But perhaps Fairweather's most fragile assemblage was of three old World War II aircraft fuel tanks and a silk parachute he found while living on a Darwin beach in the early '50s. These formed the basis of a 3-m raft and sail he later attempted to navigate across the Timor Sea, with the vague intention of returning to Europe. Instead, 16 days later, he washed ashore on the western Timorese island of Roti, where, in exchange for pieces of his sailing vessel, Fairweather was offered food and shelter. What nearly killed him in effect became his life raft.
Fairweather's 1952 journey proved to be the defining moment in his career, the stepping-off point for his later great abstractions, but the raft was quickly forgotten. Now, in a feat befitting the noble nuttiness of its originator, a fellow Antipodean has recreated it as a piece of "readymade" sculpture. New Zealand-born, German-based Michael Stevenson, 40, has built a career from the quirks of art history, teasing them out as art-museum "exhibits." Artist or anthropologist? For the 2003 Venice Biennale, he reassembled New Zealand's failed four-wheel-drive vehicle, the Trekka, as a humorous gesture of national self-deprecation. The Queensland Art Gallery's Suhanya Raffel calls Stevenson "an archivist of culture." And to his idiosyncratic eye, Fairweather's raft is a potent symbol.
Working from eyewitness accounts and drawings, Stevenson constructed a full-scale replica from new castings of original torpedo-shaped fuel tanks, and a World War II parachute purchased on eBay. Tied together with hemp rope and bamboo, The Gift, as the sculpture is called, forms the oddly beautiful center of an exhibition around which the artist has placed other "relics" from the voyage, including maps meticulously hand-painted by Stevenson. Starting off in Sydney last May, "Argonauts of the Timor Sea" traveled to the U.K. in November, where the artist recruited a band of local Sea Scouts to (unsuccessfully) sail the vessel off the coast of Kent. From Aug. 27, the raft completes its unlikely journey at the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein (NAK), an art space in northwest Germany.
In the process, Stevenson has cast the usual artistic ideas about Fairweather adrift. While a 1994 retrospective installed the painter in the pantheon of Australian Modernism, "I actually believe this in a way undersells his achievements," says Stevenson, a graduate of Auckland's Elam School. "The story of his life seems somewhere between Gauguin and the hippy movement, and this aspect of his practice is also important and fascinating." Through his research, Stevenson began to see himself in Fairweather. The latter lived his last two decades as a virtual recluse on Queensland's Bribie Island, and the New Zealander, who moved to Berlin in 2002, recognized in Fairweather some of his own ambivalence about the art world. (Stevenson's 2000 show, "Call Me Immendorff," skewered the champagne lifestyle of the German painter who visited Auckland in 1987.) Before his project was finished, some wealthy German patrons offered to purchase The Gift. Stevenson began to see another parallel with Fairweather, whose raft was divided up and used by Roti Islanders as household utensils. "I was interested in the crossover (with) the situation being offered to me by this group of collectors," he recalls.
Stevenson's resolution was novel. In May, the artist staged an elaborate ceremony at NAK, where The Gift was dismantled and sawn into portions for the two dozen collectors, called Twodo. The bizarre event, presided over by an anthropologist from Cambridge and mimicking the gifting rituals of islands like Roti, brought Stevenson even closer to his subject. Ultimately he saw Fairweather, who was forced to dig ditches in Devon after being deported from Roti, as "a very exemplary case history" of the struggling artist who must barter to survive.
These days, as Stevenson well knows, artistic bartering can take the form of residencies and biennales. And it is only appropriate that "The Argonauts" will voyage home to the Queensland Art Gallery (which has purchased the remainder of the work) for the Asia-Pacific Triennial next year. The event will help launch their new Gallery of Modern Art, and there is talk of a Fairweather Room for the existing gallery spaces. In this way, Stevenson's work will hover somewhere between the two galleries. "It just resonates brilliantly for us," says QAG curator Raffel. With his New Zealand navigator, Fairweather journeys on.