BY Adam Jasper in Features | 01 OCT 11
Featured in
Issue 142

Fact & Fictions

Developing narratives from fragmented histories, the work of Michael Stevenson weighs up fate, irony and chance events

BY Adam Jasper in Features | 01 OCT 11

The bell curve deserves to be an occult symbol. As much as the circle, the triangle and the Platonic solids that so occupy the fancy of alchemists, Satanists and Gnostics, it is an ideal form. Its line describes the perfect distribution of an infinite number of random events around a central mean. Particular human characteristics that can only be embodied by individuals – such as height, weight, wealth, life expectancy and intelligence – are all dispersed across a population as if in obedience to a rule. Therein lies the mystery: the more random the results, the more perfect the curve.

In terms of probability theory, a statistical anomaly is normally just what it appears to be: a freakishly unlikely event. There are, however, occasions when it can be taken as a sign that the parameters of the game itself have changed, or an indication that something outside the normal heuristics of a system is attempting to push itself in. Sometimes, this force has been called the spirit of history.

What role, for instance, did chance have to play in the decline and fall of the last Shah of Iran, the King of Kings, heir to a throne of 25 centuries? In a sequence of events that New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson has described as ‘both tautological and highly improbable’, the Shah ended the winter of 1979 in exile on the small island of Contadora off the coast of Panama as the reluctant guest of a Central American general, Omar Torrijos.¹ The general was playing a high-stakes geopolitical game in which the Shah, American hostages and a shipping canal were the chief tokens. What was the distribution of potential outcomes of such a game? Were the results determined by chance, or rather by something else? And what is to be made of the suggestive name of the island, Contadora, which in Spanish means ‘accountant’?

Introduccion a la Teoria de la Probabilidad, (Introduction to the Theory of Probability), 2008, DVD stills. Courtesy: Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, Hamish McKay Gallery, Wellington and the Artist.

These are the reflections that play upon the mind of General Torrijos’s bodyguard, Sergeant José de Jesús ‘Chuchú’ Martínez, the subject of Stevenson’s meditative video work Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad (Introduction to the Theory of Probability, 2008). As well as being a bodyguard, Chuchú Martínez was a professor of philosophy and mathematics at the University of Panama and the author of an entry-level textbook on statistics published in 1979, from which Stevenson’s video draws its title. A trusted advisor to the General, he was privy not only to the actions of these world-historical gamblers, but also to their fears and deliberations.

In Stevenson’s video, a Spanish-accented voice recounts the events that unfolded around the Shah, the General and the mathematician as we see a deck of cards being shuffled and dealt out in games of solitaire – games that, like the story, are frustrated and inconclusive. For a gambler, estimating the momentum of history – that unknowable quantity that skews the bell curve into the contortions that we cumulatively call progress – is a futile obsession of the gravest importance. The video’s narrator speaks of human things: ambition, hope and loss; but the cards fall with sovereign indifference only to be gathered up and shuffled once again. In spite of all the permutations of conspiracy and manipulation, the outcome is uniform. The Shah loses his kingdom, the Empress loses her Shah, President Jimmy Carter loses his election, and the bodyguard loses his General. There could be no more articulate demonstration of the balance between chance and fate, and the way that the two terms become indistinguishable from each other beyond the universal terminus of failure, than the game of cards. In Introducción …, the protagonists all seek to control the flow of history, and in all cases they are swept away with it.

The video is characteristic of Stevenson’s work: reflective and intelligent, it recounts a neglected fragment of history whose absurdity is presented with utmost seriousness. Like many of the pieces shown at Stevenson’s first retrospective, held earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney, Introducción … is closely based on meticulous archival research and hews close to the truth. Events, facts and names are not changed, because – as Stevenson knows – it isn’t necessary to depart from the facts in order to create compelling fictions. If there is irony here, it is Friedrich Schlegel’s irony, the kind which the German philosopher argued was necessary to any work of art that has the temerity to address universal themes.

On How Things Behave, 2010, DVD stills. 

Introducción ... is not the first of Stevenson’s works in which the Shah of Iran has appeared. Like many of the protagonists that populate his art, the Shah is a kind of leitmotif that he pursues forensically across multiple media – through sculpture, video, painting and installation – in search of the anomaly or constellation that will shatter or reveal the synthetic unity of the world in which we are immersed. Another such protagonist is the New York art dealer Tony Shafrazi, who reoccurs in Stevenson’s work with the frequency of a character in a conspiracy. Notorious in the art world for spray-painting Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) with the nonsensical phrase ‘Kill Lies All’ in 1974 (an event which itself was the topic of one of Stevenson’s drawings, [Untitled] Guernica, 2002), Shafrazi has since presented the act as something between an artistic intervention and a political protest.

Less than a year before, Shafrazi had accompanied Robert Smithson on his aerial search for a suitable location for the planned Amarillo Ramp. Terrified by the spiralling ascents in the light plane, he refused Smithson’s offer to fly again the next day, on the second, fatal flight. That night, Shafrazi believed he had a prophetic dream foretelling Smithson’s death. Only a few years later, in 1978, Shafrazi’s trajectory would intersect with that of the Shah. At the opening exhibition of Shafrazi Gallery in Tehran, an installation of bricks delicately coated in gold leaf would be looted and destroyed in the Iranian Revolution. Stevenson’s installation, The Smiles are not Smiles (2005), re-creates the interior of the exhibition in the wake of the riots. An irony: Shafrazi’s New York art gallery still exists, and sometimes deals in works by Picasso.

