Michael Stevenson’s A Life of Crudity, Vulgarity, and Blindness, 2012, an installation at Frankfurt’s Portikus, remains one of the artist’s most poetic works. Continuing Stevenson’s long-running investigation into politics in the margins of imperial power, A Life of Crudity is one of a series of artworks examining the political history of Panama during the Cold War. The installation transformed Portikus into a building-sized camera obscura. While the work related a specific political history, in this article I describe how the structure of the camera obscura also functioned as an analogy for perception, addressing ideas of fate, political agency and the limits of knowledge. I present Stevenson’s A Life of Crudity as exemplary of an epistemological depth model, in which what can be seen is merely the tip of the iceberg. I use the formal structure of the camera obscura to anchor a sweeping historical view, connecting intellectual life in Christian early modern Europe to contemporary digital culture. Juxtaposing my analysis of Stevenson’s A Life of Crudity with a discussion of works by Marcel Duchamp, Ryan Gander, Taryn Simon and Simon Denny, I offer a view of contemporary political and cultural life that has surprising commonalities with the perspective of a religious believer or a conspiracy theorist.
ANNA PARLANE | The tip of the iceberg: Michael Stevenson’s A Life of Crudity, Vulgarity, and Blindness, 2012, and perceptual occlusion in contemporary culture