Michael Stevenson: Museum of Contemporary Art
Bywater, Jon, Artforum International
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 introduction a la Teoria de la Probabdidad (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 Jorg Immendorff's arrival in Auckland for an artist's residency on the eve of the 1987 stock-market crash, Revolution in New Zealand, 2002. …