John Hurrell – 10 September, 2013
The way Stevenson has cleverly juxtaposed these two Martínez stories makes the Shah's attempts to find a safe haven (and recover from his deteriorating health) sound a bit like a game of Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly. The tenacious use of research here is admirable because of its originality - he talks to witnesses of events to dig out new material that's really interesting.
Proof of the Devil
23 August - 28 September 2013
It is quite a few years since Michael Stevenson presented a substantial exhibition in this country, despite the fact that this New Zealander has received much exposure and acclaim in significant institutions in Australia, Europe, the States and Central America. A researcher par excellence who usually makes one work a year (he supports himself by teaching in Nuremberg) this Michael Lett presentation joins up two projects made several years apart: a film made in 2008 for the Panama Art Biennial 8, and an installation of wilfully unpredictable swing doors made this year for a show in Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City.
Conceptually - in terms of a central inspirational personality - they also link with a recent show in Portikus, Frankfurt am Main, in Germany. All three dwell on the activities of one man, the remarkable José de Jesús Martínez (1929 -1991) - friend of both Graham Greene and Panama’s military leader General Omar Torrijos - a bodyguard, pilot, poet, playwright, philosopher, university lecturer and advanced mathematician. Known affectionately as ‘Chuchú’, Martínez was an extraordinary polymath.
The film is similar to a later work Natasha Conland commissioned for the 4th Auckland Triennial of 2010, but much longer, less visually varied, and with a Spanish voiceover, not English. While On How Things Behave featured circular motifs, various theories of causality and economic fluctuation, and certain related historic and astronomic events, Introducción a la Teoría de la Probilidad features a lot of card shuffling and dealing - looking at poker and solitaire - and a tighter cluster of events in Panama in 1979 when General Torrijos gave asylum to the deposed Shah of Iran (another regularly reoccurring figure in Stevenson projects) on the small island of Contadora for three months after negotiating a deal with US. President Jimmy Carter over Panama‘s independence.
Introducción also features large portions of an ‘antiqued’ hand-wound slide strip expounding on Martínez’s theories of probability, using black and white acetate images taken from the book after which the film is named.
In a superb article on Stevenson’s recent work in Un Magazine, Anna Parlane mentions a quip Graham Greene once made to Martínez about the sticky swing doors of his university office, noting that though Martínez was an atheist he believed in the Devil:
“Haven’t you noticed,” he said, “when you try to open a swing door, you always begin by pushing it the wrong way? That’s the Devil.”
For this Auckland version Stevenson has borrowed various wooden swing doors from the Maths and Chem departments of Auckland University (four singles, one double) and set them up in steel frames aligned in a rectangular floor plan in the large gallery, just outside the ‘black box’ constructed for the film. Electronic latches on the top of the frames ensure a random component to the direction of each hinged door, so that they are unpredictably blocked or allowed when pushed or pulled. One door has a grilled prison door open alongside it, referencing the jittery Shah in the film, who fearful of being assassinated and feeling confined, didn’t stay in Panama for long.
The way Stevenson has cleverly juxtaposed these two Martínez stories makes the Shah’s attempts to find a safe haven (and recover from his deteriorating health) sound a bit like a game of Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly. The tenacious use of research here is admirable, not so much because of Stevenson’s determination to investigate cultures for which he constantly needs translators, but because of its originality - he talks to witnesses of events to dig out new material that’s really interesting.
However, intriguingly in one online interview in Sydney, he mentions the pleasure of looking at objects, a nice acknowledgement of the mystery of things and the attraction they hold - irrespective perhaps of copious scholarly commentary or even the anecdotal. The magnet that draws you in before you ask what or why.
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