Thunderhead by Tina Havelock Stevens
“I love things that travel and soar. I love quiet and loud. Fast and slow. I love minor chords, intuitive surprises and whatever that equivalent is in all of my visual work too. I like that an audience can share an experience but have multiple perspectives.”
Tina Havelock Stevens has built a distinctive practice within the complementary spaces of two creative art forms. She brings together the energy and drive of a drummer and performer with the inquiry and observation of a documentary film maker. Present in her works is an innate aural and visual intuition. Unfettered by over-production, they offer the experience of suspended time, holding our attention to passing moments – some encountered, some constructed.
Havelock Stevens describes the immediacy of her approach as a hangover from a DIY punk aesthetic.
“My projects are essentially portraits of the state of the contemporary world, they have an experiential quality and are open to interpretation for a viewer. I like to get in on our limbic systems.”
Havelock Stevens’ perceptions are tethered to the sonic potential of spaces, structures and images. She composes and improvises scores that elicit emotional responses. Drumming is a medium through which Havelock Stevens taps into the residual energies and histories that accumulate on sites. Drawn to spaces and landscapes poised between decay and survival, Havelock Stevens’ often durational and spontaneous performances amplify and channel latent energies; they are a physical, sonic portrait of place.
“I’m interested in trying to take the ‘temperature’ of moments and movements, sense of place, belief systems and meaning, ritual, thresholds – I draw attention to things that are just there, to feelings and events that we can’t control.”
Across the works in this exhibition, we see chance encounters with meteorological systems on desert highways and congregations of strangers brought together in public acts of homage. Havelock Stevens also draws on more deliberate acts of study and observation; seeking out a boneyard where carrier planes are dismantled for parts, their stripped carcasses left to weather. In another work, Let’s Groove, the artist shifts the lens to herself.
Thunderhead holds the central gallery space, a single piece of footage captured by Havelock Stevens after “going the wrong way, then getting on the right track” while driving along Highway 54 in Texas. It shows the meteorological spectacle of a supercell, anchored just off the horizon across an outstretched plain, a low-lying mountain range visible in the distance.
Accompanying this image is a rolling, evolving score, a guitar and drum soundscape, spontaneously composed and recorded by Havelock Stevens and long-time collaborator, composer Liberty Kerr. Havelock Stevens and Kerr met in the late 80s, conspicuously female members of Sydney’s post-punk/rock scene. In proceeding years, they have formed bands and performed with sustained irregularity as an experimental duo. Here they come together for a long-form musical dialogue; with Havelock Stevens on drums and Kerr on guitar, urging the viewer through an ever-evolving soundscape.
Thunderhead captures the unpredictable and extraordinary forms that manifest in the earth’s atmosphere. It reminds us of the creeping uncertainty of weather patterns and volatile power of a compromised global system.
We watch, anticipating the system’s retreat or advance. Here the potential of the storm has been suspended by an infinite loop, the score – a hook that draws the viewer in. Thunderhead offers no apparent end point and envelops us, spurring a feeling of perpetual arrival.
For Havelock Stevens, the scale of Thunderhead is a nod to the monumental land art scattered across the central states of the USA. While on the same road trip, Havelock Stevens had visited James Turrell’s Roden Crater and Charles Ross’ Star Axis, each monumental works that shift perspectives, delivering viewers closer to the motion and expanse of a broad universe.
Come Together, Right Now is a piece filmed in the mid 2000s and cut in 2018 using a combination of in-camera and post edits. It brings the viewer into the shrouded space of a public ritual. Shot using super 8 in New York City, the footage captures an observational portrait of the crowd at a vigil held for John Lennon on what would have been his 66th birthday. The specifics of this event are significant only in passing; what the work presents to us is the surprising tenderness that can be captured in a public gathering. A familiar stuttering riff, drawn out in mesmeric loops allows the viewer to be swallowed by the assembly and stand amongst strangers, lost in extended moments of devotion.
This work considers the transcendent potential of collective acts, and offers an unguarded moment to be caught in one.
Let’s Groove is a spontaneous self-portrait. Produced by the artist in her living room, it examines how perceptions of self are shaped through memory and how they shift across ages as we select and frame moments that become projections of our identity – a publicly performed self.
Havelock Stevens creates a sonic channel between a past and present self through the repeated performance of the tune she learnt to drum to as a teenager. Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1981 hit Let’s Groove was released in the twilight years of disco, a final sensation for a fading era. Before finding her ground in the post-punk and rock scene, teenage Havelock Stevens started out by playing funk and disco. Here, Havelock Stevens reclaims that territory. The original track is fragmented and altered, mixed with other sound elements.
“Drumming has really become something to define me by so it’s looking at the existentialist roots of that as well. When I started playing I was definitely occupying a space that girls hadn’t really been in. I didn’t know that until I started playing in public and had to cope with all the reactions. It made me self-conscious.”
Let’s Groove pushes at contradictions in self perceptions. It challenges the aspects of ourselves we see as private and innate with those that are outwardly performed. Here the artist plays between public and private spaces, extending herself beyond a personal space, breaking the protective skin that inhabits and encounters a larger world.
A golden neon light illuminates a corner of the gallery, a single statement to describe an “extreme present”. Produced by Havelock Stevens in the opening weeks of 2020 amongst cataclysmic events, HOLUS BOLUS is a direct expression from the artist’s mother Susan, herself an artist, who died only a few months previously. The work acknowledges an ongoing conversation, an eternal collaboration, the prescience of astute observation. It beams up against a large wall of concurrent personal and environmental grief.
Havelock Stevens’ works encourage an experience of the world that is attuned to emotional responses to the rhythm and movement of structures and environments that we inhabit and traverse. Steadied and sustained by the intentionality and resolve of a filmmaker, these works possess an immediacy in their capture and leave traces that, as the artist intends, seep into our “limbic systems”.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Sydney-based artist Tina Havelock Stevens is a leading figure in contemporary Australian video and performance. She was awarded the prestigious 65th Blake Prize (2018) and the 55th Fisher Ghost Prize (2017). She has performed solo and with collaborators at DARK MOFO, Hobart (2016) Liveworks, Performance Space, Sydney (2015, 2016 ,2017,2019), MONA FOMA, Launceston (2020) and MONA FOMA, Hobart (2013).
Havelock Stevens has exhibited as part of The National 2019: New Australian Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2019) and The Big Anxiety Festival, UNSW Art Galleries & Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2017). Internationally she has presented at Bullet Space, New York City (2016), Mill6 Foundation, Hong Kong (2016) and Manila Biennale, Manila, Philippines (2018).
In 2019 she presented a new commission for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s C3West program; Hasta La Bella Vista Baby, a visual and sonic portrait of the Bella Vista community in Sydney’s north-west.
Havelock Stevens was the drummer with bands; Plug Uglies, Crow, The Titanics and formed the instrumental post rock outfit The Mumps. She also worked as a documentary film maker writing, directing and shooting various long-form documentaries screened in film festivals and broadcast television.
She continues to work with collaborators such as choreographer, Jo Lloyd, Chicks on Speed and composers Cat Hope and long-time collaborator Liberty Kerr.
Image: Tina Havelock Stevens, Thunderhead, 2020. Installation view at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA). Photo by Bo Wong.