Seen in the light of Shafrazi’s biography, his vandalism of Guernica seems less like a political statement and more like a tremendous test of providence. In Shafrazi, Stevenson seems to have found a character who resembles John Milton’s Lucifer, one whose self-assertion verges on an attempt to become causa sui, a tempting of fate that would be fatal except that Smithson took the fall on Shafrazi’s behalf. In allegorical vengeance, Stevenson splits Shafrazi across works until his identity becomes something like a collective noun for innumerable chance events symbolized in a single figure, for reasons of economy and simplicity.

The synthetic unity of the bell curve was once called ‘ideology’, the madness that hides itself in plain sight under the name of common sense. The ideology of democratic capitalism, for its part, has been so well hidden for so long that it is only when the wheels fall off that we become aware of it again. Stevenson’s The Fountain of Prosperity (2006) can be read as just such an exceptional manifestation. A hulking Heath Robinson-esque confabulation of steel and Perspex, rubber tubing and dripping water, it is Stevenson’s homage to the sculptural qualities of the Phillips Machine. Bill Phillips was not an artist, but an engineer who, in 1947, set out to answer the question: ‘What does the economy look like?’ A resourceful autodidact and fabricator, he applied skills he had acquired growing up on a dairy farm in rural New Zealand to the creation of a hydraulic simulation of the national economy in which water (signifying money) sluiced between channels representing taxes, savings and consumption and vessels representing foreign-held balances and the federal reserve. The Phillips Machine not only made it possible to visualize the economy as it had been described by John Maynard Keynes, but also to see the interdependence of its various parts. In Stevenson’s own words: ‘What is most striking about the Phillips Machine is that it gives “the national economy” – that invisible yet omnipresent being – a physical body.’²

Stevenson rebuilt the machine, not as a replica, but as a kind of evil twin. At two-and-a-half metres in height, The Fountain … looms over the viewer, its tubes and valves intersecting in a malignant plumbing that calls to mind a half-eviscerated robot. As in all the stories that Stevenson selects, he doesn’t need to meddle much with the truth to reveal it as bizarre. The original Phillips Machine – and herein lay its success – exceeded the obligations of a model from its very beginnings. Rather than just simulating the economy, it corporealized it into plastic hosing and water dyed pink; when it was used as a teaching tool, it would leak copiously, simulating the real economy more effectively than intended. The Phillips Machine was monstrous in the original sense of the Latin word monstrum, an omen or a warning of divine origin; a word linked equally to both ‘monster’ and ‘demonstration’.

Stevenson’s re-imagining of the Phillips Machine is held together with string and cork. Rusted, battered and unreliable, some channels have become useless appendages, and other organs look strapped on as afterthoughts; as if The Fountain of Prosperity were a kind of Picture of Dorian Gray for capitalist democracy, bearing upon its frame the collective marks of desperate retrofits, hacks and patches by central bankers and policy makers, modifications that go under the collective name of ‘reform’. The Fountain …, then, is more than just a model of a model. It is not a copy or a reproduction of the Phillips Machine; it is a kind of double that effaces the original. In Stevenson’s retrospective his machine stood amidst torn out partitions and stripped air-conditioning ducts, exploiting the renovation of the gallery as a way to suggest its participation in the spasmodic financial reflux that constitutes the economics of fine art. It’s a fragment shorn from the stream of stuff that makes up much of the monotony of everyday life. For – back to Schlegel – the nature of the world only reveals itself to us in fragments. The fragment is the only way to refer to the lost totality of the world without offering some kind of unified whole as a consolation; that is, without lying.

The Smiles are not Smiles, 2005, Wood, brick, false gold leaf, metal, glass theatre lamp and various debris, 6x6x3 m, installation view Museum Abteiberg, Monchengladblach, 2005. Courtesy: the artist. 

The fragment, in the form of remnants, is the characteristic state of museum artefacts. Separated in glass cabinets, the objects in a traditional museum are not necessarily beautiful. Their importance lies in being exemplary, which contains the paradoxical implication that they are both typical and precious. Their relationship to the lost past is a rhetorical one – a kind of synecdoche: the arrowhead stands in for the Assyrian army, the mummified cat for the Egyptian religion, the feather for the extinct Moa. Their arrangement relative to each other is not determined by appearance, but by abstract categories, -ologies and -ographies. It’s not coincidental that Stevenson should be so attracted to this style of presentation. When curating his own work together with Glenn Barkley at the MCA, he presented it in the manner of an ethnographic exhibit, arranging his works with tongue-in-cheek didacticism. At the core of the exhibition, as a kind of explanatory key, Stevenson installed a research archive of books, tchotchkes and souvenirs in a pair of vitrines. Georg Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money (1907) stood next to Bruno Latour’s Politics of Nature (2004); a scale model of a small raft was juxtaposed with a shred of fabric from the Shah’s tent in Persepolis. The archive was overtly not arranged to any decorative end, but divided up according to the categories ‘beards and moustaches’ and ‘no beards and no moustaches’ (Barbas y Bigotes and Sin Barbas y Sin Bigotes, both 2011). As Stevenson himself admitted, the division was not perfect, but if you are going to categorize the universe, you have to start somewhere.³

Michael Stevenson is based in Berlin, Germany, and is currently preparing a book of fables in collaboration with Jan Verwoert, to be illustrated by Stevenson and his mother and published as part of the series Christoph Keller Editions, by JRP|Ringier, Zürich, Switzerland, and Clouds, Auckland, New Zealand. He will have a solo exhibition at Museo Tamayo in Mexico City next year.

2 Michael Stevenson, c/o The Central Bank of Guatemala, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco, USA, 2006
3 Interview with Natasha Conland at the MCA, Sydney, Australia, 6 April 2011