Michael Stevenson, Signs & Wonders, 2015–16, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Mariell Lind Hansen.

Michael Stevenson, Signs & Wonders, 2015–16, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Mariell Lind Hansen.

Michael Stevenson

Michael Stevenson, Signs & Wonders, 2015–16, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Mariell Lind Hansen.

Michael Stevenson’s installation Signs & Wonders, 2015–16, has a lot to do with flight, and is now something of a frequent flier itself. Having previously been shown at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, and Midway Contemporary Art, Minneapolis, it touched down at Carl Freedman’s relatively small London space in June, in a compressed form. Four boxy structures resembling low-tech 1980s-era flight simulators were crammed into the gallery, their front ends parked up against freestanding projection screens showing computer-generated video loops: pilot’s-eye views of flights through banks of cloud and over mountainous jungle, and ill-coordinated landings on grassy airstrips, with much swerving and crashing into digital palms and bushes. Furthering the general sense of gimcrack and dysfunction, the four cockpits were not merely unmanned but entirely void of joysticks or instruments: Below the windscreen interiors, cutout metal sheets featured circular holes in place of flight controls. The least confidence-inspiring of all had no pilot’s seat and a Korean Airlines blanket (REMOVING THIS FROM THE AIRCRAFT IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED) partially draped over the windscreen.

The floors of three of the four simulated simulators were packed with Christian paperbacks and pamphlets of a particular type. Texts such as 10,000 Miles for a Miracle, Look Out! The Pentecostals are Coming, Fire in the Islands, and Writing Exceptional Missionary Newsletters identified the absent trainee pilots as missionaries of the “inaugurated eschatological” persuasion: preachers of the apparently contradictory idea that we are both “not yet” and “already” living in the Kingdom of God. An information sheet accompanying the installation advised that the digital video footage shows flight paths in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and this information forces a rethink of the scenario’s dysfunctional aura. Thanks to the flying fundamentalists, the country is now as “burned over” as a nation can be, with more than 95 percent of the population identifying as Christian and many of its internal aviation links run by Christian missionaries from first-world countries.

“In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned,” warns a bumper sticker that many in the US will have spotted. Getting into step with the scenario of Signs & Wonders, it’s tempting to fantasize that its missing pilots have been raptured, and that you, the viewer, are “left behind” and about to face the full horror of the earthly solids hitting the divine ventilation system. The tactics in Stevenson’s piece could be summarized as an example of the “missing persons” approach to installation, which (like any other imaginative narrative strategy in visual art) is irritating when the ideas informing it are silly, and absorbing when, as in this case, they are original and self-reflexive. One of the interesting windows of speculation Signs & Wonders opens up is the split mind-set of the convinced eschatologist: busy with day-to-day material concerns (learning the practicalities of aviation, for example) while fully believing that everything and everyone around them is on the brink of divine dissolution.

Stevenson’s earlier projects often contained a reflexive aspect that flipped back into a perspective on the contemporary art world. Although not discussed in the exhibition’s “sleeve notes,” this one did too. If the four screen displays, with their vertiginously tilting, sublime perspectives of clouds, forests, and mountains, were taken as stand-ins for pictorial tableaux, then the gallery visitor was offered two incompatible perspectives, one based on anthropological skepticism—the work as sociopolitical critique—and the other on sensual, fantastical immersion. The work’s glimpse of a form of psychic life that’s both crazy and mesmerizing ostensibly has to do with messianic Christianity, but it also redounds on the mind-set of the viewer of contemporary art.

—Rachel Withers