Car Culture

Posted by Gemma on the 6th of September, 2011

Following on from Andrew's primer on art and suburbia in anticipation of Emma McPike's upcoming show at OK (September 30th), I've been looking into examples of the car in art as an accompaniment to Casey Ayres' current offering.

I've found it odd, the surprise that sometimes arises from Casey's interest in modified car culture, as though an interest in one kind of culture must preclude an interest in another supposedly outside of it. I'm not sure where it comes from, this idea that artists cry over sunsets, only read dead authors, are interminably drunk, are bad guests at dinner parties, burn money, eat paint, etcetera. This is also all true of course, because the arts are just as rich and varied a slice of humankind as any industry. Never mind.

The Italian Futurists loved the dynamism of the automobile almost as much as they loved writing manifestos on how the industrial revolution would cleanse the old world of its cancerous attachments to history. When Marinetti wrote his first Futurist Manifesto in 1909 the opportunity to move through the world quickly, propelled by fire and metal, was novel. The Futurists portrayed it in rapid-fire geometry and deconstructed form. While the Dadaists were opposing it, the Futurists glorified the First World War as the ultimate sign of the new society's power, connecting technology and death in the same way that J G Ballard would in his 1973 novel Crash. Ballard added eroticism to create the ultimate Freudian cocktail.

Fast forward from Futurism through Roland Barthes' 1957 proclamation that the Citroen was the contemporary version of the Medieval Gothic cathedral -" conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object" - through Andy Warhol's Pop screen-prints of motor crash victims, to Matthew Barney's Cremaster 4. This is a huge leap, but bear with me. I'm making this up as I go. Cremaster 4 was made in 1994 and was actually the first installment in Barney's gargantuan, cinematic exploration of a not-quite-parallel symbolic world. Cremaster 4 sends blue and yellow modified racing cars and their drivers around an island track, while some kind of weird conception occurs that relates to a nearby room containing a tap dancing creature (Barney) who falls into the sea and then crawls through a vaguely starshaped tube of lube and tiny white pods (from memory. I worked on the Candy Bar when Artrage played these for their festival in 2007, so I saw them in stolen parts between rushes for popcorn. Apologies to Matthew Barney). Honestly, It blows my mind that people are shocked by Lady Gaga.

The Cremaster series is named after the muscle in the male that controls the accent and decent of the testicles due to changing temperatures. The cars in Cremaster 4 are, simplistically, connected to a sexual energy, the briefest reading being that their speed equates to to power and virility, that the racing teams replicate the race of sperm to the ovum. The car appears again in Cremaster 3 (made in 2002), in which the central character of the film is the Chrysler Building. Two Chryslers perform a dance of death in its basement (I think).

In the same way that Scottish Barney uses the Chrysler as a symbol of American consciousness, American Richard Prince uses parts of the car sculpturally as stand ins for his country's landscape and that classic homegrown Dream. Think of Jack Kerouac, the drive in theatre, Thelma and Louise and the Grand Canyon. Prince's photographs prior to this had explored the creation of masculine mythology in printed culture and his decontextualised car bonnets do something similar, except the landscape and the body within have dissolved into fields of colour.

Back on Australian soil, the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane held an entire exhibition devoted to the automobile in 2005. Supercharged: The Car in Contemporary Culture featured work from 12 artists interested in the form and symbology of cars, including Australian heavyweights Patricia Piccinini and Tracey Moffat. The fascination with the car in Australian culture is similar to the American one; the road trip is a cultural institution, cities are often designed around freeways (Perth and its Corridor Plan), the expanse of the landscape is often thought of as something to be conquered, civilized by the road. The catalogue essay for Supercharged, written by Glen Fuller - an automotive academic who Casey put me on to when we were researching for his exhibition - is still available on Fuller's website. 'The Hoon: Taking over the Streets' and 'The xXx Test' are also good reads for the interested.

So, this has been long. It could be much longer though - I haven't even begun to talk about Vin Diesel and the Fast and The Furious series. Here are some pictures..

(Also, links:
There are a bunch of Futurist Manifestos here.
Roland Barthes quotation copied and pasted from here.
This is the official Cremaster website.
There's stacks on Richard Prince: perhaps The Frieze Foundation isn't a bad place to start.
Here's some text on Supercharged as well.)
Fuller's site is linked above.

Luigi Russolo, Dynamism of an Automobile, 1912-1913
First edition of JG Ballard's Crash, 1973
Matthew Barney, Cremaster 4: Three Legs of Man, 1994
Richard Prince, Second House Installation View, 2004
Installation View of Superchaged