The car has had an iconic role in art and popular culture for well over a century now. From the Futurists’ celebration of technology and speed to the eroticised fetishisation of American automobiles in Pop Art, for much of the 20th century the car was seen as a glamourous symbol of modernity and progress. But its centrality to the cult of consumerism and its contribution to catastrophic environmental degradation mean that, in the 21st century, the car in art is less romanticised and much more likely to be symbolic of decline, violence or disaster. The title of this exhibition, Auto-Destruct, makes this idea explicit whilst simultaneously punning on the double-meaning of ‘auto’ in its direct reference to Gustav Metzger’s concept of auto-destructive art, first outlined in his article, ‘Machine, Auto-Creative and Auto-Destructive Art’ in the summer 1962 issue of the journal Ark. Auto-destructive art was inherently political; anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist and opposed to the modernist idea of technological progress, figuring it instead as ultimately self-destructive through artworks that can both make and destroy themselves.
J. G. Ballard once said that he regarded the car as “a total metaphor for man’s life in today’s society”, and this exhibition both reflects that metaphor and inevitably invokes aspects of Ballard’s ominous, dystopian worldview. The curators, Cedric Christie, Pascal Rousson and Stacie McCormick, wittily acknowledge this influence by their inclusion of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s BangWallop, a pastiche multiple of a lurid paperback attributed, with a typically droll reference to their own initials, to the author “J D Ballard”. The Ballardian influence is also obvious in the shocking but hilarious narrative of sex and death in a family saloon, Nowhere Really, by Owen Oppenheimer.
Postwar prosperity, mass-production and the wider affordability of mass-marketed cars from the 1950s onwards created new-found opportunities for personal freedom, enhanced later by in-car entertainment systems, giving the open road a soundtrack. There is a nostalgia for these more innocent times, as well as an elegiac reference to the way once exciting new technologies are rapidly superseded, in Graeme Miller’s Périphonique, a plinth-mounted car cassette system playing a fractured audio work assembled from 36 fragments of cassette tape found abandoned on the Boulevard Périphérique, the Paris ring road.
Gavin Turk’s Transit Disaster (2012), a green-toned screenprint double image of a crushed and battered Transit van, is a deliberately provincial and English spoof of Andy Warhol’s Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) from 1963. Some of the most powerful work in the exhibition though, is not by the big-name artists like Turk or the Chapmans. Ben Philpott’s large black-and-white photograph of a teenage boy posing with an overturned car brings drama to a mundane British suburban scene, contrasting with the much smaller photographs of wrecked cars amidst urban dereliction, scenes that are now clichés of popular culture, in Jean Luc Dubin’s New York 1978 series. Rebecca Scott’s Internal Combustion and External Combustion paintings are appropriately framed and echoed by the complex clutter of Lee Holden’s installation of mechanical and electrical detritus, Serve My Soul, which dominates the main gallery space and through which Scott’s paintings have to be viewed.
The aesthetics of form and surface in car design are subverted in another dominating work, Jay Owen’s Vauxhall Blue, a direct transfer print that pictorially flattens the entire surface of a car body on a fabric hanging that occupies a whole gallery wall. The car itself is immediately recognisable in the image but the material is reminiscent of a giant oily rag. The relationship of text to form and surface is explored in two very different works utilising found typographic structures. Stacie McCormick appropriates chromed car name badges affixed to the gallery wall in carefully considered lines, forming a kind of concrete poetry in her series of works, Why Do We Name Them? whilst Cedric Christie’s Medals incongruously presents the names of artists such as Blinky Palermo and Sigmar Polke on colourful enamel painted steel in the style of the advertising logos for automotive products that are painted on racing cars.
Visually rich and conceptually diverse, Auto-Destruct uses a wide range of artworks to offer an insight into the psychopathology of our love-hate relationship with the car and to allude to the bleak social and environmental consequences of a world dependent on it. The familiar trope of the car as emblematic of a sleek, seductive glamour is almost entirely absent here. Rather, going pointlessly around in circles, like the pickup truck in Steve Carr’s Burnout, or immobile like Elena Montesinos’ Oil, Oil, Oil (Morte aux Vaches), a car outside the gallery encased in a custom-made vinyl cover, the journey of the automobile as a symbol of technological advance or social progress has come to a messy and faltering standstill.
Auto-Destruct runs from 29 June to 31 August at Cross Lane Projects in Kendal.