Unnerved: The New Zealand Project (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 2010).
Social-history museums aspire to tell stories. Which is odd, because they tell stories badly, compared to books or movies, which can be gripping and immersive. Artefacts don’t explain themselves. Without a label, the nails used in the Crucifixion are indistinguishable from other vintage nails. That’s why museums place artefacts in dioramas to activate them, or display them with explanatory texts and collaterals. Also, museums seldom have enough artefacts or the right ones, so they routinely make do with stand-ins. Grafting different logics—the genuine and the replica, the actual and its index, the signifier and the signified—museum displays suggest history coming unstuck, knowledge in ruins. This quality has been the crux of many recent art works that flaunt, deconstruct, and adore the shaky logic of museum displays. However, Michael Stevenson’s elaborate, fastidiously researched pseudo-museum displays couldn’t be more different. Despite their initially fragmentary appearance, they pull us in.
Stevenson’s displays explore historical incidents that are stranger than fiction. His tales are so obscure, so bizarre, that one might naturally question their authenticity. Indeed Stevenson deliberately plays off the mockumentary and other hoax genres. He goes for stories that never found a place in capital ‘H’ History, yet redeems them as unlikely keys to the big picture. Stevenson’s Argonauts of the Timor Sea, first produced for Sydney’s Darren Knight Gallery in 2004, addresses a sidebar story in the life of canonical Australian artist Ian Fairweather: his heroic—or foolhardy—voyage across the Timor Sea in 1952. Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, Fairweather built a shoddy raft with materials scavenged from the local tip and flotsam and jetsam combed from Darwin beaches. A lot of it was World War Two debris: he converted warplane fuel tanks for flotation. The raft was tiny. He could not stand up on it. It was totally unseaworthy and ill-equipped to negotiate the monstrous waves and perilous currents. The sail quickly fell apart and, basically, he drifted. He ran out of food and became delirious. He almost missed Indonesia and was lucky not to be swept out into the vast expanses of the Indian Sea and certain death. The 650-kilometre trip took 16 days. When he finally landed on the island of Roti, Fairweather was terribly ill. He was taken in and nursed by a local village family. They were curious about his makeshift vessel and cannibalised it, as if in compensation for their kindness. Later the authorities deported Fairweather to Britain, where he had to dig ditches to repay his passage. For Stevenson, Fairweather’s trip exemplifies the idea of a gift economy—exchange unmediated by money. Fairweather got from Darwin to Britain without spending a cent.
What Stevenson shows, however, is not this story, but a curious collection of pseudo-artefacts relating to it. No photos of the raft existed, but Stevenson reconstructed it based on rough drawings made by an observer and published descriptions. In the gallery, it perches on piles of National Geographic magazines, Fairweather’s preferred reading. There are maps, or paintings of maps, some showing trade winds and migratory routes. There is a drawing of an old newspaper clipping, reporting the misadventure. A print reproduces the title page of Heyerdahl’s Ekspedisi Kon-Tiki, and there’s a curious woodcarving of Marcel Mauss’s book The Gift, the classic study of gift economies. There’s not enough in the show itself to ‘get it’. Stevenson relies on the story being recounted around his objects. He will tell it; curators, critics, education officers and journalists will repeat it; and so his otherwise opaque display will be activated.
After the Darren Knight Gallery exhibition, Stevenson continued to elaborate the project. Observing that the art world is largely a gift economy, dominated by plays of non-cash exchange and obligation, he accepted an invitation from a group of German art patrons. Each year they fund an art project, with a condition: at the end the spoils must be evenly divided among them. Stevenson constructed another Fairweather raft. After showing it, he organised a special event where he gave the patrons a ceremonial saw and invited them to dismember his handiwork (as the Roti islanders had done with Fairweather’s original raft). From the pieces, Stevenson fashioned sculptures, including primitivist cooking utensils and musical instruments, one for each collector, returning the favour.
Stevenson’s projects are transactional. His gifts are received in different ways by different communities. When he showed Call Me Immendorff 2001 in Berlin, it was about a once respected German artist who had descended into self-parody. In New Zealand, the same work read as a commentary on New Zealand provincialism. When This is the Trekka 2003 opened in Venice, it was about European Cold War economics. Relocated to Wellington’s Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (an institution itself perplexed by the distinction between art and social history), it became a treatise on structures of New Zealand national identity and kiwi can-do. And it’s anybody’s guess what will happen when Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (2002) is finally shown in Iran. Similarly, the raft is one thing when it is being greedily dismembered by German art patrons, another enshrined at Queensland Art Gallery. It meets different desires. Clearly, the Gallery’s acquisition of Argonauts is keyed to honouring the Fairweather story as much as Stevenson’s art. Fairweather, who ultimately settled on Bribie Island, is a local hero. And one can foresee Queensland audiences approaching the piece both as an art work and as a social history exhibit; as a Stevenson and as a Fairweather. It may not have torn the raft apart, but the Gallery has appropriated it for its own purposes. But then that’s what the project demands. It’s what makes it a gift, and the Gallery’s reception of it part of the project.