off the grid and out of reach is exactly how this eccentric artist likes it.
For the last 30 years, Kevin has called wild, ruggedly-beautiful Venus Bay home. A small winding dirt track leads to his secluded timber pole house, which sits hidden amongst the coastal scrubland of the remote Point Smythe peninsula.
With its dramatic vaulted ceilings, the open-plan home he designed comes alive with wall-to-wall sculptures, paintings, and installations inspired by the animal kingdom – window-shelves lined with bones and skulls; a stuffed Wedge-Tailed Eagle flying from the rafters; the beginnings of a giant raven’s head which will sit atop a 3-metre pole.
The evocative display tells the story of a life dedicated to interpreting the natural world – decades spent considering mythology of his Nordic ancestors, of exploring both our symbiosis with nature and the crisis we face as a result of our relentless consumption in a world of finite resources.
At 77, Kevin continues to find inspiration amid the unspoilt hinterland of South Gippsland: land that hasn’t been farmed, land where the kangaroos still outnumber the people. Seventy kilometres inland from here in East Poowong, his Danish immigrant father put down roots after jumping ship in Port Melbourne. “He sold his sea-boots for six and twopence, and then walked from Melbourne to East Poowong where he heard there was a Danish settlement.”
Kevin believes his gravitation towards 3D art was influenced by his father John, who laboured with his hands – a man who built his own slab house, paved the roads of Gippsland and erected the bridges, including the spectacular Kilcunda trestle bridge. “At the time, painting – like poetry – struck me as rather effeminate by comparison to working with stone or wood. Something created in three-dimensional space often seems to take on a reality beyond what a painting can.”
As a reputed artist with works in the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia, Kevin – a contemporary sculptor with a decidedly environmental bent – has used clay, wire, iron and bronze in his practice. His prolific art career is the subject of an illustrated coffee-table book, Serious Play: The Art of Kevin Mortensen by Rob Haysom, which documents this unique artist’s place in Australian art folklore. The striking black and white cover depicts Kevin performing as his hybridised Bird Man character – a man’s body, a masked bird head – a motif that has been a constant in his career.
As a child, Kevin listened to his father’s tales of Norse mythology – of birds as the ‘spirit carriers’, of ravens feasting off the dead after battle, of the Viking God Odin and the two ravens that sat on his shoulders to advise him at night. The greatest tale of all was of the omnipotent Bird King. “Since my childhood I have been familiar with a Danish ritual that goes back to the year 1473. According to history, the Swedish King was very envious of the Danish King. He sent to Denmark a magic bird, which took with it the symbols of his power – the ring from his finger and the crown from his head. The Master of Arms saw the bird leaving and called out to his soldiers to shoot it. One man shot down the ring from his beak, another the crown, others its head and each of its wings – but it kept flying. Only when a man shot it in the heart did it fall down to earth, and that man was called the Fuglekonge, the first Bird King.”
That story has been re-enacted by Danes ever since, in a ceremony during which an elaborate wooden bird is shot to pieces by participants wielding .22 rifles.
Having watched his older brother return bloodied and bandaged from World War II, Kevin reviles the violence of war. He remains ambivalent about having shot the Wedge-Tailed Eagle that hangs from his roof. “As soon as I did it, the reality was very ugly. The bird didn’t die quickly. And what’s more, when I got it to the taxidermist’s it was the smallest bird there. I’d shot a juvenile. But it’s remained with me ever since.”
His enigmatic art is permeated by an elemental and mythical quality that harks back to his Danish roots – forever elevating the bird as a symbol of power and life. “Did you know that humans and birds have the same number of bones in their bodies, in the same positions? And yet they are so distant from us. They lead such a different life, because they can fly,” Mortensen says.
Grounded by two marriages and three children, the sculptor turned to teaching to earn a living in the 70s and 80s as an art lecturer at both Deakin University and RMIT. He recalls his sabbatical in Italy in 1981, when he represented Australia at the Venice Biennale with a piece titled ‘Even the hairs on your forearms grow in the same direction as feathers’. His work included a sculpture and performance based on the Bird Man in a confronting pose: upright, legs splayed, his penis and testicles front and centre. “I wanted to go from being dressed as a business man to this elemental character, so as part of the performance I went behind a screen and came back naked. Initially nobody took much notice, but as soon as it hit the local paper, I drew big crowds. It was quite rebellious.”
Kevin made friends with many of the local Venetians and enjoyed a period of hedonistic living among them. “I stayed there for four months, getting to know them, scoring hash from them, living with the local guards in a beautiful old frescoed farmhouse. There were ducks in the yard, a gypsy in the back room, a woman who would ride a rickety old bicycle across town with a huge basket full of marijuana – the Venetians were just so colourful.”
There is humour, and depth, and daring in Kevin’s work – not provocative for its own sake, but confrontational in order to elicit a response: art that you simply can’t ignore. “What has always appealed to me about sculpture is that it inhabits a space like we do. It has its own particular energy.”
While Kevin will call himself a sculptor, a painter, a printmaker and a performer, he refuses to use the term artist in describing himself. “Other people can call me an artist, but it would be quite pretentious of me to use that term. This is a principal of high art – a golden rule that has been in place at least since Leonardo Da Vinci’s time.” Kevin explains that among the Italian art community, legend has it that Da Vinci spoke these dramatic words on his deathbed: “What a pity I’m dying today. I thought for sure that by tomorrow I would be an artist.”
To this sensitive and charismatic man who lives a simple life among the birds, creating work with real purpose and reflection seems as natural as breathing in the brisk sea air. “You simply have to ask yourself, ‘Is what you’re doing creative enough; is it personal enough; is it important enough?”
Serious Play: The Art of Kevin Mortensen. Rob Haysom. Published by Thames and Hudson, 1 January 2016