Memorial artist deep in the danger zone

Deep in the War Memorial's collection of artworks, you may well find yourself in the ''danger zone''.

Unlike many other works in the collection, this intriguing acquisition has no discernible people, objects or any kind of war detritus, but is instead a wash of sea-blue and blur of brownish-green.

And no amount of staring will give you a clue as to what it represents: the entire film Top Gun compressed onto one canvas.

Its creator, 29-year-old Sydney artist Baden Pailthorpe, is the memorial's first artist-in-residence, funded by a grant of $17,650 from the Australia Council.

Pailthorpe will spend three months at the memorial as part of the council's Early Career Residence program, doing extensive research into the memorial's collections to develop a major new body of work relating to contemporary and historical conflict.

''Basically as a media artist, I've been interested in the history of technology as being essentially a military affair,'' he said. ''I'm quite interested in the lineage of objects and their origins, and how that history impacts the way we use technology today … because obviously technology is the basic framework of Western society, and most societies these days in the developed and developing world.


''For me, it's important to look at the structure of the military industrial complex and how that influences the way we use technology and how we see the world and experience the world.''

Pailthorpe has no military background - he studied languages and fine arts in Sydney and Paris - and, unlike artists who have been commissioned by the memorial as part of the Official War Art Scheme, he has never been to a war zone.

''I'm not really making work about any particular conflicts specifically or the experiences of soldiers, so my work wouldn't be comparable to a war artist,'' he said. ''I'm interested in the broad structures in the military and the media, the cultural and political impacts of the kind of communications networks and structures that we use every day, so it's more of an analytical or academic take on the structure of the contemporary military and civilian worlds.''

The residency came about after the memorial bought two of his works last year. This year, he donated the three-metre-long Colour Study (Top Gun) under the Cultural Gifts program.

For this, he transformed the 1986 film into a series of frames that were collapsed into a single image and averaged according to colour value, making it a ''visual essence'' of the film.

The result, he said, had an entirely different effect from the movie itself: subtle and meditative, rather than brash and literal.

It's typical of his style and technique; he calls himself a ''media artist'' as his work is more cutting edge and digitally focused, rather than the classic works on canvas.

'''New media' is the broad kind of term. I make work with video, video games, simulators, I've done works on paper,'' he said.

''I guess the military theme is obvious, but it's interesting because the works [the memorial] acquired didn't specifically pertain to the Australian experience of war, which is a major acquisitions guideline …

''I just put it to them that any contemporary Australian engagement can't be separated from the broader occidental military things. I didn't see them as separate things at all and, by engaging with militarism generally, it's always going to be the major powers of the West.''

He is uncertain how he will shape his residency. ''It's extremely flexible and I've been given really sort of open access and free rein, so I guess I'm going to test the limits of what I'm allowed to do and go from there,'' he said.

''[The collection] is amazing - it's overwhelming - so the challenge is going to be narrowing it down to a manageable focus, and doing something that rises to the occasion.''