“I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean 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."
Roland Barthes, "Der neue citroen, in: idem, Mythen des Alltogs, Frankfurt a. M.1964, original version Paris.
"The automobile constitutes perhaps the only magical! mythical middle of society, beyond all geographic, state, national, religious, and socio-cultural boundaries," writes hartmut Bohme in his article within this catalogue. This "magical/mythical" stands at the center of the exhibition "Car Fetish." Spatially, the exhibition unfolds around Damian Ortega’s work Cosmic Thing, which is positioned in the axis of a large wheel around which ten historical and topical areas are arranged in concentric segments. These exhibit a representative selection of artworks from the past 100 years or so, in order to close with a chapter on lean Tinguely who, as an artist, Formula 1 fan, meta-maxi top—speed driver, and causer of accidents, was the prompt for this exhibition inspired by the automobile muse.
The exhibition and this catalogue that accompanies it intend also to show, in one sweeping, historico-cultural horizon, why there is barely any better object than the automobile for highlighting fetishism as a consumerism-linked phenomenon of our times.
The first automobile, the Benz patent automobile, was driven exactly 125 years ago, and thus established a new age of mobility. It is 100 years since the Futurists hot—wired the utopian blueprint of a new society with function and aesthetics of the machine. In 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in the Futuristic Manifesto propagated automotive speeding and the racing car as a new beauty ideal following the old ideal of the Nike of Samothrace. The Futurists idolized the realm of the machine, dedicated poems to the racing automobile, and raised a Hymn to Death. In the fine arts, it is primarily works by Giacomo Balla and Luigi Russolo that are able to depict impressions of automotive movement as a synesthesia of light, sound, and speed in the urban space. They are fantastically animated images that remain unique to this day: A Futurists Room therefore provides the opener to this exhibition.
A "love story of two emotion machines" is how Thomas Pittino describes the relationship between automobile and film. Not only has the motion picture developed almost in parallel with the automobile, but photography has, too. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that some of the most memorable image creations have been produced out of the connection between these. We are familiar with the topos of the windshield as a movie screen; it is able to capture phenomena of accelerated perception and distancing from the unmoved world the most effectively.
However, this potential is inherent also even in early photography, be it in the technically necessitated exaggeration of motion dynamics due to taking the shot with a slit camera, in the case of Jacques Henri Lartigue's Grand Prix de l’AAF from 1912, or due to the exposure time of the photographs by Anton Stankowski, with which he captures tunnel vision at dizzying speed (1/100 sec bei 70 km/h, 1930), or the motion dynamics of the automobile, or, the surroundings (Auto im wehenden Schnee/Blitziicht, 1937, and Zeitprotokoll im Auto, 1929). The concept of a photographic portrait of American society becomes at the same time a documentation of the second wave of the automobile’s conquest of the country in the two probably most famous of these series, Walker Evans's American Photographs from 1938, and Robert Frank’s Les américains from 1955/1956 (1959 in the English book edition under the title The Americans with a preface by jack Kerouac. In 1930, 80 percent of the automobiles licensed worldwide were being driven in the USA and, in the very same place, the advertising industry to do with the marketing of automobiles headed in a new direction in the 1950s, for example with slogans like, "Buy yourself a great car and then you'll get yourself a great woman, too."
The boundless freedom of driving the length and breadth of the American continent, eager for adventure, restless, and sexually overactive, is the topic of Kerouac's novel On The Road from 1951. It became the beacon of the beat generation and a model for the view of the world from the auto-perspective in the art of the 1960s and 1970s. Driving as an (aesthetically) voluptuous activity is reflected, for example, in Ed Ruscha’s photo series of the Twenty six Gasoline Stations, 1963, or Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966. With his large-format Standard Stations Ruscha creates icons that are unsurpassable in their perspective dynamization. In Learning from Las Vegas (1972), a manifesto of the post modern, tribute is paid to the city in its orientation toward motorized traffic-Main Street is almost all right" (Robert Venturi). The artistic and visual merit of the (city) landscape from the auto-perspective, however, had been discovered already in the 1940s, for example by the photographer Andreas Feininger, who documented early promotional equipping of the street space with billboards, slogans, figures. and neon signs.
