The hydraulic economy

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Selfishly or otherwise, the west has always pushed its ideals on to developing nations. It’s an age-old topic but, considering recent misadventures in the Middle East, one that is no less relevant today. Its manifestation in the form of economic know-how is the theme of the New Zealand-born artist Michael Stevenson’s latest show, “Answers to Some Questions about Bananas”, at London’s Vilma Gold gallery.

Stevenson’s focus in this show is on the hydraulic computer designed in the late 1940s by the economist Bill Phillips (also New Zealand-born) as a teaching aid at the London School of Economics. The Moniac, as it was known, represented the flow of currency around an economy by pumping water through a series of pipes and chambers.

Fifteen of these sculptural instruments were made and shipped overseas as far afield as Mexico and Melbourne. Stevenson was particularly interested in the Moniac that went to South America, arriving at the Central Bank of Guatemala in 1953.

Stevenson set off to Guatemala to find the machine, hoping to come across it languishing in the basement of the central bank. No such luck. Owing to a wave of anti-foreign feeling under the socialist government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in the early 1950s, the machine, a symbol of the west, had been disposed of. So Stevenson decided to make one, imagining what it might look like 50 years on. (He had worked with one before, incorporating it into New Zealand’s exhibition at the 2003 Venice Biennale; there is also one at London’s Science Museum.)

The result, on show at Vilma Gold, is a labyrinthine system of Perspex tubes attached to a corroded metal support. Rusty water trickles lazily through chambers marked “Taxation” and “Government Expenditure”; on the wall behind the words “Banco de Guatemala” are spelled out in chipped, shabby letters. Ironically titled “Fountain of Prosperity”, the piece has an oddly restful air: its lacklustre dripping is more reminiscent of the supposedly therapeutic calming devices on businessmen’s desks than of dynamic economic turnover. The machine has been left to rust for the duration of the show and is now looking rather worse for wear – as frail as the Guatemalan economy it once represented and a symbol of western powers’ unhappy interventions in Latin America.

Next door is a haphazard pile of dejected-looking, empty banana boxes, propped in one corner. As an explanation for these depressing results of western interference in Guatemalan affairs, Stevenson shows The Living Circle, an upbeat American film from the 1950s that sees South America’s trade relations with the US as wholly beneficial.

Conrad Shawcross’s Victorian rope-making device comes to mind as an example of a contemporary artist’s rehashing of old mechanisms. But where Shawcross’s craftsmanship celebrates the design and function of the now defunct machine, Stevenson’s conceptual show is less about the machine itself than about its story. Accompanying the show is a booklet of essays, diagrams and photographs; Stevenson is a dedicated historian, known for his reconstructions of antiquated contraptions and ideas, each thoroughly researched.

Context is everything; without the background story, Stevenson’s Moniac would be in danger of looking like some primitive chemistry experiment. Yet the artist’s attachment to his subject brings this show to life. He makes his audience do a lot of groundwork, and the results are never less than fascinating. Before Stevenson appropriated it for his art, who knew about a hydraulic computer and its involvement in the politics of the tropics?

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