It was the hottest summer in Europe since at least the 16th century. During the week-long opening of the 50th Biennale di Venezia several visitors collapsed in the heat. In the course of the exhibitions, three died. Aotearoa New Zealand was mounting its second national pavilion in the cool, neoclassical interior of La Maddelena, an 18th-century church on the main route from the railway station to the Piazza San Marco but at more or less the antipodes of the Biennale’s principal venues – the Giardini, which house the 30 permanent pavilions, and the Arsenale, on which the curated exhibitions centre. It was for this context that Michael Stevenson’s This is the Trekka (2003) was originally conceived and produced.
Jokes about global warming peppered opening week conversation. In a city built on lagoon silt, the possibility of rising sea levels was, and is, a vivid concern. In 1895, the same year the Biennale was first held, the Swede Svante Arrhenius presented the first scientific paper predicting the impact of increasing carbon dioxide levels on the heat retained in the earth’s atmosphere. Since then, levels of the gas had increased by roughly 30 percent, and evidence for human-caused climate change was becoming increasingly difficult for sceptics to deny. The weather was apt for This is the Trekka which, in roundabout ways, refers to planetary effects of industrialisation through its trade fair-style presentation of an exemplar Trekka, New Zealand’s only indigenously produced motor vehicle.
City marketingStevenson’s work relates more obviously, though, to the Biennale as a possible product of cultural insecurity. In the decades after Italian unification, Venice – the former centre of a trading empire – was no longer considered a centre for art. Even the paintings of the celebrated Venetian school were drawing fewer visitors to the city; the European tradition of the Grand Tour was on the wane. In anachronistic terms, something like ‘city marketing’ lay behind the foundation of the world’s most important art exhibition in the 19th-century format of the universal exposition. The idea that art could promote a city had caught on widely by 2003, and in the preceding decade, the proliferation of ‘large-scale perennial exhibitions of contemporary art’ – generally justified by policy imperatives to foster currency in the ‘global knowledge network economy’ 1 – had stirred debate about their continued relevance. 2
Artistic director Francesco Bonami had worked with a record 11 co-curators to make 10 sub-exhibitions within Dreams and Conflicts: The dictatorship of the viewer, the curated section of the 2003 Biennale. Self-criticality was missing from their efforts, according to North American critic Ralph Rugoff. It appeared to him ‘as though the curators assumed they already had all the right answers to the problems posed by large biennials’.3He found a reflexive questioning of the situation instead in some of the national pavilions, ‘particularly the biting and humorous installations by New Zealand’s Michael Stevenson and Spain’s Santiago Sierra’.
In the Giardini, Santiago Sierra had covered the name ‘España’ above the door of the Spanish pavilion with black polythene (Palabra tapada (Covered word), 2003) and built a simple concrete block wall behind its main entrance (Muro cerrando un espacio (Wall enclosing a space), 2003). Security guards permitted only visitors bearing valid Spanish passports to enter by the side door, where they could see the empty and unprepared interior and the other side of the wall. Sierra’s symbolism was blunt: ‘A nation is actually nothing; countries don’t exist.’4 The Spaniard may have been the more confrontational about the violence of the nation state and its policing of borders, but Stevenson was equally forceful in flagging his reluctance to be a passive participant in any exercise in national branding.
New Zealand was not at the forefront of the trend for staging and participating in such shows. But in 2001, the same year that the inaugural Auckland Triennial was held, the national arts council, Creative New Zealand Toi Aotearoa, had negotiated the presentation of its first pavilion at Venice. A kapa haka group appeared at the press preview, and the press pack had a publicity shot from the successful New Zealand film The Piano on the cover, prompting some to see the work of the two artists, Jacqueline Fraser and Peter Robinson, at risk from an institutional framing ‘invest[ed] in the exoticising gaze’.5 It could be seen as a pre-emptive move against any such boosterism that two years later This is the Trekka took the form of a promotion, and of a dubious product. Robert Leonard, then of Auckland Art Gallery, was one of two curators who worked on the exhibition. As he put it: ‘Perversely, [Stevenson] comes to market with an imitative product, designed decades ago for domestic consumption and long out of production.’6 Moreover, a pitch for a car in a street-less city.
