Michael Stevenson, MCA

Michael Stevenson
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia
6 April – 19 June, 2011

[Highly Commended for the 2011 Frieze Writer’s Prize]

There is something serendipitous in Michael Stevenson’s twenty-year retrospective being the final exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art before it closes for long-awaited and controversial renovations. As the institution prepares to reinvent itself with a new wing laying claim to a little more of that glittering waterfront real estate, Stevenson’s work is quietly undoing boundaries inside – between the public and private spaces of the gallery, between historical fact and imagination, and between the economically rational and absurd. This is a curiously fitting exhibition in many ways, circling around issues pertinent to the MCA redevelopment but also to the role of art in relation to society and its possible futures.

Curator Glenn Barkley charts a rich, dense journey through Stevenson’s diverse years of practice, in which changing fortunes, myth and unusual transactions recur in thoughtful and provocative configurations. As Stevenson notes, it is a show characterised by doubling. The most obvious example might be the artist’s ‘renovation’ of the gallery from within, opening up wall segments to reveal building infrastructure and appropriating a basement storage area for the display of works encompassing sculpture, installation, drawing and film. The installation is presented as ‘a new artwork articulated across two levels’, framing the objects within it (both what is art and what is not) in ways that are opportunistic and surprising.

Our first encounter is with The Gift (2004), Stevenson’s full-scale reimagining of the raft built by artist Ian Fairweather for his unlikely voyage across the Timor Sea in 1952. Further on, a painstakingly recreated letterpress print of The Times article, Timor Sea Crossed on Raft (2004), tells of Fairweather’s intention to ‘call on an old friend in Indonesian Timor’ equipped with only rudimentary navigational skills and a ‘30s compass. Made with parachute sail roped to a base of aircraft fuel tanks – materials literally fallen from the sky – and resting on stacks of National Geographic magazines, this museological artefact gains particular poignancy amid contemporary debates around ‘illegal’ boat arrivals from that region. The work also resuscitates an epic adventure that sidestepped conventional monetary exchanges; the original was kept by Rotinese fishermen on whose island Fairweather washed up, destitute and eventually deported to London, where his passage was paid by ditch-digging in Devon.

This narrative of blind optimism followed by a dramatic fall, of exuberant over-investment or the extra-market circulation of the gift, repeats itself throughout the exhibition. A New Zealander based in Berlin, for Stevenson the Pacific is another trope looming large; here is where Marcel Mauss theorised gift exchange, where the 18th century South Sea shipping bubble brought financial ruin to many, where in effect nothing is certain. In Revolutions in New Zealand (2002), screen-prints of 1982 headlines sandwich together shock at the crumbling of the national stock market with commentary on visiting German artist Jorg Immendorff, another figure emblematic of the art world’s interdependence with broader economic and political dynamics. Declaring SUSPICION PUSHES DOWN MARKET, JORG BOUYS AUCKLAND’S CONFIDENCE and “I HATE CHEAP CHAMPAGNE”, these are historical objects deployed to tell a story in which the pathos of human folly is weighted equally to the forces of globalised macro politics.

Upstairs, the disjuncture between the specific and the universal returns in photorealist drawings of newspaper images (of the politically motivated vandalism of Guernica and ‘cash will crash in a flash’ on a TV screen, amongst others), in paintings of hymnal books tracing Stevenson’s religious upbringing, and in the poetic and allegorical film On How Things Behave (2010). Looping and somnolent, this work is a collection of tales that begin with Man, a hermit artist to whom the tides, and their bounty from passing trade ships, are given ‘in perpetuity’, until the arrival of a catastrophic oil spill. Against sliding shots of a concrete sea wall (one of several limited views), the narrator slips into the ‘80s economic crash and Hume’s proposition on the absolute uncertainty of the sun rising tomorrow. The crux of the film, resonating across the exhibition, lies in Man’s stunned rebuke to the Sea: ‘How can I account for this? Why did you not think to forewarn me?

Stevenson is an artist for whom the business of recounting, and of accounting for, is taken seriously and with a wry wit. In the Annex, Barbas y Bigotes (2011) and its inverse, Sin barbas y sin bigotes (2011), are two large display cabinets whose contents do include beards and moustaches, alongside nods to other works and their origins: an empty bottle of Möet, a Guatemalan banknote, a model of The Gift, maps and videos with titles like Portrait of the Artist as a Tax Evader. Here also is Contadora (2011), a money-counting machine now flipping words, a (double) doubling of two works secreted in a downstairs ‘gallery’: Introducción a la teoría de la probabilidad (2008) and The Fountain of Prosperity (2006).

Discovered only by closely inspecting the room sheet or chancing upon the goods lift, both works are worthy rewards for the persistent traveller. Introducción… is a video reflecting on probability and political intrigue on the South Sea island of Contadora off Panama; The Fountain of Prosperity an elaborate hydraulic instrument demonstrating the workings of the Guatemalan national economy during the 1950s CIA-led coup in that country. Dimly lit beneath exposed air-conditioning ducts, this replica of the ‘Moniac’ machine purchased at that time by the Guatemalan bank – deliberately left unattended to run down – is very much at home though certainly out of place (and time), orange liquid dripping through tubes and filters to a low motor hum.

In the film we are told that ‘in the finite world, no shuffle is fair. The deck is always stacked’. Hands play out a perpetual game of cards as a voice in Spanish meditates on the machinations surrounding the Shah of Iran’s political asylum under General Torrijo in Contadora in 1979. Drawing largely on the recollections of Torrijo’s bodyguard, a professor of mathematics and philosophy, the work unfolds in much the same way as the entire exhibition: with perambulations that are cyclic and oblique, and meticulous in their materiality.

For Stevenson, doubling provides access to the historical; the doubled form is permeable and can be manipulated to at once represent and critique the original. Here is a way the past can be approached as more than an accumulation of data by which to predict future trajectories, but rather as an opportunity to step outside complacency and the expectation of continuity, to perhaps process the finitude of the flawed systems we rely upon and rethink how we might structure our relations with each other and the world that sustains us.


– Tessa Zettel




The Fountain of Prosperity, 2006
Plexiglass, steel, brass, aluminum, rubber, cork, string, concrete, dyed water, pumps and fluorescent lamps
2.5 x 1.6 x 1m installation view, Vilma Gold, London, 2007
Image courtesy of the artist and Vilma Gold, London
© the artist


On How Things Behave, 2010
still from HD and 16mm film transferred to DVD
Image courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney; Vilma Gold, London; and Hamish McKay Gallery, Wellington
© the artist



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