Michael Stevenson

Famous Secrets

Berlin-based New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson has a talent for excavating aberrant examples, for taking sidebar stories and making them into the main event. His artworks connect seemingly disparate histories along avant garde strands. After a while it’s hard to extricate yourself from the narrative intricacies the artwork points toward, the allegory becomes all consuming.

Argonauts of the Timor Sea takes as its object Australian painter Ian Fairweather’s 1952 voyage from Darwin to Timor on a raft of his own making. Stevenson’s seemingly loose and underexplained collation of objects emulates a museological display, with its photographs, framed prints, vitrines of ropey ephemera, video documentation and reconstructions. His objects, while finely wrought, are deliberately gauche, seeming to belong in a social history museum, something a little more hokey and hands-on than the pristine art gallery.

Like the Triennial that frames it, Stevenson’s work investigates connections across the Pacific, examining the nature and direction of traffic, problematising both the misapplication of western models onto non-western practices, and the reverse.  Argonauts also obliquely addresses Australia’s contemporary and historical territorial anxieties: nowadays refugees traveling from Indonesia enact Fairweather’s perilous journey in reverse.

Something of a local hero, who spent decades living and working in Queensland, Ian Fairweather’s biography is a complex one. Born in Scotland, he attended the Slade School in London, where he was a successful student.  Combatant and prisoner in both World Wars, many of his adult years were spent wandering through Asia, living at various times in China, Borneo, Bali and Ceylon. Painting wherever he went, he was repeatedly ejected by colonial authorities for living too closely with the native peoples of the regions he visited.

Despite his nomadic and often ascetic existence, he exhibited regularly.  In Australia his work was popular amongst a small but passionate cognoscenti (there is a later tale of critic Robert Hughes spending the night in a sleeping bag on the footpath outside a Melbourne gallery in order to secure one of his paintings).

After the Second World War, Fairweather returned to Australia and settled on Bribie Island, just north of Brisbane. By the early fifties, unhappy with the increase of visitors to the island, he left, ending up in Darwin, where he lived in a shipwreck on the beach, sleeping during the day and painting at night by candlelight.

The artist’s solo raft journey to Timor was made in 1952, when he was 61 years old. Norwegian Thor Heyerdhal’s famous Kon Tiki expedition, made five years earlier, seems to have inspired Fairweather’s interest in migration routes from Asia to Australia. Heyerdhal and crew had traveled on a balsa log raft across the Pacific from Peru to French Polynesia. Fairweather constructed his craft from driftwood and items from the local tip and gleaned his navigational skills from the public library. He stocked the raft with food and water, and, after some perfunctory seaworthiness tests, on the 29th of April, set sail on the falling tide.

The raft sat low in the water, and Fairweather began to develop sores from the constant immersion. He ran constant repairs, struggling with rudder and sail, anxious to avoid bypassing Timor entirely and being swept to his death in the Indian Ocean. Storms and huge seas battered the craft, and his sail was shredded. The salt spray, bright constant light and lack of sleep addled his perceptions. Followed by sharks, Fairweather tied his legs around the mast to avoid rolling off into the water.

After sixteen days at sea he ran aground on a reef off the island of Roti, at the south-westernmost tip of Timor. Initially suspicious of the bedraggled stranger, locals took him in and fed him while he recuperated, appropriating his craft in exchange for their care.  Although offered passage back to Australia, he refused, and was deported to England, working as a ditch digger to pay off his fare.  He eventually returned to Australia, where he resumed his hermitic life on Bribie Island, remaining there from 1953 to his death in 1974.

A news-wire favourite (although the artist refused to sell his story), multiple accounts of his journey exist in newspapers and magazines of the time. Heroic and foolhardy, inevitably the voyage inflects subsequent readings of his work – a certain freedom and gravity is detected in his post-1952 paintings.  His never adequately explained adventure has been interpreted as both a Zen act of self-abandonment, and retrospectively recuperated as a performance of physical endurance in the spirit of seventies artists Chris Burden or Jan Bas Ader (whose own boat never reached shore).

Although previously shown both Sydney and Aachen, Argonauts of the Timor Sea, like many of Stevenson’s works, has a curious site specificity in the freshly reconfigured Queensland Art Gallery, adjacent to a room full of Fairweather paintings.  Though they sit discretely in adjacent galleries, few overt connections are made between the two installations.

