Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The cultures of cars

Since Karl Benz produced his first patented Motorwagen in 1886, the automobile has become an essential tool in our modern life. Moreover, it has been an important cultural touchstone that reflects the socio-economic changes. Irrational add-on values take the automobile beyond a practical machine to an object of cult and fetish. The current exhibition at Museum Tinguely "Car Fetish: I drive therefore I am" examines the many facets of cars as carriers of cultural meanings. It is one of the best curated exhibitions I've seen for a while.

The show is organized as a wheel in plan (yes, a bit kitchy), with each spoke / circular sector a theme related to the cultural significance of the car. At the center is Damián Ortega's exploded car. The Mexican artist takes apart a 1983 Volkswagen Beetle and hangs every single element afloat with airplane wires. The installation invites obsessive observation and admiration.

Damián Ortega, Cosmic Thing, 2002

The car obsession starts with speed. The new feeling of time and space through high-speed movement is fantasized by the Futurist paintings where whirls and lines represent motion, energy, and dynamic space and time. Horst Baumann's photo of Jim Clark captures the Formula 1 race car moving like a zooming streamline. Erwin Wurm's cute little slanted Renault seems like deformed from the centrifugal force during a fast right turn.
Giacomo Balla, Velocità d'automobile, 1913
Horst H. Baumann, Jim Clark, Grosser Preis von England, 1963
Erwin Wurm, Renault 25 / 1991, 2009

The automobile has drastically changed our landscape with all the facilities for traffic. Upon entering the "Traffic" gallery, you immediately smell the oder of burning rubber as if you just hit the brakes. It's from Michael Sailstorfer's installation where a rubber tire is constantly scraping against the wall and turning into powder. Also in this room are Andreas Feininger's documentation of the American "carscape" and a snapshot by photojournalist Christoph Ruckstuhl in which the tire tracks in a thin snow covered plaza compose a beautiful abstract expressionist painting.
Michael Sailstorfer, Zeit ist keine Autobahn - Basel, 2011
Christoph Ruckstuhl, Untitled, 2005

The irresistible fascination makes the car center of our consumer culture. In the "Commodities Fetish" gallery, you can see the enchanting close-up photos by Peter Keetman and Patrick Weidmann in juxtaposition with Edward Burtynsky's eerie images of dead tires graveyard and Ant Farm's half buried Cadillacs. Allan Kaprow's 1961 installation is restaged in the next gallery to join the critiques of our consumerist, throw-away society.
"Commodities Fetish" gallery with photos by Patrick Weidmann, Hans Hansen,
Edward Burtynsky, and Arman's Accumulation Renault No. 105 (1967) in the middle
Ant Farm, Cadillac Ranch, 1974
Allan Kaprow, Yard, 1961/2011

If something is the center of consumerism, it would inevitably become the subject of Pop Art. Andy Warhol repeats a press photo in slightly displaced prints to visualize the collision of two cars. John Chamberlain forms his monumental sculpture with compressed car body parts. In the basement of the museum, the curators put together sculptures, photos, and documents by Jean Tinguely to demonstrate his passion for speed and the machine.
"Pop Europe" gallery with works by Franz Gertsch, Gerhard Richter, Jean Dubuffet, and Jean Tinguely
Andy Warhol, Optical Car Crash, 1962
John Chamberlain, Straits of Night, 1992
Jean Tinguely, Le Safari de la mort moscovite, 1989
Jean Tinguely, Pit-Stop, 1984

The fetish could become religious. The exhibition features Chris Burden's early performance Trans-fixed during which the artist nailed himself on a VW Beetle with arms outspread like Jesus. The car was pushed out of the garage onto Speedway Avenue in Venice, CA, and the engine ran for two minutes before it disappeared back into the garage. Spanish artist Jordi Colomer placed a cute mini Popemobile on a public square in Barcelona, and documented with photography people's reactions to this odd little icon.
Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, 1974
Jordi Colomer, Papamóvil, 2005

The fetish could also get erotic. The "Sex Fetish" gallery features Kenneth Anger's short film Kustom Kar Kommandos, in which a man in tight pants buffs his car in gentle and smooth movements. In the series acts of Household, Allan Kaprow instructed women to lick off the strawberry jam smeared on a car and then destroy the towers the men built; while the men destroyed the nests the women built and ultimately set the car on fire. Chinese artist Ji Wenyu's Mad Group somehow reminds me of Pulp Fiction and Grindhouse - maybe it's the Tarantino sense of coexisting lust and tension.
Allan Kaprow, Household (Women licking jam off a car), 1964
Ji Wenyu, Mad Group, 2005

The best part of the show though is outside of the museum. The organizers operate a drive-in cinema in the museum park where people can just come in and "rent a car," sit inside and watch a movie! It looks really funny because the cars are on wooden pallets and they are clearly not "driven in."
"Drive-in" Cinema in the Tinguely Museum park

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