Animated vision, mass-media regard, and advertising aiming directly at the myths of automotive freedom were reflected in the environment of pop art and the nouveaux réalistes, and the victory march of the automobile, with its all-encompassing, life world-defining tentacles, was considered from the reverse side, too. In the Disaster series pictures, Andy Warhol appropriated pictures from newspaper accident reports in order to alter them through repetition and serialization of the pictorial motifs . With the aesthetic transformation the shocking aspect of the image content is lost at the same time, as he himself noted: "When you see a gruesome picture over and over, it really doesn't have any effect." Criticism of the information flood of the mass-media age can be read from his pictures. In the form of a composition of materials such as chrome, lacquer, and glass, photo-realists like Don Eddy show the automobile in a still-life way from its best side .
Criticism of consumerism, purchasing, consuming, and throwing away are also clear in the compressions by Armen, César , and John Chamberlain; besides that, however, also aesthetic qualities without which wear and deformation would not come to light.
In happenings and performances, artists such as Allan Kaprow, Wolf Vostell, or even Ant Farm have dealt intensively with the automobile phenomenon. In1961, Kaprow staged for the first time, in the sculpture garden of the Martha Jackson Gallery, the climbable environment Yard built out of stacked used tires , which experiences a new staging in the “Car Fetish" exhibition. The year 1964 saw the happening Household (Women licking jam off a car) take place, as much a participative artwork as a sexually connoted campaign. In many happenings, Wolf Vostell investigated the influence of the automobile on society, for example in the practical instruction Das Theater ist auf der Strasse/2 , where participants were invited to collect car accident debris and fix it on the road. In the painting Der grune Sessel , using an accident image as his point of departure, he combines the motivic with technical collage and so captures different stories that have smashed violently together on a randomly determined space and time coordinate. Ant Farm’s most famous work is the Cadillac Ranch Show», which was installed in 1974 on Highway 65 close to Amarillo. The works by this artists’ collective are distinguished by a proximity to the popular pictorial and conceptual world, a proximity that needs exaggeration before it can acquire its critical smack.
The walk through the art history of automotive installation is accompanied by a second exhibition strand. Under the banner of revolutionary thought, speed and death through accidents were already central topics for the Futurists, connoted with danger and heroism. With Paul Virilio the windshield, in a dromoscopic frenzy, becomes a monitor, and speed leads to the differentiation of the thingness of things. Jean Baudrillard calls everything one traverses at high speed a desert-deserts of contraction. Though Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of the loss of appetite that one suffers with speed and the excessive accumulation of impressions that accompanies it, the exhilaration of speed leads, at the same time, to Dionysian loss of inhibition and to images of Apollonian beauty: regarded thus, the automobile as a projector projectile carries a form of aestheticism. Under the banner of pop art, Peter Stampfli concentrated like no other on the automobile and in particular on the car tire as a pictorial motif; in the film Ligne continue, looking from the wheel perspective he “records" the lane of traffic, which presents itself in this close-up, hurtling past as an abstract, animated image. In this section of the exhibition the subject of speed is dealt with also by the already mentioned photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue and Anton Stankowski, and by the racing driver portraits by Geo Ham and Horst Baumann, plus Zilla Leutenegger’s work Goodbye from 2007.
Taking Robert musil’s The Man without Qualities as his point of departure, in his essay Matthias Bickenbach describes the normalization of the accident as a tribute that one pays quite as a matter of course to the speed machine that is the automobile, after the driver around 1900 was still held to be a bogeyman and as more imperator. In his automobile sculptures Jean Tinguely knows how to depict racing sport, accident, risk, and death as an ambivalent triumph of the useless. A selection of photographs by Arnold Odermatt , the film accompanying the installation Engpass by Roman Signer , and also the shot of the fatally crashed James Dean in his Porsche open up a horizon that oscillates between voyeurism and pleasure in fear, and perhaps found its fetishistic expression in James G. Ballard’s novel Crash, where collision, deformation, and sexual act are fused into one.
Roads are the central network, the brain waves without which it would be impossible to use the automobile in traffic, and the bend, according to David Staretz, is in essence what defines our automobile and justifies the residual happiness that we feel as freedom of steering. In his installation, Samuel Rousseau shows traffic as a big, self-consuming whirlpool, and Stefan Sous duplicates traffic flow as a cinematographic event sufficient unto itself, in film sequences that repeat themselves, Peter Roehr transforms car driving into a rhythmically abstracted animation, lunebum Park uses the parking lot as a playground, and Michael Sailstorfer presents traffic on tires in Zeit ist keine Autobahn - Basel reduced to an olfactory-kinetic event.