Central to Argonauts is Stevenson’s version of the raft, entitled The Gift. Its plans are sourced from a vague sketch, while the techniques of its construction are based on those used by Hyderdhal. The raft’s three floats are replicas of the original auxiliary air-fuel tanks scrounged by Fairweather. The body of the raft is composed of miscellaneous timbers – bamboo, milled wood, charred logs, pieces with nails still sticking out of them, all painstakingly bound together. The sail is cut from a World War Two parachute purchased on eBay. In homage to popular anthropology, and the investigation of human origins inspiring both Heyerdhal and Fairweather, the raft is propped up on piles of National Geographic Magazines. A video shows the construction of a previous version of the raft, ropes being untwined, burning tar ladled onto the riveted seams of the aluminum floats. It is a communal activity, with a group of Sea Scouts aiding in the reconstruction.  When the craft is complete, helpers push it into the water, and the artist inexpertly sails out into the bay.

A facsimile frontispiece to an Indonesian edition of Heyerdhal’s Kon Tiki book is framed in Coconut wood. Two large maps hang in the space: one with Indonesian text indicates both the migration routes of early humans from South Asia to Australia and Fairweather’s reverse journey; the other, in English, shows ocean currents around Australia. In form and style, the works immaculately emulate maps filled with the pink-shaded lands of Empire that hung in classrooms across the Commonwealth around the time of Fairweather’s journey. War and Empire are imbedded in the installation: Fairweather’s original raft was constructed largely of scraps from the Pacific War, during which Darwin was repeatedly bombed by the Japanese.

The installation’s title is derived from Bromislaw Malinkowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, a book which famously brought anthropologists “down off the verandah” and turned them into the participant-observers we know today.  Marcel Mauss’ text, The Gift, is a keynote, an anthropological classic on exchange in traditional communities. Fairweather himself often lived amongst the locals, dwelling outside the cash economy and forsaking colonial privileges. When short of funds, he painted with cheap improvised materials on unconventional surfaces (making his works a nightmare for museum conservators). His great journey from Darwin to London was achieved almost entirely without monetary expenditure.

Unusually, Fairweather lived a secluded life on the borders of Western society, but was accepted into the mainstream artworld.  Fairweather’s engagement with the cultures he visited, and his ability to be both exterior to the contemporary Australian artworld, yet clearly involved in it, raises the questions of centres and peripheries brought to light by the Triennial’s Asia/Pacific focus.  At a time when Australian artists were shipping off to the cultural centres of Europe, Fairweather was making a quite different journey.  Whether this can provide another model is a question that Stevenson, with his faux-primitive sculptural objects, raises, but does not settle.

Unlike earlier Triennials, there is little overt branding partitioning the special exhibition and the collection hangs, indeed much of the work in the Triennial has already been purchased.  The install is an accretion; the displays show long arcs of curatorial interest and intent.  In the Gallery of Modern Art, key works from previous APTs hang in galleries above the current triennial, like ancestors in the rafters. At the Queensland Art Gallery there is bleed between the collection (augmented by loans from other institutions, including Fairweather’s Bathers in Bali from the Tate Gallery in London) and the Triennial installations.  There is a blur between the historical Chinese ceramics shown in conjunction with Ai Weiwei’s altered pots, between Stevenson’s work and Fairweather’s painting, which itself couched in something called a room that is really a series of partitions dissolving out into the larger hang of contemporaneous Australian paintings.

With this porosity in mind, how does Stevenson’s raft relate to a cabinet of inkwells and centerpieces made of emu eggs and silver, or a hair-filled mourning brooch adorned with a golden goanna, or a sideboard with carved pineapples and kangaroos, a series of bark shields, or a stained-glass window emanating its own light?  His weird, but highly considered accretions point outward to all the other carefully layered objects and the stories they are made to exemplify or stand in for.

Art museums, unlike artists, aren’t allowed to make up artworks and artifacts that they lack, although curators interpolate, borrow and wheedle. Many of Stevenson’s objects are not what they first seem – contemporaneous news clippings are painstakingly hand-drawn to look like poor quality photocopies. A version of Mauss’ book is rendered as a carved box. It resembles the replicas and ritual objects of cargo cults, objects that have the shape and weight of their western models, but that spring from a completely different understanding, from attempts to explicate the mysteries of modernity using traditional logics.
The carved book enacts this cultural mis-recognition, an attempt to incorporate the forms of knowledge, while missing the content.

What about the reverse gesture? What does it mean to paste a Greek myth onto the early humans who traveled the same waters as Fairweather?  Heyerdhal’s journey is remembered, but his politically shady theories of an Aryan race entering the Pacific via South America are not as well recalled.  This year Heyerdhal’s grandson set off from Tahiti in a raft named after Tangaroa, Polynesian god of the sea. Who is re-enacting whose mythologies?

First Published in The Artreader Newspaper, The Asia Pacific Triennial, 2006