This is the Trekka reveals many ironies from different angles. A sign spins over the glossily restored, as if showroom-new, example of the Trekka. On it a period symbol for ‘New Zealand made’ is backed with one bearing the Czech acronym for the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (whose ‘c’ and ‘z’, the artist seems to note, also rhyme visually with those of Creative New Zealand). It points to the bizarre fact at the heart of the installation: that during the Cold War, in officially anti-communist New Zealand, a businessman had traded behind the Iron Curtain; the engine and other mechanicals involved in the construction of the Trekka were sourced from Škoda. Any ‘Kiwi ingenuity’ on display was more to do with commercial opportunism than engineering.
Foreign artist project
The parallels between the Biennale as ‘the art world’s ultimate trade show’ and the Trekka story extend to Western modern art as an import to Aotearoa, 7 and Stevenson’s own expatriate status. Gregory Burke, the curator of the 2001 New Zealand pavilion, referred to the artists he worked with as among the country’s ‘most international’.8 In Robinson’s case, this meant he had participated in Okwui Enwezor’s landmark second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, for instance, as well as being the first New Zealand-sponsored artist to take up a place on the International Studio Programme at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, in the burgeoning art centre of late 1990s Berlin. Stevenson, in Robinson’s footsteps, was the second. Stevenson had been based in Berlin since 2000, and brought with him to Venice, as one of the curators, Boris Kremer, whom he had met as project manager of the Bethanien programme.
Stevenson’s show Call Me Immendorff (2000-01) at Galerie Kapinos, the Berlin dealer gallery that he shared with Robinson at the time, was an immediate precedent for key aspects of This is the Trekka. Each work was made in relation to a New Zealand story with a European audience in mind. The narratives of both subtly amplify elements of the bizarre, which might be all the more clearly seen from outside. In the earlier work, Stevenson pinpoints the coincidence between Black Monday and Jörg Immendorf’s arrival in New Zealand in 1987 for ‘a foreign artist project organised by the Auckland City Art Gallery’, as the title of the German painter’s resultant catalogue put it. The historical moment is condensed into simulated newspaper headline boards, in all-caps exclamations, which interweave Immendorf’s dismissive takes on local culture as reported in the press (‘THE BEACH IS BORING’) with the impact of the sharemarket crash on local investment companies (‘EQUITICORP SHOCK-WAVES SPREAD’). In this way, ‘Fear of economic collapse and national pride injured: two emotions potentially deeply connected to each other were actually made to resonate and brought into focus’.9
‘Original artefacts, simulacra and plausible inventions’Economics are invoked directly in This is the Trekka, too, through the Trekka’s co-starring readymade, the MONIAC (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer) – a fluid-mechanical simulation of a national economy, designed by an expatriate New Zealander while he was a student of Keynesian theory in London in the late 1940s. In the work, the MONIAC effectively stands in for the pre-neoliberal belief in a regulated market economy. Stevenson revisited and crafted a functioning replica of it in The fountain of prosperity (2005). The failed quest to locate the MONIAC supposedly owned by the Central Bank of Guatemala links the New Zealand story to Central America, and from there to the Iranian Revolution through the exiled Shah’s stay in Panama, the subject of Introducción a la teoría de la probabilidad (2008). In short, stories from the periphery of Eurocentric modernity persist and interweave in Stevenson’s work to date, all, like those of the Trekka and the MONIAC, as open-ended allegories – vehicles of unstated metaphors.
Another actual vehicle appeared at Venice in 2003. Curator Igor Zabel’s Individual Systems included Simon Starling’s Flaga (1972-2002).10 For this work, the artist had acquired a red Fiat 126 in Turin, Italy, driven it to a Fiat factory in Bielsku-Biala, Poland, and swapped off panels for white, Polish-manufactured replacements, colouring the two-door like a Polish flag. Stripped of its engine, it hangs like a painting. (‘Flaga’ is, of course, Polish for ‘flag’.) Critic Tamara Warren summarises the back story: ‘The Fiat 126 was not produced for Western European customers after 1982, but continued to be manufactured in Poland until 2000. What originally was intended as an Italian city car became the symbol of Polish daily life in the Communist Bloc.’11 Starling’s work, like Santiago Sierra’s, addresses political borders and, closer still to Stevenson’s, exchange between the Eastern bloc and the West; but most specifically, Starling’s and Stevenson’s cars operate as markers of pre-existing ironies.
