Review :: Michael Stevenson at the MCA

May 9th 2011

What do a raft, gunmen and a film about the US Government have in common? Well, they’re all metaphorical representations of the connections between art and the world. Berlin based artist, Michael Stevenson’s current exhibition at the MCA offers a range of work including sculpture, installation, film, graphite drawings and painting. It is a compelling show that uses intellectual precision and refined technical skill to question our place in the whole big scheme of things and what it actually means to be an artist.

Enter the space and the first thing you see is a raft, entitled The Gift. The scale of this object is overwhelming and as we move around the work we ask all sorts of questions. Is Stevenson proposing that art is like a raft – that art is a way of attempted escape? Is he suggesting that the task of construction is indeed artistic? Is he, by making the raft over sized, asking us to consider how art may well have overtaken life? Who knows you might say, but this is precisely what makes the work so fascinating – we’re never quite sure what it is we’re supposed to be searching for.

Upstairs, you’ll find a selection of graphite drawings (charcoals), which are unified by the theme of uncertainty. It is after seeing these charcoals that we understand why Stevenson is known to many an art critic as an anthropologist of the avant-garde. For example the work called Two Guns Pointing At Me depicts a traditional gallery space where three anonymous figures stand poised, gun in arm, ready to shoot. The work is cutting edge, it brings up all the nasty things we don’t want to think about, it’s challenging and confronting, it’s apocalyptic in nature – in essence, it’s mesmerizing.

As you continue to observe Stevenson’s drawings it becomes increasingly apparent that what the artist is doing is examining the tension between the local and the universal. Another striking image is that entitled Counting Antelope, which broadcasts the slogan, “it is most likely you will be closely watched by security patrols.” Perhaps referencing Michel Foucault’s Panoptic Theory, in which we’re asked to rethink ways of seeing and being seen, Counting Antelope speaks of self-surveillance and society’s preoccupation with keeping up appearances.

The exhibition also offers a short film named On How Things Behave, which looks at our chaotic history. The subject of the film is the US government and the Revolution in Iran – here, Stevenson doesn’t shy away from exploiting allegory to pledge his utter disgust toward the contemporary world where humanitarian care for one another seems to have gone astray. Stevenson’s use of metaphor is clever. We see the shuffling and re-shuffling of a pack of playing cards, blatantly proposing that life is like one big poker game. It’s about chance, uncertainty and risk.

Michael Stevenson’s work really shocked me. Not only because of it’s confronting material, but also because of the level of effect it had over me. I was genuinely moved by this exhibition and commend it for actually having something relevant to our current time and place. Everyone will define the word ‘artist’ differently, but for me, Michael Stevenson and this exhibition, embody the true essence of the word. Stevenson’s work has taught me that to be an artist means to be a creative entity – someone who represents a total social fact – someone, who like Stevenson himself, enj


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