Michael Stevenson: This Is the Trekka, ex. cat. (Wellington: Creative New Zealand, 2003).
In the late 1980s, Michael Stevenson was making folksy ‘pentecostal realist’ paintings of small-town New Zealand—its church halls, stacked hymn books, and caravan parks. By the mid-1990s, he was elaborating international art-world conspiracy theories, implicating the DIA Foundation in alien abductions and top-secret military research. Less fanciful, his latest works are fact-finding missions uncovering bizarre links between art history and social history. Call Me Immendorff (Kapinos Galerie, Berlin, 2000) tracked media response to the German painter’s 1987 Auckland artist’s residency against that year’s stock market crash and the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall; Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (Biennale of Sydney, 2002) considered the role contemporary art played in the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. Despite the dramatic change in the artist’s practice, something has remained constant: Stevenson always offers an outsider perspective, a view at odds with the prevailing mindset, the common sense.
Stevenson’s Venice installation centres on the Trekka, New Zealand’s only homegrown production automobile, made in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Back then, New Zealand was both a first world nation and an economic monoculture—being dependent on exports of grass (as ‘processed’ by sheep and cows) to earn foreign currency. It was crucial to diversify into manufacturing. The economy was also highly regulated and protected—new cars were especially hard to obtain. And so a fledgling car industry was born. Auckland businessman Noel Turner built his Trekkas on Skoda engines and chassis imported from Czechoslovakia; the other components were sourced locally. Basic and boxy, Trekkas were assembled in small workshops using simple jigs. Promoted as suitable for farm work, the two-wheel-drive Trekka looked deceptively like a British four-wheel-drive Land Rover. In all, only about 3000 Trekkas were produced. The dream of locally designed cars vanished as the New Zealand assembly of Japanese cars began in the 1970s.
Numerous ironies attend the Trekka story. In the 1960s and 1970s New Zealand was socialist but anti-communist. Yet for all the Cold War ‘reds-under-the-bed’ rhetoric, New Zealand traded behind the Iron Curtain. Turner continued to import Skoda parts through the Soviets’ 1968 suppression of the Prague Spring, the Czechoslovakian democratic movement. Looking back, it seems absurd that New Zealand was trying to produce hundreds of cars while Detroit production lines were pumping out millions, reaping Fordist economies of scale. New Zealand was a tiny market and a domestic car industry was always going to be a pipe-dream. Nevertheless, the homegrown Trekka fulfilled a psychological need and symbolised a desired self-reliance. It epitomised both a Kiwi-can-do spirit and a dread of being left high-and-dry by sea changes in the global economy. It spoke of a nationalist desire for cultural independence and self-sufficiency in the face of real economic interdependence.
Engaging paradoxes in New Zealand’s recent past, Stevenson’s show takes the form of a belated trade display. Above a restored Trekka hangs a sign with the old ‘New Zealand Made’ kiwi logo on one face and the Czech equivalent on the other. As it rotates, the sign equivocates. The Trekka doesn’t know where it is coming from.
The show includes another ingenious Kiwi device. Seven feet high, four wide, and three deep, the Moniac was the brain-child of New Zealand economist Dr Bill Phillips. This perspex labyrinth is a high-tech, hydraulic model of the economy, a water-driven analog computer. Phillips created it in 1949, while studying at the London School of Economics, where it was used in class to demonstrate Keynesian macro-economic theory. Water represents money in circulation. By regulating its flow using gates and valves—reflecting interventions in the economy—complex down-wind effects can be observed and plotted. The Moniac executes nine simultaneous equations, something impossible before modern computers. Linked, the Trekka and the Moniac become a wishful mixed metaphor: the Trekka powering the national economy, making it pump.
The Cold War was fought through allies and proxies. Intermediate states like Czechoslovakia and New Zealand were frequently bit players. Stevenson’s show charts New Zealand’s unique response to that moment. Photos show New Zealand protests against the 1968 Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia. Stacked butter cartons—recalling Warhol’s Brillo Boxes—evoke the mythic butter mountain, fantasised stockpiles resulting from unfavourable terms of trade. Television newsreader Dougal Stevenson reports on the imminent collapse of the New Zealand economy and the prospect of a police state (footage from the pioneering 1977 feature film Sleeping Dogs). A selection of New Zealand party-political television broadcasts includes the anti-communist ‘dancing Cossacks’ advertisement, whose domino-theory scaremongering helped bring the National Party to power in 1975. Meanwhile, reassuring Labour Party advertisements from the same campaign present warm-fuzzy counter-cultural tree-hugging imagery, backed by country-rock. Even such nostalgic utopian images, advocating a return to a simple pre-industrial pastoral way of life, seem overshadowed by The Bomb. Back then, New Zealand fancied itself the only potential survivor of nuclear war; a survivalist haven, an oasis.
The project also touches on art politics. In the 1960s and 1970s, Trekka-style industrial nationalism mirrored New Zealand’s artistic nationalism: local art was typically celebrated as authentically homegrown even though, as Stevenson quips, ‘key components were sourced overseas’. A desire to tell our own stories has long underpinned much New Zealand cultural production and continues to be reflected in government arts policy today. Certainly, Stevenson’s installation speaks to the Venice Biennale as the art world’s ultimate trade show, where national pride is on the line. Perversely, he comes to market with an imitative product, designed decades ago for domestic consumption and long out of production.
If Stevenson once based his works on unbelievable conspiracy theories, This Is the Trekka turns out to be surprisingly factual. It’s like an idiosyncratic social-history museum installation, which nevertheless breaks with current expectations of such displays. At a time when our museums promote nationalistic feel-good images of ‘golden days’ and collect icons of uniqueness, This Is the Trekka offers an alternative. It counters the triumphalist presentation of New Zealand culture and kiwi-can-do. Although Stevenson recognises the heroism of attempting to produce a homegrown car, he also appreciates the naiveté, anxieties, and cultural contradictions that underpin it. Kiwi confidence, self-reliance, and national pride are reframed by the artist as expressions of fear, vulnerability, and dependence. Lifting the hood on the unique national identity of which New Zealanders are so proud, Stevenson discovers … Czechoslovakia!