Berlin-based artist Michael Stevenson is perhaps best known for elaborate installation works that take historical events as their point of departure. He has constructed a replica of the MONIAC, an odd six-foot-tall hydraulic computer designed in the 1940s to demonstrate the flow of money within a national economy (in this case, Guatemala’s); a locally produced Land Rover in New Zealand called the Trekka, which was to be a model of national industriousness (and, as it happens, was actually cobbled together with Czech spare parts); and the homemade craft of a reclusive Scottish-born Australian artist who tried to find passage across the Timor Sea, but was stranded somewhere in between, picked up by the authorities, and deported to London, where he was reduced to digging ditches in Devon in order to pay for his passage back. Very often, these works comprise a selection of objects and artifacts that are embedded to the extent that they embody the concerns of the broader political economy — the flow of money, people, and ideas. Sometimes, Stevenson recreates objects in a real enough manner that they effectively mirror, if not replace, their originals; the experience of walking among his works is not unlike walking through a natural history exhibit. To date, Stevenson has developed major projects for institutions including CCA Wattis, San Francisco; Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach; Arnolfini, Bristol; and the Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands. He presented his most recent work, Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad, which chronicles the life of the last Shah of Iran during his exile in Panama, at the Panama Art Biennial in 2008.
Nav Haq: You once described your exhibition presentations as being like archaeological displays without labels, a bit like Foucault’s concept of archaeology — the idea of deconstructing history in order to look at the ways it is constructed, and to find the mythologies and discriminations within.
Michael Stevenson: Yes, I would agree with that, though I’d have to say, in terms of Foucault, well, it’s been a long time. But yes, sure, it’s relevant. It does, however, make me think that when I’m saying the word “archaeological,” it’s also very tactile, very much something that has presence. It relates to these things you’re pointing out, but it’s also related to the line of practice.
NH: About this idea of the “display without labels,” I’m curious to know what you think about your presentations in relation to the viewer. For them, it becomes like an investigation as well, in terms of sorting out the significance of the different objects and artifacts that you present. Do you have a particular idea about the role of the audience?
MS: All this kind of stuff is complicated, and is endlessly disputed. Really, my ambition is to put something in the space that I would call an “object of intrigue.” The viewer, hopefully, is intrigued to the degree that they would perhaps like to find out more. There is no particular path or one reading to it, in terms of the work. I see them in a particular way, but this is for my own convenience. I think for the viewer it is much more open-ended. There are these significant objects, but they are presented alongside things that are much more arbitrary. So I think for the viewer it is perhaps more confusing than directed.
NH: Could you tell me about how the formal qualities of your work have shifted over time?
MS: I started in the 1980s, and I was, of course, making paintings. It was the ’80s, after all. One of the changes, I guess, was that you could say painting is always somehow more invested in the gesture. But by now what I do is at least in part the reverse of this. My hope is that there are still unexpected possibilities that can be realized that are more aligned to the gesture when these premeditated objects/artifacts are brought together. This notion is, of course, also very subjective. But then again, I guess anything to do with gesture is going to be. I think of all this in relation to the Warhol piece we exhibited at Arnolfini as part of the Persepolis 2530 installation, in a small, darkened room by itself. Although it may have looked like a highly premeditated act, far away from these other notions I’m discussing, when you actually walked into the room and experienced it, for me at least, it did have an extraordinary aura. This couldn’t have been premeditated. It was kind of spontaneous and new each time a viewer entered the room
NH: I’m interested in the status of the different components in your installations. They often include existing historical objects alongside your own reconstructions of other objects. They all seem to have an equal status, whether they’re “original” or not. The Persepolis 2530 installation included an original film and commemorative book, alongside a reconstruction of one of the Shah’s tent structures. Could you say something about this?
MS: I think that it’s a very complicated game. A minefield, really. It stands in the way of what we understand would be presented in traditional museum situations — but, that said, we do all know of situations where the original is not the original in any case. There are a lot of original reconstructions! The Paul Klee painting exhibited at documenta 12 was a copy, for example, so this notion is not so unfamiliar. I’m interested in practice, and so my way of bringing these things together is not only concerned with these academic fields. The other thing I think is important, which I think is recurring within the work and the historical material I’m dealing with, is that these are by no means regular historical stories. They are very particular, almost tautological in their interlacing. The histories themselves, which I’m somehow drawn to, reflect this exact predicament — what is potentially factual? And what is otherwise? That is very much the case in terms of events at Persepolis in 1971, and in its wake. The stories clung to, surrounding these figures and their legacies, are molded — a blend of fact and fiction. This was one of the amazing results of presenting the piece at Art Unlimited in Basel in 2007 — remnants of the court reassembled there, and I got to hear at least some of the conflicting stories. It was fascinating, and I learned a lot about patronage. So in a way, this methodology of mine is somehow in line with the original material, if you like. It’s some kind of molded “doubling.”