The automobile as a blueprint for identity and life is the topic discussed by Micha hilgers in his catalogue article. These aspects are central for many artistic positions of the present time that deal critically with the automobile. Many of these approaches can be subsumed under the keywords retreat and escape, or living room and space. In an astonishing manner, Edward Kienholz’s work Sawdy already deals with the distancing from the surrounding world that results when the car doors are closed and that diminishes our sympathy with others’ fate. Thomas Mailaender shows us cars belonging to migrants where the interior is not the living room, but where the living room is piled up on the roof. Poetic and equally moving is the Ayate Car by Betsabeé Romero which, adorned over and over with roses, tells of the failed hope of a new life that has come to a halt at the Mexico-US border. Michel de Brain devalues the automobile by removing the engine and installing bicycle pedals, so that it celebrates slow traffic at a snail’s pace and is immediately put out of commission as a traffic obstruction. Hans-Peter Feldmann creates portraits of car radios while good music is playing, Zilla Leutenegger drives with her first (virtual) car in circles on the moon and Andrew Bush’s Vector Portraits represent snapshots of driving in which the portrayed and their cars become one character-specific unit that is at the same time intimate and public. Erwin Wurm’s works, today, are among the most pointed to deal with the automotive topic. Be they adipose or wondrously bent bodyworks or, as in the Renault 25/1.991 an off-center, side-leaning automobile sculpture, we are faced always by an automotive personality that is very telling about our attitude toward this immobilizing mobility vehicle.
In the world of consumption, the prevailing ideal is the ostensible added value of commodities, an added value to which that flawed creature man aspires, be it in the economy, in sexuality, in religious practices and, on a (sometimes) higher level of reflection, in art and culture, too. The overcoming of the difference between reality and desire is inscribed in our endeavors, and so the fetishism seemingly suppressed with the modern age, understood as worship of magical objects or charms, has caught up with us again via the promises of the world of commodities. Barely any other object of desire demonstrates this better than the automobile, which exudes meanings and forces that shape our ideas.
In recent years the angle of the investigation into the fetish has moved from the exotic to Western consumer society and the promises of its world of commodities. Though fetishism as a projective act in that the object was suppressed as a phenomenon of(high) culture with the modern age, it has not disappeared, and thus even today things emanate formative forces that contain assumptions, attitudes, imaginations, and also forms of custom and action. To investigate these on the basis of the automobile as a complex thing is a goal of the exhibition, which is why fetish for commodities, and sexual and religious fetish simultaneously form an order of arrangement for the catalogue, and a topic-based approach to the exhibition. In theory, these three forms of fetishism build a fairly clearly distinguishable layout; all the more since tracks were laid for analytical methods with the theories on commodities fetishism by Karl Marx, and the investigations into sexual fetishism by Sigmund Freud. In application, however, a multitude of intersections and interdependences arise.
With Freud, it is the narcissistic instinctual fixation upon an object that needs to be analyzed and healed, developed from a childhood sexuality that understands the phallus and its fetishistic surrogates as a symbolic resistance to castration. Though one may be reluctant to ascribe this diagnosis to the normal car driver, it is astonishing that one finds symptoms of fetishistic ritual in the form of theatricality, spectacle, of fixed associations, of masquerades and parades, of accessories, and precious items even in the field of automotive self-fashioning. Numerous artistic works can be associated with sexual fetishism, even if it is clear this always constitutes a reduction to specific aspects of the work. I.iz Cohen's Bodywork shows the transformation of a lowly Trabant into a potent Chevrolet, performed by the artist as a mechanic herself while, at the same time, training her own body in order to pose as a model on the pimped-up car. Sylvie Fleury sets in scene big block engines as potent precious items , or performs, herself, as a trendily coordinated accessory in front of big Americans’ cars as she washes the symbols of masculinity. With Richard Prince, automobiles are arranged as over-instrumented potency machines into Gongs, in front of which now and then a female model stands, quietly, unobtrusively. Bruno Rousseaud celebrates the auto-accessory as fetish, for example in Prototype 001, Prototype 002, la parade, by equipping the Porsche with a tank turret, or the steering wheel with prickles. A particularly attractive example of fetishistic narcissism is the film Kustom Kar Kommandos by Kenneth Anger, which presents the fusion of youth and chrome-gleaming apparatus into one automotive bachelor machine.
