Serene Velocity in Practice: MC510/CS183
⬤ Monash University Museum of Art 22 May - 6 Jul 2019
Serene Velocity in Practice: MC510/CS183, recently opened at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), is the first major exhibition by the Berlin-based New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson to be held in Australia in some years. Since his survey show at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art in 2011, Stevenson has generated a new body of work that demands a shift in the way his practice is understood. I was struck by the physical, experiential and frankly bodily quality of this installation by an artist who is primarily known for his research focus.
Stevenson's typically large-scale sculptures and installations are based on fine-grained archival investigations into often obscure recent histories. The artist's long-running interest in New York gallerist Tony Shafrazi, for example, occasioned an exploration of the 1978 Iranian revolution and its intersection with the New York art world. Other topics that have come in for Stevensonian scrutiny include New Zealand's short-lived effort to develop and market a locally-produced car, the Guatemalan banana industry during the disastrous CIA-led coup of 1954, and Australian artist Ian Fairweather's incredible sea journey from Darwin to Indonesia on an alarmingly rickety raft he constructed entirely from found objects and beach debris. It's easy to understand why Stevenson's work has been seen as content-driven: audiences have responded to narratives that are cinematic in scope and rich in comic irony, feature multifaceted characters, and draw in the full dramatic sweep of high-level international politics and economic relations.
Artists of Stevenson's generation pioneered the 'archival turn' of the early 2000s, a tendency that has been normalised (and in fact, institutionalised) into the now ubiquitous use of research-based practice methodologies. While Serene Velocity in Practice comes equipped with rich narrative content, the artwork's relation to its back-story is looser, more disjointed, than that of much research-based practice, including Stevenson's own earlier projects from the 2000s: the artist has described it as “unhinged.”
Serene Velocity in Practice was jointly commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery, the Biennale of Sydney and MUMA for a tour of the three sites over 2017-19. Viewers who saw the work installed in the cavernous space of Carriageworks at the Biennale last year will be surprised by the contortions it has performed in order to (almost) fit into MUMA's tighter architectural footprint. The installation imagines two classrooms, each based on a real course taught in a US higher education institution. Evangelical Christian pastor John Wimber, a founder of the neocharismatic Vineyard churches, taught “MC510: Signs and Wonders” in the School of World Mission and Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary between 1982-86. “CS183: Startup” was a class about start-up business ventures taught by the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and libertarian Peter Thiel in Stanford's Computer Science faculty in 2012. Where Wimber's class centred on the practice of faith healing—and, Stevenson notes, in-class practice sessions routinely “flipped out into exorcisms”—Thiel's class attempted to diagnose why some start-ups fail and others succeed.
While they may seem to have little in common, when positioned in the intense mirrored dialogue of Stevenson's installation, parallels between the two classes emerge. Notably, both Wimber and Thiel were focused on growth: the ideological positions they imparted to their students both centred on an effort to transform the world by combatting and resolving barriers to change. Students were given the task of visualising and thereby summoning the future. In both cases, the practical nature of the instruction, the teachers' visionary stance and their future orientation resolved into a form of militant, politically conservative avant-gardism in which faith and business sense become echoes of each other.
The work that is installed in MUMA's galleries engages in a frenzy of referencing, riffing off details in the course content or obscure facts about—for example—Peter Thiel's technique for conducting effective job interviews, or his personal fascination with Hulk Hogan. All this, however, will remain largely opaque to the casual viewer (if such a viewer is possible in front of Stevenson's work, which I doubt). The installation's two rooms are barely even recognisable as classrooms. Thiel's room is a heatsink-lined bunker containing “desks” constructed from solar panels manufactured by failed sustainable-energy start-ups. The bright and cozy décor of Wimber's room, which is wallpapered with airline comfort blankets, creates a playschool feel that is somewhat undermined by the collection of sparring swords in the corner. We are very far here from any sense of an accurate historical recreation: despite the detailed archival research that underpins this work, it is sculpture, pure and simple.
Stevenson's title refers to a 1970 film, Serene Velocity by Ernie Gehr. Shot in a corridor at the State University of New York, Gehr's film used the camera's zoom function to telescope time and space. The result is trippy and headache-inducing: the corridor throbs violently, the rapid shifts in focal length plunging the viewer forwards and backwards through a space transformed into op-art flicker. Similar distortions and compressions are at play in Stevenson's installation, which turns Gehr's corridor into an impossible architectural space that extends through the plate glass of MUMA's windows.
Serene Velocity in Practice not only reconfigures John Wimber and Peter Thiel into a pair of mirror images, distinguishable only by a shift in focus, but also translates the missionary zeal of their future-oriented pedagogy into sculpture. Considered in terms of form and materiality rather than content, the installation speaks to the containment and transfer of heat, energy and power. The ridged aluminium heatsink that lines the walls and floor of Thiel's room is a material usually used to cool the overheated CPU of a computer. Airline comfort blankets are similarly a form of insulation, protecting passengers' bodies against chilly in-flight airconditioning. Solar panels absorb the heat of the sun and transform it into electric energy. Even the huge ex-aircraft tyres that Stevenson has used to elevate the structure of the Wimber room off the floor bear the searing marks of their high-speed encounter with the runway. Functioning as an insulating layer between an aircraft and the ground, the dense rubber of the tyres absorbs the impact and heat energy of a high-velocity landing. Like so many of the peculiar objects incorporated into these “classrooms”—eggs, cigars, cartons of the weird “meal replacement” powder marketed under the dystopic brand name Soylent—they are like batteries that can absorb or contain surplus energy within their physical forms. Tuning in to the work's formal register—its tactile qualities, material properties, and its relationship to architectural space and the viewer's body—it becomes clear how Stevenson has repeatedly returned to these ideas of insulation, incubation and containment.
The oxymoronic term that springs to mind is “research-based abstraction.” Serene Velocity in Practice, I think, should trigger an expansion of the narrow terms in which Stevenson's work has typically been understood. It foregrounds a question in his practice that was previously latent: how do abstractions take material form? What are the concrete ways in which abstract ideological, political and economic ideas actually take shape and have an effect in the world? While they are anchored in the same intensely detailed research that still characterises Stevenson's process, the installation's two rooms pulse like the positive and negative terminals of a battery, with the storage, control and release of powerful energies. Serene Velocity in Practice, ultimately, is at least as much about form as it is about content.