NH: You once told me about a drawing you’d done — a photorealist copy of an image from a newspaper of some people repairing Picasso’s Guernica after it had been graffitied by Tony Shafrazi. Your drawing was published in a newspaper, and somehow that seems to have circulated. Whenever the image appears, you’re unable to tell whether it is the original picture or your copy of it — and this seems appropriate, given your work’s questions about the nature of representation.
MS: I made this image in the ’90s, and it wasn’t a one-off. It was part of my practice at the time. I was making a large number of these highly realistic drawings. A number of them depicted the outer orbits of contemporary art history, such as this attack on Guernica, amongst others. I was drawn to material that problematized the distinction you point out so, naturally, I eventually ended up with the Guernica story and that image.
NH: A number of your works, such as the replica of the MONIAC, look at the market economy, but also at how the economy creates the conditions for the patronage of art. The Persepolis 2530 installation is one example of this. How did this become an interest?
MS: I think it’s in terms of my education in being an artist. I don’t just mean academic education, in terms of studying. When you study, you don’t really get taught anything about how, say, the market works, or how patronage works. You might study historical examples, such as the Medicis, in terms of art history… but you don’t really experience it. You don’t really learn how to be part of this system. When students leave art school — these days even before leaving — some are very savvy… . Others aren’t — this is often to their detriment. I guess for me it has been part of the fascination to learn and try to understand the system in this firsthand way. I mean, it’s actually been a matter of survival. I had my first experience of it all… as a producer with my first gallery show more than twenty years ago. As I’ve said already, it was the ’80s — the gallery system was supreme. So, from this point of view, it seemed to me natural to work with these specific stories from Iran in the 1970s — the country was awash in petrodollars, and a piece of this pie was devoted to art patronage of an extraordinary kind. This formal system, of course, no longer exists, but its remnants are a reminder of the tenaciousness of patronage.
NH: You’ve produced a number of works relating to the plight of the last Shah and his family. Do you know how you first became interested in him — was it initially after finding out about and investigating Tony Shafrazi [a sometime art advisor to the Shahbanou] and his gallery in Tehran?
MS: I was originally planning to end this long-term project about the cultural climate in Iran in the 1970s after the Persepolis presentation. Then I had this opportunity to do this work for Panama — a much more open-ended work, but one that has the Shah as one of the central characters. In terms of earlier interest in this as a theme, I was interested early on in terms of the opening of the first Shafrazi space in Tehran. I saw in this story the potential for a model — which is another form of doubling, if you like — perhaps as an earlier example for market globalization. But this market is not pure, it is contorted by all sorts of irrationalities, including greed and fear. So it is a fascinating story with some universal application, especially in its relation to realpolitik. Recently I wrote an elaboration of another story, one that was apparently circulated in Tehran in late 1978, the time of the inaugural Shafrazi opening. It perhaps demonstrates best of all why these times are fascinating.
On the high road leading away from the City fled a Fox.
Seeing his distress, a Salesman, traveling in the opposite direction, stopped him, saying, “Why are you leaving this prosperous City, and in such haste? There are still fortunes to be had for the likes of you and I.”
The Fox replied, “In this City, they are killing all foxes with three balls.”
“Is that so!” said the incredulous Salesman. “I know the City well and can vouch that you are in no real danger, and in any case I am willing to wager you are endowed with no more than two balls.”
“That is true,” said the Fox, “but they shoot first and then they count.”
NH: Publications also seem to be an important part of your practice. Often they appropriate the look and form of existing books, such as the Art of the Eighties and Seventies book you did for the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, and the Celebration at Persepolis book you did to accompany your exhibition at Arnolfini. Could you say a little about how they function in relation to your practice?
MS: The book from Mönchengladbach is the only place right now where a representation of the work still exists. So the publications themselves are in a way a kind of “doubling” of the project and of the original material. Once more, over again, if you like. This process is very specific, in terms of publication, because it includes the use of particular designs or images, et cetera, which have in some cases been lifted from original publications. In that way, they act as a double.
