‘I had to get out of the museum’: the artistic challenge that nearly broke Dean Stevenson

for for the past 10 months, Dean Stevenson has descended deep, deep into the bowels of Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art – Hobart’s underground gallery dedicated to the dark and the strange – to sit at a piano and write a piece of music from the nothing . Nobody let Stevenson write 150 compositions; if he’s being completely honest, he wanted to see how far he could push himself until he broke. “And it turned out there were about 130,” he says mildly.

Under the constant gaze of curious art aficionados, the 50-year-old composer has been writing a piece every day for the past 10 months, stopping around 4pm when musicians from Tasmania’s Symphony Orchestra arrive to perform what he’s written, good or bad. When the performance ended, the composition was suspended and Stevenson started all over again.

The 4 p.m. project is “hands down the most ambitious” thing Stevenson has ever done, requiring him to “suck a little bit on something and own it”, as he wrote on his website at the beginning† When 4pm was first announced last year, a curator from Mona said, “I look forward to seeing him suffer for his art as the clock counts down.”

So, did Stevenson suffer? “Oh my god, yes,” he says. “First it would be three months, then it would be six, then ten. And I probably could have stopped at any time, but I was either writing good music or it didn’t feel unsafe — not yet.”

In March, after being in Mona’s depths since July last year, “something broke in my brain and I had to be taken out of the museum,” he says. “I couldn’t come back for a few weeks. Honestly, I’m still not quite back. It was traumatic. I had lost control of everything that was happening around me. It was something to be in the spotlight all the time, it took a very heavy toll.”

Dean Stevenson at his piano in Mona.
dean Stevenson at his piano in Mona: ‘Was I better at writing music? Or did the music get better and I suffered?’ Photo: Mona

After being removed from Mona, Stevenson took a short break and went on tour, before returning to the gallery at 4pm for its sister festival, Dark Mofo† He knows he has been changed by the experiment, but wonders how exactly he has changed; he suspects he has become a braver musician for it. “Was I better at writing music?” he asks. “Or did the music get better and I suffered?

“In the end I think that’s what happened – the music got really good, and I didn’t do that well. But I did this to myself. I think that’s the experiment.”

When he first introduced the idea behind 4pm to Mona’s founder and friend David Walsh, “it would be all about me, look how awesome I am — it was way too self-centered, it would have been awful.” The idea went nowhere. In the 20 years in between, Stevenson toured as a drummer, composed and taught music. He came to perceive a shared “crippling fear” in his students, young and old; most were “so afraid of making something that wasn’t right”.

Finally he understood: we all have to suck on something and own it.

“We stigmatize mistakes so heavily — if you don’t do it right, you better leave it out,” he says. “Only those with an absolutely bloodthirsty passion will continue, because they can’t not do it. And as a teacher, I encouraged people to get into the music industry, which I won’t do anymore because it’s a terrible industry. Seeing where we are in the food chain during Covid, I finally understood that unless it’s all you can do, it’s a crucifix — and I’m not going to encourage anyone to hang on to it.”

Some days at 4pm all he had was “terrible music, just whining” to show it off. Some days he left the gallery with great pride. But every day, after every performance, he was approached by people telling the same story. “It’s strange, but at least once a day they say, ‘I used to play an instrument and I’ve given up.’ You can hear the regret. I always give those people my time, because that is a very precious moment.”

Dean Stevenson and members of the Tasmania Symphony Orchestra put on a show at 4pm in MONA
‘You rarely see people making things, you always see the end result.’ Photo: Mona

Surrounded by finished art, he showed them something exotic: the creative process itself. “You rarely see people making things, you always see the end result. And you make it at home in gloomy despair, like practicing scales. It’s just a horrible idea, not something nice. But I can be the guy who hangs out his dirty underwear every day,” he says.

While visiting Stevenson in Mona, I see a message typed on a page on one of the desks: “Art is never finished. It is left alone in an interesting place.” He sees this as the greatest lesson and “the antithesis to the panic that we have to do things right the first time”.

“If we want to make better things and be happier, sometimes we just have to say, ‘Oh, that’s enough,’” he says. “Being good enough is actually okay.”

During Dark Mofo’s two weeks, his 4 p.m. sessions are devoted to composing parts of a sinfonietta entitled With Ukraine. On Tuesday evening it was assembled and performed in Hobart in its entirety; an incredibly moving experience that has raised $10,000 for Voices of Children, a charity helping Ukrainian families. And for the first time in 10 months, Stevenson didn’t perform – he stood backstage and watched as someone else conducted: “A total relief.”

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