In his solo exhibition ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ at Vane gallery, Michael Mulvihill constructs a tableau of references to Western ideology. Through illustration he attempts to grasp the nature of the recurring physical impact of power cycles within liberal democracy. For Mulvihill the act of drawing is implicit both as a tool to work out the cause and extent of the disparity between ideology and reality, whilst also functioning to recuperate the human dimension – assigning a face value from ideology to philosopher.

The proposition ‘the pursuit of happiness’ was originally formed as an ideology in USA Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The document, written in 1776, celebrates the values of the USA as a former colony of the British Empire and it declares the human right to pursue happiness. However, there is a delicate balance to how this ideal might function in society, and specifically now within global society it is rarely read from the point of view held by Jefferson when he wrote it. It is a two-fold proposition, a phrase synonymous with the American Dream. When Jefferson included this ideology within the declaration, he did so as an extension of his own commitment to an initially minor line of philosophy from the Hellenistic age, called ‘Epicurean Autarky’. Epicurus, to whom the movement is attributed, was outspoken when he formed this ideology – for although Autarkic thought was popular amongst philosophers, the Epicurean strand of Autarky initiated a major shift in attitude toward human relations.

Autarkic thought generally promotes self-rule and an individualistic outlook. The point of departure therein for Epicurean Autarky is in its differing sense of the individual: it promotes self-sufficiency as learning to live within responsible means, a consciousness of the self through being able to discriminate between need and desire. Value was placed upon friendship, not just for survival or reciprocal benefit but also for its own sake. Furthermore this attitude extended to the endorsement of pity. Conversely, in a mainstream Autarkic principle was the belief that by showing pity, peace of mind would depend upon circumstances outside of our control – a mindset that remained from Aristotle’s teachings. It proposed that knowing friendship for the value found in it and expressing pity for others was as an essential part of staying in touch with the delicately balanced scale of social and economic dynamics that we live within.

In modern day America the proposed entitlement of the pursuit of happiness can be read, and is read by default, in an increasingly individualistic way. From within neoliberal capitalism the idea of finding happiness in only ‘necessary desires’ is difficult when a simple life is more expensive and complicated to achieve than one that uses the commercial infrastructure with which the country – for the majority – now operates. What was originally an aim to live in harmony, in balance and accounting to others, would, when read within a modern day framework, only mean supporting a life inside capitalism. It is this conflicted terrain that Mulvihill’s exhibition opens – an originally earnest but imperfect ideology, subjected to the new terms of Western society has led to an attitude of self-entitlement. When sought at a national level the results are disastrous and profoundly negate accountability and responsibility.

Mulvihill’s installation, The Pursuit of Happiness (2012-13), presents a series of pencil portraits of individuals affiliated with the Cold War – from astronauts, to HG Wells, to Wernher von Braun – laid out flat on a steel framed, black topped table which resembles one used for mapping or possibly military planning. A series of stamp-sized pencil drawings of mushroom clouds are spread out on the facing wall. The delicate nature of these nuclear explosions portrays the cataclysmically destructive events as incredibly fragile. Their portrayal in this way brings an awareness of the conceptual fragility within which they occur – a moment which could progress in many directions, each possibility completely shaping the future. Here, the question of accountability – for neoliberal ideology, for technology capable of mass destruction, for the continuous sub-torrent of second-guessing through Game Theory – is directly addressed. A breadth of individuals involved with the creation of Western liberal philosophy around the space race are represented – from science fiction writer to creator of the H-Bomb. From this point of view Mulvihill is trying to achieve a pluralism of attitudes that have fed into Western ideology. Looking at these individuals – have we missed the party? The grand gestures of the space race were eventually overshadowed. Now we have shrunk back from the opportune moment of the space race: moving backwards from a time where the innovation of science and human development was taken to an extreme; shrinking back, so that the public experience of this technology is its homogenisation for convenience or, if you are unlucky, its use in warfare.

After Art, The End of Art, and The End of History? (1), are all texts that demonstrate a tone of contemplation, within neoliberalism. The former two books, from within art criticism, offer alternative viewpoints on the state of art and its future within a technologically driven, capitalist society. The latter, written twenty years beforehand, is characteristic of the self-assured attitude of Western government between the fall of communism in Russia and the recent financial crash; an attitude that declared liberal democracy within capitalism was the only successfully functioning option of governance, which was the conclusion to a linear development of civilisation in history.

It is this moment that Mulvihill’s next series of drawings included in the exhibition, The End of History (2009-12), turns back to reflect upon: a pivotal time when attitudes were formed that led to the detachment of political ideology and how it is implemented. Taking the title of Frances Fukuyama’s well-known paper published in 1989 this series of pencil portraits focuses upon members of the RAND (Research And Development) Corporation. Here the problems within the controversial paper by Fukuyama (who was a member of RAND himself) – the idea of neoliberalism as an unchallengeable social model – are divulged. When seen alongside the mushroom clouds illustrated in ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, propagator is connected to ideological outcome: as militaristic incident. Each drawing of a mushroom cloud takes root in an actual nuclear explosion – the intent of which is itself conflicted. Often explained as a scientific test, but in actuality, part of a strategic plan of visible demonstration in the knowledge that observation by other nations’ security teams is taking place. This indicates the subtext of this ideology, where the direct incident of attack is acknowledged but importantly a change of atmosphere has occurred – the constant anxiety that pervades the actual event itself.

The End of History continues from the isolated portraits of neoliberal political advisors to skylines of Berlin and Chicago also drawn in graphite on paper. Mulvihill shows these cities as interchangeable images of Western capitalism, despite Berlin’s actual divided past and architecture. These images show a world in the process of dissolving through his use of drawing technique – overlaying and re-drafting one skyline over another in each image. Here Mulvihill reflects upon a constant redevelopment where huge architectural statements of power are themselves impermanent in an environment based on competition; where power shifts continuously between competing corporate powers. The buildings are predominately made from steel and glass, echoing the finite minerals that govern these power struggles. These drawn images rest upon angled lengths of steel mounted on the gallery wall, which echo this aesthetic of power shown within the drawings themselves.

The combined drawn artworks that compose Michael Mulvihill’s exhibition, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, address the problem of abstract-ness in neoliberal capitalism. They return to the pivotal moment of Game Theory developed in the Cold War, where warfare was conceptualised and the notion of power became increasingly faceless, removed from influencing persons and from catastrophic event. The idea of Game Theory is picked apart literally so that nuclear explosions are reduced to tokens on a board game. Game Theory itself can be proposed as the final stages of axiomatic rationale – where it was tested to the furthest most extreme circumstances. Platonic rhetoric is brought here to its most severe end-point. The idea lies therein of the end of modernist thought in totality. The black or white, two-sided argument characteristic of modernist thought and platonic rational is brought to its ultimate conclusion. However, what is generally considered to be a failure, due to the escalating public terror and fear of the cold war, is actually successful on its own terms. A situation that could have led to extinction did not. This is where the idea of ‘the pursuit of happiness’ indicates a problem, a problem with the specific terms upon which success is judged and the human values that neoliberal ideology excludes.

Dawn Bothwell works as curator at CIRCA Projects and is an active member of the programme team at The Northern Charter, both based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. She also curates and writes independently.

(1) After Art, David Joselit, Princeton University Press, 2012; The End of Art, Donald Kuspit, Cambridge University Press, 2005; The End of History?, Frances Fukuyama, The National Interest, Summer 1989.