Auto. Dream and matter

by Alberto Martín

Auto. Dream and Matter is an exhibition project with a mission to analyse the influence of the automobile within contemporary art and, at once, the relationship between car culture and art creation in our time. The lead role assigned to the automobile as a mainstay of 20th century culture and as a symbol of our consumer society, encourages us to address the art-car binomial from more than a strictly aesthetic realm, instead expanding our perspective to embrace social, political and anthropological considerations. Precisely at a moment like the present, when we can already detect a feeling of closure to the era of material culture that ruled throughout the 20th century, whose maximum exponent is the car, it becomes more pressing that ever to cast a gaze backwards on that icon that transformed habits, territory and industry.

The powerful symbolic potential of the automobile, capable of exemplifying, synthesising or channelling complex discourses on the reality of each moment, continues exciting the interest of many artists and one might well say that it is even stronger than in previous decades. The content of this exhibition lies precisely in that interest and in the fruits it has borne in recent years. All the works presented come from the last two decades but with a heavy accent on the current moment. A period in which the reading of the car from an art perspective took on such density and complexity as well as critical perspective and detached biting wit. Throughout the 20th century the automobile was one of the most effective media for the material embodiment of dreams. Now, since crossing the threshold to this new century, artists are questioning anew the reality of those dreams.

The core focus of the project is grounded in the idea of the car as an aesthetic object and icon of modernism. From advertising to art, the car has shifted from a symbol of industrial development, of prestige, of social mobility, of individual or group affirmation to being a multifaceted icon. In this process, as Peter Wollen points out in his text Cars and Culture, included in this publication, we have seen how car culture transformed our lives and our surrounding environment, producing many collateral side effects: roads, specific buildings like gas stations or car parks, rises in oil prices, geopolitical rivalries, changes in industry, changes in lifestyles, movements of populations, changes in city planning, the growth of suburbs, an increase in travelling and in tourism, new kinds of crimes, a certain epidemic of violence and death, gridlocks, etc.

Therefore, it is only logical that the car has become a cult object and, as such, come under the scrutiny of a broad spectrum of artists.

The true touchstone for this interest in the automobile is to be found in Pop art. While there is no denying that there are many prior references, especially among the futurists and their obsession with machines and speed in the incipient modern society, it was with Pop art that the true confluence took place between the rise of car culture and this art movement’s interest in the material world and visual urban culture. The engagement with contemporary life and its banal everydayness explored by Pop artists focused their gaze on the most characteristic symbols, products and objects of the society of the time. The car, and everything that has to do with it, is one of the main interests; always viewed from a dispassionately ambiguous gaze: the design of cars and their shiny polished surfaces, the incarnation of dreams articulated by advertising and the happy world of modern technology.

This “aphrodisiacal good” which the car was for many decades, placed at the heart of many myths and fantasies in advertising through images and signs creating desires and needs, incarnates probably better than any other object or consumer good, “the desirable appearance of things” achieved through style.

Many intellectuals have analysed the way in which advertising has construed the car as a “vehicle of desire” (Banham), or as an “amorous object” (Barthes), a “mechanical bride object” or a “Love- Goddess assembly” (McLuhan); how, in short, the association between car and pleasure was developed, thus further reinforcing its condition as fetish.

Yet there are other points of view. If the car is an object whose technology and design arouse fascination, its destructive capacity, its ability to kill, also creates fear. It is a game of desire and frustration. The two extremes of the spectrum tend to meet: gloss and death, or polished luxury and accident as illustrated to perfection by Andy Warhol’s Car Crash.

In parallel with the progress and development of the automobile industry is an accentuation of all the collateral effects mentioned above. Urban transformations change the appearance of cities, the road takes on special importance, the desire for freedom is taken literally on the road that crosses the desert (Baudrillard), pure movement is what matters, there is a strange charm in the lack of pretensions of metal and plastic roadway fixtures and the functionality of their typography. Equally seductive is the gas station with its serial repetition or the minimalism of car parks. There is an interest in intermediary spaces in road networks and roundabouts and Marc Augé puts it at the heart of his theory of non-places. A whole set of symptoms and new elements underlying the reflections of a broad spectrum of artists in recent times. Landscape and social uses change as a consequence of a “motorisation of life” which is critically observed by the art world, often with certain irony.

To a large degree since the 1960s we have witnessed a more or less ambiguous celebration of the rise of car culture that began to show signs of a sequence of desire and frustration, while at once gradually bringing to the fore the social, political and cultural changes it produces.

However, since the 1990s, the interest was broadened from a critical analysis of consumerism, advertising plus urban and social transformations to include other aspects, especially the consideration of the car as an industrial object, a sign of technological sovereignty and power in the context of culture today. In this regard, there is a greater interest in issues of industrial waste and the material residue of our society. All production generates waste which is the other face of seduction: crashed cars, the remains of useless abandoned vehicles and the accumulation of tyres or windscreens have become an obvious sign of the consequences of industry and consumerism. There is also an increasing interest in the very corporeity of objects and their materiality. In other words, the car as sculptural object. Its material and physical characteristics are accentuated and emphasised, or its nature transformed, both processes with one single purpose, which is to reinsert or destabilise the object within its symbolic order. At the same time, there is a constant stream of proposals focused on the social implications involved in the standardised acceptance of the car as a consumer good that is as necessary as it is problematic: social control, processes of acculturation, the accentuation of social differences or the tension between public and private space. An interpretation of our medium that is intermittently crossed by the inevitability of the car.

