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Moniac joins Trekka at Venice Biennale

Moniac joins Trekka at Venice Biennale 12 June – 2 November 2003

The New Zealand exhibition for the prestigious 50th Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art links two ingenious Kiwi inventions – the Trekka and the Moniac.

In his installation This is the Trekka, New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson links the Trekka, hailed as New Zealand’s only homegrown automobile, to the Moniac – the world’s first economic computer described by Dr Alan Bollard, Governor of the Reserve Bank, as “a work of genius.” A perspex labyrinth, the Moniac is a water-driven analogue computer, a hydraulic model of a national economy. Water flows through a series of plastic tanks, gauges, sluices and tubes, representing money in circulation.

The Moniac, housed at the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) in Wellington since 1987, is currently on its way to Venice with the Trekka. Together, the Trekka and the Moniac will form the centrepiece of a larger installation that presents a big-picture view of New Zealand industry and culture in the Cold War period.

Standing two metres high and more than one metre wide, the Moniac was designed to demonstrate how economies work, by New Zealand economist Dr Bill Phillips while he was studying at the London School of Economics in London in 1949.

“Dr Bill Phillips was a pioneer,“ says Dr Alan Bollard, a Moniac enthusiast who helped re-assemble the Moniac when it arrived in New Zealand in 1987. “When Dr Phillips constructed the Moniac it was the most advanced economic computer in the world.”

In 1949, the Moniac was a ground-breaking mechanism for modelling macro-economics. At the Venice Biennale in 2003, the Moniac will visually represent the New Zealand economy. It will be linked to the Trekka’s Czech-built motor and together they will form a wishful mixed metaphor - the Trekka powering the national economy, making it pump.

Michael Stevenson decided to incorporate the Moniac into his installation, This is the Trekka, when he saw the machine in action at NZIER. “I was captivated by this ingenious device and the way in which it could enhance my installation and the story I wanted to tell. The Moniac is able to physically and visually stand in for ‘the national economy’ and it is this synthesis of mechanics and economic concepts that makes the Moniac so rich in metaphor.”

The Trekka tells the story of a South Pacific nation reputedly bartering sheep skins for Skoda motors across the Iron Curtain. Although the Trekka was hailed as homegrown, a product of Kiwi-can-do inventiveness, it was manufactured around a Czechoslovakian chassis and motor. It was, therefore, not entirely New Zealand-made.

New Zealand Commissioner in Venice Jenny Gibbs describes Stevenson as “a passionate archivist of our culture, who makes fascinating conceptual works”.

The exhibition is typical of Stevenson’s approach, she says. His latest projects have been fact-finding missions that uncover bizarre links between art history and social history and offer an outsider perspective, a view at odds with the prevailing mindset.

The venue for the New Zealand exhibition in 2003 is La Maddalena. The only round building in the city, La Maddalena is a rare example of 18th century architecture in Venice. The church has been closed for many years while both the building and its priceless artworks have been retored. It is the first time La Maddalena has been used as a venue for the Venice Biennale and the Venetian public is eagerly awaiting the re-opening of the church with the New Zealand exhibition. Boris Kremer and Robert Leonard are the co-curators of This is the Trekka. Boris Kremer is currently Curator of the International Studio Programme at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. Robert Leonard is Curator of Contemporary Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tämaki.

Creative New Zealand Chief Executive Elizabeth Kerr says New Zealand’s presence at the 2003 Biennale with the work of Michael Stevenson builds on the success of New Zealand’s inaugural presence in 2001. Writing in Art Monthly Australia, K.P. Hall said of the 2001 New Zealand artists Jacqueline Fraser and Peter Robinson: “The impact of this dynamic combination of artists has created a strong statement, resolutely placing New Zealand on the international arts map.”

The New Zealand exhibition at the 50th Venice Biennale 2003 is an initiative of Creative New Zealand, Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa, working in partnership with City Gallery Wellington. The Gallery will tour the exhibition in New Zealand after the Venice Biennale. Australian arts management company Global Art Projects (GAP) has assisted with exhibition management.

Established in 1895, the Venice Biennale is the world’s oldest international critical forum for contemporary visual art, attracting thousands of the world’s most influential artists, curators, critics, gallery directors and collectors.

Creative New Zealand and City Gallery Wellington would like to thank the following for their support and assistance with the New Zealand exhibition: The Patrons of the Venice Biennale, Trade New Zealand, New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Montana Wines Limited, ANZ Banking Group (New Zealand) Limited, Waimak Mineral Water Limited, New Zealand Television Archive, New Zealand Institute of Economic Research. The Moniac is indemnified by the New Zealand Government.

Michael Stevenson: a brief biography

Michael Stevenson is one of New Zealand’s most visible artists on the international stage. He has been exhibiting regularly in New Zealand and internationally since 1988 and was New Zealand’s artist-in-residence in Berlin at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in 2002. He was a finalist in the 1997 Seppelt Contemporary Art Award and the inaugural 2002 Walters Prize.

Stevenson was awarded a Creative New Zealand fellowship in 1995. His collaborative work involving three other artists, Slave Pianos, was part of the 1999 Toi Toi Toi exhibition of contemporary New Zealand art at the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany. His work, Call Me Immendorff, was presented at Kapinos Galerie, Berlin in 2000. Last May, he represented New Zealand in the 2002 Biennale of Sydney with his work Can Dialectics Break Bricks? – an immaculately researched installation, which addressed the role of contemporary art in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

Dr Bill Phillips and the Moniac: a brief history

Dr Bill Phillips became well-known as an economist in 1958 when he published his seminal work on the relationship between inflation and unemployment, illustrated by “the Phillips curve”.

However, he was not a typical economist. Born in 1914, the son of a Kiwi dairy farmer, Dr Phillips left New Zealand before finishing school to work in Australia. His jobs included crocodile hunter and cinema manager. In World War II, Dr Phillips served in the RAF’s technical branch as an electrical engineer and was captured by the Japanese, becoming a prisoner of war. After the war he studied sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE) where he became interested economics, particularly in Keynesian theory. It was here that he built the Moniac.

Dr Phillips used a diverse range of materials to create his computer, including bits and pieces from war surplus such as obsolete Lancaster bombers. The first Moniac was created in his landlady’s garage. It was built at a cost of £400 – more than $32,000 in today’s New Zealand currency.

Dr Phillips first demonstrated the Moniac to a number of leading economists at the LSE in 1949 where it was very well received. The machine proved popular with economists around the world. More Moniacs were built and sent to four other British universities; Melbourne University in Australia; the Harvard Business School; and the Ford Motor Company and Roosevelt College in the United States. Training sessions were held as far away as the Central Bank of Guatemala.

Following the creation of the Moniac Dr Phillips was offered a position at the LSE and eight years later was appointed Professor. However, the Moniac was never a huge commercial success and the advent of computers took economics, and Dr Phillips, in another direction. He returned to Australia in 1967 and died in Auckland in March 1975. By the late 1960s, the two original Moniacs were left unused in the basement of the LSE in London. They stayed there until 1987 when the LSE donated one of them to the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research in Wellington. The Moniac remained there until undergoing major renovation in preparation for its trip to the Venice Biennale in June 2003.

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