Sydney

Michael Stevenson, The Fountain of Prosperity, 2006, Plexiglas, steel, brass, aluminum, rubber, cork, string, concrete, dyed water, pumps, and fluorescent lamps. Installation view.

Michael Stevenson, The Fountain of Prosperity, 2006, Plexiglas, steel, brass, aluminum, rubber, cork, string, concrete, dyed water, pumps, and fluorescent lamps. Installation view.

Michael Stevenson

Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia

Michael Stevenson, The Fountain of Prosperity, 2006, Plexiglas, steel, brass, aluminum, rubber, cork, string, concrete, dyed water, pumps, and fluorescent lamps. Installation view.

David Hume on the problem of induction is one of several sources Michael Stevenson integrates into the narration of On How Things Behave, 2010, his most recent video work, which prominently includes tracking shots of a seawall in northern Spain that has been decorated by a hermit using paints washed up by the tide. In the measured, German-accented voice-over, the eighteenth-century philosopher’s arguments sound at once prosaic and arcane, curiously patient and unreasonable. The abstract question of how we can speak about the universal when all we experience is specific could—in this very particular articulation—serve as a figure for a central concern of an artist whose work consistently negotiates interchanges between periphery and center, marginal historical detail and global issues.

Stevenson turns drawings and objects both appropriated and imaginative into clues to occasionally overlapping, unstated narratives that resist easy summary. The Smiles Are Not Smiles, 2005, is a fantastic re-creation of the first and only show (by Zadik Zadikian) at onetime Picasso-defacing antiwar protester Tony Shafrazi’s ill-fated art gallery in Tehran, which was cut short by the Iranian revolution in 1978. This work was installed next to The Fountain of Prosperity, 2006, a replica of a hydraulic model for a national economy invented in the late 1940s by the economist Bill Phillips. Fifteen were built at the time, and Stevenson imagines the current condition of the one purchased in 1952 by the central bank of Guatemala. The video Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad (Introduction to the Theory of Probability), 2008, centers on the supremely unlikely moment when the ailing shah of Iran, deposed by the revolution, was given refuge on a small Panamanian island and guarded there by a Marxist professor of mathematics and philosophy.

The Berlin-based, New Zealand–born artist also evokes stories closer to home, for instance with a sculptural evocation of Australian painter Ian Fairweather’s perilous raft journey from Darwin to Timor, The Gift, 2004–2006, and a work on paper concerning German painter Jörg Immendorff’s arrival in Auckland for an artist’s residency on the eve of the 1987 stock-market crash, Revolution in New Zealand, 2002. Perhaps significantly, in this survey, the Central American and Iranian threads were concentrated in a section staged as physically remote, requiring the audience to travel in a freight elevator, and casting one gallery as a coldly lit storage area that blended into actual behind-the-scenes spaces, revealing silver-clad ducting in a dismantled wall. The sense of hidden mechanisms and privileged access brought out one extreme of a constant tension between deadpan and drama in Stevenson’s work.

Earlier graphite-on-paper works include fantasy elements in meditations on modern art icons; for example, links are suggested between Walter De Maria and government operations in NASA ref no EMP 12-37-2592, 1995. The fantastical elements in some of these pieces jar slightly in the context of the later, meticulously factual works, but primarily it is the freer deployment of visual elements as well as the a more direct articulation of narrative that made the two videos the highlights of the show. Consistent throughout, however, is Stevenson’s demand on the viewer to decipher meanings planted by the artist-as-savant. Between a pair of facing vitrines, cabinets of curiosities from the artist’s process, stood a workbench with books tethered to it. A functional reading room, it appeared as an index of the work’s density of references, and neatly echoed the earliest works in the show, oil paintings depicting piles of books (e.g., Four Stacks of Hymn Books, 1987). Early and late, Stevenson’s art manifests the elemental power in scrutinizing something until it begins to appear strange.

Jon Bywater