We also ought to highlight “customisation”, an aspect that cuts across practically all car culture in its relationship with art practice, from the 1940s right up until the present moment. The Kustom–Kar is a concept that has always attracted a large number of artists and which nowadays seems to have a special revitalisation in various areas. In the individualisation and singularistion of a car or of a certain model, one tends to contemplate the automobile as a work of art in its own right, an intervention in which the artist reinterprets its aesthetic and functionality. It is precisely a further exploration of this reinterpretation that leads to a certain extent to the crossover between customisation and the creation of prototypes or concept cars, a specific field in which the fusion of art and industry is evident. As a matter of fact, some prototypes are even presented as products in their own right, independently of the fact that at some point they may be actually produced. As Collier Schorr rightly points out, concept cars “pump a sense of Utopian possibility into the air”. The automobile industry and consumerism are increasingly more geared not only towards luxury and style but also towards performance and functional changes between different models. A good number of artists have taken up this form of reflection, making use of both customisation and the concept car or simply reproductions or copies of already existing and well-known models. These methods are put to work to realise projects located halfway between a futuristic proposal, a parody of progress or the reflection on the place and the function of the car in our everyday life.

In short, the rapprochement to the car as the incarnation of the collective dream has gone through various phases in art over recent decades: from its elaboration and treatment as an icon/fetish, to an ironic distancing in which the concept open to the future and technological advances are crossed with a critique, somewhere between biting and witty, of the car as a symbol of an era and a symptom of a certain social failure.

Over half a century has passed since Roland Barthes defined the car as “almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals. (...) the supreme creation of an era, 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”. Configured and developed throughout the 20th century as the object par excellence, it incarnates to perfection this transformation of life into material that characterises the world of objects and which holds in its bosom the overlaps between fantasy and the everyday, magic and utility, spirituality and matter, dream and reality. A tension that the title of the exhibition sums up in the dialogue between dream and matter. As far removed from a fetishism or celebration of the car as it is from its condemnation, this project defines a critical and creative territory in which the car appears as the concept, the object or the symptom on which various artists unfold their strategies. Here the automobile is a support and a test bed for art, yet not just in its physical or technological dimension but also in its ideological, social and anthropological extensions.

Virtually all attitudes have taken body in relation to the car over the last century: scepticism, surprise, enthusiasm, massification, rejection, crisis, negotiation, distance and critical evaluation. A sequence that could well stand in for the chronology of its evolution.

If anything has happened in the last 20 years it is that we have begun to see with some degree of clarity that the automobile is the most characteristic and qualified exponent of a long phase that is now beginning to show evident signs of exhaustion and stagnation. A phase characterised by three great elements: motorisation, mobility and energy costs. As Peter Sloterdijk rightly pointed out, even the most insignificant ramification of our thinking and sensibility seems to be determined by the experience of the engine. A dynamic of progress, technological advance and waste of energy, whose darkest side was envisaged by J. G. Ballard in Crash, a novel that, in his own words, looked on the car as “a total metaphor for man’s life in today’s society (...) a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape”. This global metaphoric condition and the predominant position of the car in the technological landscape is precisely the spectrum that this exhibition wishes to address. In this regard, the goal of the show has a lot to do with the possibility of developing a reading of symptoms of the technological and to address a reflection on the nature of progress.

The ambiguous position of the car, which has been well explored in the arts. A symbol of progress and of change, and a symptom of its stagnation. An agent of radical transformations in the social and in the ideological, and generator of threats and risks. A creator of dreams and a hunter of illusions. Once again the visionary J. G. Ballard got it spot on when he defined this feeling: “the marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world”. And it is this complex ambiguity around which Auto. Dream and Matter revolves.

The works on view look at very different approaches to the symbolism, attitudes, transformations and consequences of car culture, but they do so from a shared starting point of accepting its essential metaphoric condition on humankind and contemporary society. Objects, situations, behaviours and processes related with the use of the car, with its production and its identity, are subverted, subjected to analysis, synthesised and recreated and, in passing, construct a critical distance that allows for a rethinking of history and the uses of the car from its present condition, but also as part of a practically closed technological and productive phase. The repertoire of attitudes, habits, model and icons is extensive. Speed, power, drive, sexuality, desire, the “humanisation” of the car, the environmental consequences, the energy costs, the transformation of the social space, the encounter between movement and immobility, the utopia of prototypes and concept cars, the essence of the motor, the accident, death, the journey, the transformation of the car, the domesticity of the automobile, the mutability of the man-machine relationship, roundabouts and car parks, traffic jams, the symbolism of brands, the tension between functionality and seduction, primitivism and illusion.

As such, the thrust of this exhibition is twofold. Firstly, as a necessary reflection on technology and progress and their conditions; and secondly, as a critical gaze from art analysing one of the seminal icons of the 20th century: the car as metaphor for humankind and its dreams.

To paraphrase Allan Kaprow when he defined the readymade, we could say that in Auto. Dream and Matter, the car is nothing if not a paradigm of the way humans make and unmake culture.

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