How are we to take this ironic tone to Stevenson’s endlessly unravelling narrative threads? More than the other historical conveyances he has modelled since – Fairweather’s raft (in the 2004–06 work The gift) and Chuchu’s plane (in the 2012 exhibition A Life of Crudity, Vulgarity, and Blindness)12 – his presentation of the Trekka seems wry. But as anthropologist Michael Taussig suggests, it is interesting to consider the ‘mood swings’ in his work, between ‘pathos, amusement, despair’.13 We may be intrigued to know more, puzzle at the layers of obscure references, relish the unlikely connections, and, indeed, despair at their implications. Starling’s and Stevenson’s works do not offer us full interpretations, but rather physical embodiments of the complexities of nationalism and economics. Instead of simply the grim amusement of the specially acute but helpless observer, the pointed political incongruities that This is the Trekka sets in play through its mise-en-scène of original artefacts, simulacra, and plausible inventions might be seen to open up for rethinking our experience of systems of exchange.
- For a detailed reading of Stevenson’s work’s relation to the contemporary policy moment see David Craig’s ‘(Post-)Fordism, (Neo-)Trekkaism or, the cultural contradictions of late provincial modernism’, in This Is the Trekka by Michael Stevenson, Creative New Zealand, Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa, in association with City Gallery Wellington, and Revolver-Archiv für aktuelle Kunst, Frankfurt/Main, 2003, p. 61.
- This debate has since been made the subject of The Biennial Reader: An anthology on large-scale perennial exhibitions of contemporary art, Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø (eds), Hatje Cantz & Bergen Kunsthall, Ostfildern & Bergen, 2010.
- Ralph Rugoff, ‘50th Venice Biennale’, Frieze, issue 77, September 2003, p. 95.
- Sierra discusses this work with Mexican artist Teresa Margolles in ‘Santiago Sierra’, BOMB, issue 86, Winter 2004, bombsite.com/issues/86/articles/2606, accessed 1 September 2013.
- Louise Garrett, ‘Bring on the croquettes: Some thoughts on Venice’, LOG Illustrated, issue 14, 2001, p. 39.
- ‘This is the Trekka’, New Zealand at Venice leaflet, Creative New Zealand, Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa with City Gallery Wellington in association with Global Art Projects, 2003. Jörg Heiser elaborates this reading in more detail in his essay ‘Art as national benchmark’ in Michael Stevenson: This is the Trekka, Boris Kramer (ed.), leaflet, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin and Revolver-Archiv für aktuelle Kunst, Frankfurt/Main, 2003.
- Leonard quotes Stevenson on the products of artistic nationalism, that ‘key components were sourced overseas’ too, ibid.
- Gregory Burke (ed.), Bi-polar: Jacqueline Fraser, Peter Robinson, exhibition catalogue, Creative New Zealand, Wellington, 2001.
- Jan Verwoert, ‘Faulty converters <> ingenious operators: On the work of Michael Stevenson’, Michael Stevenson: An introduction, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln, 2013, p. 61.
- Starling also showed in the Scottish pavilion project, Zenomap, that year.
- 'Ostalgia the New Museum: Simon Starling's Polski Fiat', Forbes, 9/24/2011,http://www.forbes.com/sites/tamarawarren/2011/09/24/ostalgia-the-new-museum-simon-starlings-polski-fiat/, accessed 1 September 2013. See also Daniel Birnbaum, ‘Transporting Visions: On the art of Simon Starling’, Artforum, vol. 42, no. 6, February 2004, pp. 104-09.
- Michael Taussig ‘A short history of flight’ in Michael Stevenson: An introduction, pp. 169-80.
- Ibid, p. 175.