In 1997 Michael Stevenson lived and worked in a small converted milk bar on Melrose Street in North Melbourne. It was around the corner from where I lived and when he first moved in and covered the shop front windows with sheets of white paper it caused concern amongst the locals who wondered what the guy from New Zealand, dressed in retro-1980’s clothes was up to. This always struck me as particularly ironic given that directly across the road was a hairdresser’s that never cut hair or sold much except ice-creams but always seemed to have a crowd of thin, unkempt types hanging around the entrance. In the context of Melrose Street in 1997 it was the production of art, not dealing drugs that could induce paranoia.
Pre-Millennial: Signs of the Soon Coming Storm, held at ACCA from 11 July to 17 August 1997, was a joint exhibition by Michael Stevenson and Ronnie van Hout and represented one of the first major exhibitions in Australia by these two significant New Zealand artists. The exhibition was deeply rooted in the fin-de-siecle malaise of the 1990’s (remember Y2K?) and played with what were at the time current apocalyptic anxieties, while also asking more serious questions about art as commodity; society existing in a state of perpetual and compulsive historical amnesia; and the failed utopias of the 20th Century.
In his accompanying catalogue essay Rex Butler drew analogies to the 1990’s television series The X-Files and agents Mulder and Scully, likening Stephenson to Mulder and van Hout to Scully. Mulder found nothing odd about tales of alien abduction and unseen forces of evil, whereas Scully was the sceptic looking for reason, logic and history to explain strange behaviour and preternatural phenomena.
Stephenson’s exquisitely rendered photorealist copies of well-known contemporary art images were exposed to ultra-violet light, causing hard-core right wing slogans to appear, so that, in the paranoid ‘90s, there was the faintest suspicion that he was not joking. 666 slowly appeared on the forehead of Jeff Koons as he sits at the front of a class room, a blackboard behind him covered in an array of nihilistic slogans. It’s funny, of course. Jeff Koons, the master of banality bearing the mark of the devil; but then again, it’s always the one you least suspect.
By comparison van Hout’s equally perfect miniature model-vignettes are fragments of a ruined past and could serve as cautionary reminders of what can happen when people do believe in a new world order. The leftover oil barrels lying under a dead tree are branded with swastikas and offer a counter to Stephenson’s ‘abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here’ stance. But the clue to their reading lies in our capacity to understand and learn from history. Van Hout’s series not only made reference to the residual wastes of fascism, and failed systems of power, but were also a contemporary version of Goya’s Disasters of War, a much earlier example of an artist offering a warning to the dangers of succumbing to unthinking allegiances and mass-belief.
And still today, 14 years after all the computers on the planet didn’t shut down because one millennium ended and another began, I have to ponder why is it that we were able to summon up enough collective paranoia to plan for a fantastical global catastrophe yet have so quickly forgotten the consequences of succumbing to hyperbolic fears and unproven suspicions? Knowledge, both Stephenson and van Hout seem to be suggesting, is the key. With knowledge of history and an awareness of contemporary uncertainties we might be able to see the soon-coming storm, but then again, it’s more than likely we might not.
Julia Powles is a curator and educator. She is currently an intern working on ACCA’s First 30 Years archive program.