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On Disappearance and Illumination - Michael Stevenson in the Portikus, Frankfurt
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On Disappearance and Illumination
Michael Stevenson in the Portikus, Frankfurt


With his Deutsche Bank Foundation-supported exhibition project, Michael Stevenson transforms Frankfurt’s Portikus into a gigantic camera obscura. At the same time, “A Life of Crudity, Vulgarity, and Blindness” is also a meditation on flying, human existence, and a love of islands. Sarah Elsing met with the New Zealand artist on site.


The doors slam shut; it’s dark. In the back, near the emergency exit of the Portikus, is a picture of an old-fashioned airplane with a propeller and a funny roof. The object seems somehow familiar… yes, exactly! It’s the airplane that hangs on the top floor of the exhibition hall—you can see it through the glass ceiling from the bridge over the Main. But why is the airplane in this room now, in the form of a flickering memory? Is it a mirage? Not quite.

The New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson has transformed the Portikus in Frankfurt into a walk-through camera obscura. “The construction of this camera is basic and analogue. You only need a light space and a dark space, a lens and some mirrors and you can send an object from one place to another,” he explains. And so, in Stevenson’s current exhibition A Life of Crudity, Vulgarity, and Blindness, supported by the Deutsche Bank Stiftung, an immaterial airplane is flying through the plains of the Portikus, from the light-filled top floor through an external shaft and a series of mirrors and into the central exhibition space. Visitors move around in a kind of live photograph, a “floating picture” they can step out of to take a look at the huge machine’s outer construction from the garden. After sundown, when the camera is out of service and the museum closed, the airplane in the brightly lit roof window is reminiscent of the “magic” of analogue photography and the infinite nature of light. An illumination on the Main Island.

Michael Stevenson is fascinated by islands. Not only because the 48-year-old was himself born on an island—in Inglewood, New Zealand. Many of his works conjure images that are allegorically coded references to island states: improvised rafts or absurd inventions that only appear brilliant in their isolation from the rest of the world. Consequently, the invitation to exhibit in the Portikus, this lonely art space on an island in the middle of the city, was just the right thing. “The Portikus is a very special place because of its history and its location on the island. This is why I wanted to incorporate the entire building into the installation. The Portikus is now an object itself,” says Stevenson.

And it’s precisely the disappearance of objects that Stevenson shows in the altered Portikus. Visitors do not get to see the actual airplane, but only its projection, in keeping with the exhibition’s motto, a quote by the Panamanian mathematician and philosopher José de Jesús Martínez, who died in 1991: “Objects have physically disappeared. Only their images and their memory remain.” Chuchú, as Martínez was also called, was furthermore a personal bodyguard and advisor to the Panamanian head of state Omar Torrijos Herrera (1968–1981). In addition, Chuchú was an enthusiastic pilot who developed a theory of flying in 1979. His treatise is more poetry than science, and yet it precisely describes how conditions in the air change, how everything suddenly becomes quiet and clear. In contrast, life on Earth is A Life of Crudity, Vulgarity, and Blindness, as the exhibition title formulates it. Indeed, the visitor to the darkened hall feels like a blind person, hopelessly at the mercy of life’s brutality and vulgarity. Only the trembling image of the airplane reminds us of a brighter life that takes place in the higher spheres.

There is yet another connection: the airplane beneath the Portikus roof is a reconstruction from Martínez’s fleet. The hobby pilot named his propeller machines after Aleph numbers, a mathematical number series that describes infinity. “Also light is infinite,” says Stevenson. “Martínez’s story is parallel to the installation. Each element informs the other. You can understand the installation without the narrative.”

In this sense, the installation at the Portikus is typical for Stevenson. His art is always based on stories he then alters in surprising ways to create allegorical images or objects. The resulting works are direct and accessible to all viewers and at the same time so multi-layered that they never lose their power, even for experts. At the 2003 Venice Biennial, for instance, Stevenson presented two inventions in the New Zealand Pavilion of which his compatriots are particularly proud: the Moniac and the Trekka. The first is a water-generated computer that simulates the national economic system, the second a kind of Land Rover allegedly developed especially for New Zealand’s unique terrain. Stevenson, however, takes a closer look and exposes the Moniac as a ludicrous construction with water flowing like money through its pipes, gutters, funnels, and plastic tanks. And the great Trekka, symbol for the elemental inventive spirit of the New Zealanders, is a rickety vehicle running on a Czech tractor motor. In one sense, that’s all wonderfully grotesque and ridiculous, but in another, Stevenson caricatures the idea of the Biennale as an international “achievement show” where each country presents its art and itself from its best angle.

Another example for the double-layered depth of Stevenson’s works is the installation Rakit, which could last be seen in its entirety in the Herbert Read Gallery in Canterbury. The work consists of a ramshackle raft pieced together from empty plastic tanks, boards, and a white bed sheet sail. Stevenson refers here to the story of the Australian artist Ian Fairweather, who set sail in 1952 on a homemade raft headed for Malaysia. After 16 days, he landed on a small island and was brought to England on a passenger ship, where he was forced to dig graves to pay back the costs of the unwanted passage.

Stevenson arranges found objects around the raft, things Europeans and Americans typically associate with journeys to the South Seas: a stack of National Geographic magazines, yellowed remnants of maps, a washed-up globe, and a copy of Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, an anthropological study on community life among various South Sea peoples.

Thus, Rakit turns a story well known in Australia—the story of an artist clinging to a ridiculous object to reach new shores, only in the end to have to pay for something that he didn’t want—into an image of the strange form taken by the global exchange of goods and money, an image of himself as an artist enmeshed in the mechanisms of global business. The nice twist at the end of the story is that Stevenson’s installation was sold to four German collectors who have divided up its components amongst themselves. The philosopher and hobby pilot Martínez’s quote is apt here, too: Rakit has disappeared as an object. It only remains in the memory, and of course as a photograph.


Michael Stevenson: A Life of Crudity, Vulgarity, and Blindness
through December 2, 2012
Portikus, Frankfurt am Main




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