Kevin Mortensen’s avant-garde sculptures and performances of the 1970s and 80s established him as a distinctive and innovative figure in Australian art. He is probably best known for the birdman motif that has recurred throughout his work in various media since 1971.
Mortensen was born in East Malvern, Melbourne in 1939 to a Danish migrant father and an Australian mother. He trained to become an art teacher at Prahran Technical College under sculptor Lenton Parr, which in turn led Mortensen to become a sculptor. Mortensen taught art at several schools in Melbourne and rural Victoria in the 1960s. While teaching he studied for a diploma of art (sculpture) at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) from 1962 to 1965. His early works, likened by two critics to ‘techno-funk-pop’ and ‘smoothly elegant funk’, were favourably reviewed in exhibitions at Argus Gallery in Melbourne in the late 1960s.
In the early to mid 1970s, Mortensen exhibited at Pinacotheca Gallery in Melbourne, where in 1971 he performed his iconic work The seagull salesman, his stock and visitors, or figures of identification. In it, Mortensen and his collaborators took turns in donning a feathered papier-mâché bird mask while seated on a chair in a room, quietly interacting with audiences as they inspected the surrounding sculptures of figures and caged seagulls. Mortensen’s merchant birdman creation has been interpreted as a critique of the art market, however it was partly inspired by his fascination with birds in Norse mythology and Danish culture. The work’s animalistic symbolism and ritualistic narrative elicited a multitude of responses and readings by commentators at the time. Nevertheless, The seagull salesman is now regarded as a significant work in participatory and body-based performance art in Australia.
Mortensen returned to RMIT and lectured in art while maintaining a fledging art practice during the 1970s and 80s. His works featured in the Mildura Sculpture Triennials of 1970, 1973 and 1975 and the 1976 Biennale of Sydney. One prize-winning work at Mildura, The delicatessen 1975, involved Mortensen renting a shop and hiring an actor to play a shopkeeper. Another significant project was The rowing 1979, which was performed at the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the Experimental Art Foundation Performance.
In 1980 Mortensen represented Australia at the Venice Biennale along with Tony Coleing and Mike Parr. For his Biennale presentation, he revisited the idea of the birdman in a series of performances and sculptural works that sought to illustrate genetic similarities between human and avian species. While in Venice, he and Coleing became acquainted with fellow performance artists Marina Abramović and Ulay.
For the 1981 Australian Sculpture Triennial (where he would also exhibit in 1984 and 1989), Mortensen presented Club Atavism, in which his Biennale birdman reappeared. A series of photographs documenting that performance was exhibited in Perspecta at Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1981 and is now in the Gallery’s collection. In 1982, Mortensen’s work was included in Eureka! Artists from Australia at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London.
Mortensen has lived at Venus Bay in eastern Victoria since 1985, where he continues to produce work in various media. A monograph on the artist, Serious play, was published in 2015.
‘Art is in some ways a bit like a joke,’ said Mortensen in a 2017 interview, ‘in the sense that it has to have a punchline to it.’