Stephen O’Connell Slave Pianos, art/text #67, 1999


Stephen O’Connell Slave Pianos, art/text #67, 1999

art/text #67 1999 : REVIEWS

Slave Pianos LOVERS, MELBOURNE MAY 15 — MAY 23, 1999

Slave Pianos is an ongoing collaborative project by two Melbourne-based artists, Michael Stevenson and Danius Kesminas. It has already been exhibited at the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel and Stills Gallery in Edinburgh. Following its presentation at Lovers in Melbourne, it tours to the Auckland Art Gallery, Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney, Lombard/Freid Fine Arts in New York, and China Art Objects in Los Angeles.

The centerpiece of this exhibition is a player piano: a traditional piano fitted with a mechanical arm which rests across the keys and performs programmed music on demand. The play list consists of avant-garde or experimental “sound art” by artists ranging from Jean Tinguely and Louise Bourgeois to contemporary Australians and New Zealanders such as David Thomas and Ronnie van Hout. Most of the sound tracks were originally produced by visual artists and consequently generated in the context of gallery performances or by kinetic art works. With the assistance of Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape (musicologists from La Trobe University in Melbourne), Stevenson and Kesminas have uploaded original recordings of these transientart happenings to the computer and transcribed them as conventional piano scores. In effect, performances that were intended as one-off events have been rarefied and digitally re-recorded so that they can be played over and over again. Accompanying their electronic player piano is a range of merchandise which includes copies of the CD, a set of beautifully rendered sheet music, and an archival cabinet filled with collectable EPs, posters, production notes and photographs. This fan-boy paraphernalia helps to frame the self-playing piano as a ghostly incantation of unique historical happenings.

In his solo career, Kesminas has a reputation for mocking the seriousness of the art world with irreverent antics. For example, he often sets out to annoy his contemporaries by appropriating their work in ways that erode artistic aura. Given Kesminas’s modus operandi, it is tempting to view Slave Pianos as a puerile, Simpsons-style parody of avant-garde pretense. And this is reinforced by a LED text box installed above the piano which flashes snide remarks about art world “operators.” Stevenson is also concerned with making art about art, yet his practice is inflected with self-doubt and apprehension. In the past, for instance, he has reproduced quintessential images of twentieth-century art in pencil, but then withdrawn from the intimacy of these painstaking homages by presenting them as cynical investigations into the machinations of the art world. In contrast to Kesminas, who plays at being an uncouth rascal, Stevenson has styled himself as a paranoid white Protestant who knows too much to let himself enjoy simple pleasures.

From the perspective of Stevenson’s oeuvre then, Slave Pianos deals with the complicated sentiment of longing for an avant-garde purity which has been tarnished by critical knowledge and historical hindsight. But, by collaborating with Kesminas, the former has also been able to emphasize the showy element of his paranoid persona. Conversely, by sidling up to Stevenson, Kesminas has drawn attention to the anxiety that lies beneath the surface of his animosity. Working together, they express intensely tortured love/hate relationships with the art world. At face value, then, Slave Pianos is an intriguing, performative document of “sound art” in the twentieth century. But the particularly interesting aspect of this collaboration is the way that it explores a compromised economy of desire and fear.

Stephen O’Connell

SLAVE PIANOS Installation detail, Lovers, Melbourne, 1999.