NH: Your most recent work related to the Shah, Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad, produced for the Panama Biennial, reflects on his last few years. But there are other things going on there. It’s also about narrative and the potential of probability. Could you say something about this work?
MS: It is a big, broad, very complicated story, with a lot of very arbitrary details that don’t drive a clear through-line. It’s mostly based on anecdote. Because of the nature of this form, often things of less relevance join the story. My problem all along with using any of this kind of material is that you’re in someone else’s backyard, literally — as was the case with this piece in Panama. The biennial was based on the theme of the former Canal Zone, and I was expected to make investigations that would result in a work that would relate to [it]. Certain artists were chosen for their ability to do this — step into the breach, as it were — but it’s complicated to go into someone else’s backyard and make some kind of meaningful sense. The work that I made, whilst going into a lot of detail about events in Panama, is also a reflection on this problematic. The problem in these cases is how much “in the story” can an artist ever really be. We’re not historians. So what exactly is our role in terms of representing this material? My hope with this work is that through the telling of this particular story related to Panama, but also through much more universal stories that are more philosophical and mathematical, that somehow the problem of “involvement” becomes present. The work was based on accounts of the time from a wide range of sources and one — the novel Getting to Know the General by Graham Greene — is actually subtitled “The story of an involvement.”
Bidoun: This work also seems somehow related to the notion of conspiracy. Do you believe in conspiracies?
MS: Conspiracies. In a way, I think we all believe in them. This was one of the findings I came to realize in making this film last year the system in this firsthand way. I mean, it’s actually been a matter of survival. I had my first experience of it all … the mathematics that it was based on is probability theory. The title of the film — Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad — is taken from a book written by one of the key protagonists, Omar Torrijos’s bodyguard, a man known in Panama as Chuchu. He was really one of the general’s most trusted friends, an advisor, but officially he was the bodyguard. Chuchu was also a professor of mathematics, amongst other things, hence the book — bodyguarding and probability is a compelling combination, one would have to admit. The film deals with card-playing — visually, at least. Card-playing, as Chuchu himself suggests, demonstrates that in a very natural way we all believe that there is no such thing as a fair shuffle — i.e., the deck is always stacked. This kind of convergence is the basis for conspiracy theory. The film itself utilizes probability as a way to view the particulars of this particular history. In this case, fate may seem a more natural choice. So I don’t believe in conspiracy theories any more than anyone else. However, I did spend many formative years — childhood and adolescence — living in a particular Christian religious community where conspiracy abounded. So, yes, I have done my time with these beliefs and with conspiracy. This was now a long time ago.
NH: You only produce about one work a year, as your practice is so research intensive. How do you go about that?
MS: Finding the subject is certainly complicated enough. It’s something I unfortunately know too little about — how exactly I come across these things. It takes a lot of time. Once some area of interest is established, I guess I do a lot of reading. If I can travel, I do. Usually the things I’m researching are far away, so I take the opportunities when I can. Then there are of course the problems of involvement…
Bidoun: We’re especially curious about the project surrounding Ian Fairweather, which you showed at the Herbert Read Gallery in 2005. He attempted a passage across the Timor Sea back in 1952 and was finally found, near starvation, on the island of Roti. He was taken in by local villagers and given food and shelter and eventually picked up by the Indonesian authorities and sent to England. Your research on such a historical blip — or rather, your approach to historical events at large — is odd, and certainly anything but standard.
MS: Ian Fairweather’s voyage. Fairweather is a good name for an artist who wants to put to sea, one would have to concede. He is a major figure in the Australian art canon — his voyage is at least reasonably well known there. It was not the kind of material anyone delved into, however, since this was seen as taking away from the centrality of his paintings — which are, undoubtedly, great. So it was an unpopular move within some circles to concentrate on his “extracurricular” activities. What was certainly unexplored was the potential for how this story could be of wider interest and wider importance. This gets to another series of queries you have requested light on. My exploration of these themes may be, as you say, “without standard research,” but the stories are by and large interesting to me for their potential to become allegory — this would be the case for the Persepolis piece. Of course, this way of storytelling is ancient. Recently I completed a small book of fables, co-written with Jan Verwoert, themed on the subject of art and the business cycle. They are similar, if you like, to the one I penned that is used in the discussion above. Of course, since they have this kind of universality, they apply to many situations, which is their beauty. Some of this interest in these structures may indeed extend from my earlier life — one that saw a lot of current affairs as allegorical. Of course, the Bible is interpreted very much in this manner.