In Dos Capitol (chapter 1/IV) Karl Marx draws a fundamental distinction between use-value and value. Although "a commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing," analysis of it reveals "that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" and becomes, therefore, "something transcendent." Focusing on production, Marx traces this fetish character of the commodities world back to the "peculiar social character of the labour that produces them." With commodities, therefore, pleasure, participation, happiness, beauty, and meaning are promised to us at the same time. Consumerism becomes idol worship that has the character of an ersatz religion, and the promotion of this today is undertaken by an industry of marketing departments, setting up product and brand personalities as fetishistic conceptual orgasm, under the banner of exclusivity, turning mass products into individually codeable (sham) products. However-and here I follow argumentation by Wolfgang Ullrich (in: Fetisch + Konsum, ed. l.-B. loly, C. Perret and l. Warmers, Stuttgart 2009), who pleads for a thing-culture in consumerism-"Interest in the illusion [represents] a true expansion of humanity and a decisive step towards culture," as Friedrich Schiller noted on the aesthetic education of man-hence consumption culture.
Artistic associations abound in the exhibition section on the commodities fetish. In the film Firebird Peter Stampli tries to tempt us into a muscle-car body-extension with flashing chrome and roaring engines. The aesthetics of the photographs by Patrick Weidmann , Peter Keetman, or jan Dibbets, plus Arman`s Accumulation Renault no. 105 show us molded, layered, and painted tin in pure beauty. Len Lye’s short film Rhythm, and Henrik Spohler’s photograph of an aseptic production line Assembly Line # 3, present the conditions under which the mass product automobile is created. Edward Burtynsky documents the other side of consumerism by, for example, portraying the used tire repository as a monumental diptych with Oxford Tire Pile.
At all times and in all places, fetishism represents a deep layer of religion. Religious fetishes are usually hand-made gods. As relics, statues, or icons, they have as pars pro toto a particular efficacy and are the storage repository for man's wishing power that unfolds in a magical milieu: in devotion, at mass, in ceremony, or in prayer. Fetishes are things with agency, lending significance within the scope of cultish activity and able also to symbolize a claim to power. lf one sees in the urban area the Popamovil by Jordi Colomer, albeit reduced to a white model at a 1:2 scale, the thought of papal processions and state visits will not be far away and so there are also other vehicles and makes that are particularly suited to the transportation of important persons and that surround them with the aura of power-a ritual in which one is able to participate with the right purchasing power. The Ga in South Ghana bury the dead in figured coffins that match the social status of the deceased and are intended to ease his journey into the Beyond so that he remains well-disposed to the bereaved. One example of this is Kudjoe Affutu's Hummer, a coffin in the shape of a car. As an act of inquisition, artists’ group Superflex presents to us, in its video work Burning Car, the burning of a Mercedes-as auto-da-fé according to its original sense, an act of faith. Jitish Kallat’s Autosaurus Tripous is a skeleton made out of different animal bones, with which the bodywork shape of a rickshaw is recreated. The work was inspired by media images of destroyed vehicles at demonstrations; it is equally, however, a free invention, at the same time burlesque, grotesque, and arabesque. One of the sharpest links between auto fetish and religion is Chris Burden`s performance Trans-fixed from 1974, during which the artist blasphemously has himself nailed in a crucified pose to a VW Beetle. Finally, Walker Evans’s Joe's Auto Graveyard, Pennsylvania shows us a cemetery for automobiles, a familiar image which, however, is equally as blasphemous as bearing an automobile as a Déesse to the grave-usually, however, without ritual accompaniment.
The inexhaustibility of commodities is accompanied by the insatiability of desire, and consumerism is a polytheistic system of fetishistic fictions. The automobile is an engine of this capitalist system. When one deals with the automobile, one deals with life, and so as the automobile affects all areas of our lives, so this is reflected in art, which for its part has its own rules of fetishism. That is the one side. The other side is an abundance of intoxicating works that are devised out of the material, form, and concepts of this emotion machine.
We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car, its bodywork adorned with great pipes resembling snakes with explosive breath, a howling automobile that appears to run on grape-shots is more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace."