Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture
“Bitches know they can’t catch me
(Vroom, vroom) Cute, sexy and my ride’s sporty
(Vroom, vroom) Those slugs know they can’t catch me
(Vroom, vroom) Beep-beep, so let’s ride”
Charli XCX, Vroom Vroom (2016)
Movement, acceleration and speed are hallmarks of Modernity. These are elements of the same equation that has brought everyday life, individual and collective chronology into a linear, overwhelming, uncontrollable, inescapable kineticism.
The car established its industry, which made the world conform to its whims. In this context, the automobile industry is both the triumph and the catalyst of modern capitalism. If we want to understand the economy, we must necessarily examine the automobile; the same if we want to understand architecture. Even Art, despite its formalist tendency, often a satellite of itself, has something to say and to owe to the automobile. It was no accident that Andy Warhol immortalised one of the first automobile experiences, or even the first, the historic 1886 Benz.
The automobile has become a cultural phenomenon. Hollywood picked up on this. Film and television popularised it beyond simple marketing advertising. The whole affective aura grew over time, film after film, picture after picture, drive-in after drive-in. Cars and sex: a history widely studied by cinema. Cars were not only a symbol of status, they were also voluptuousness, the seduction of the cabin, the first sexual experiences, drifting, overtaking, crashing. The car entered into Modernity’s dramatic and psychosexual imaginary.
Decade after decade, automobiles increased power, promised new futures; more speed, horsepower, accelerations; new possibilities of occupation, use, attraction. The automobile is the capsule of expansive, positivist, mechanical… cyclopean Modernity. It is the concentration and purification of the greatest individual ambition, as only the individual counts in its leather-lined passenger compartment, one hand on the sports steering wheel, another on the automatic gears. The car is capitalised on seduction and desire, an instrument of economic and urbanistic measurement.
The car and its industry were the most interesting and important inventions of the last century – even if the first experiments took place at the end of the 19th century – but they are also the symbol of capitalism’s lowest form: the profligacy and destruction of ecosystems. Everything revolves around it: family life, states, cities, architecture, science and even art. It is the stronghold of civilisation; the artefact of a temporal period; the leading line of movement in space. It is contradiction and ambivalence rendered matter.
With its focus on the cultural aspects of cars rather than the critical or political sides, Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture is an exhibition that establishes a remarkable chronological and narrative journey about the automobile and its intersections with Art, Architecture, Design and Technology. From the initial, rudimentary mobile machines with narrow wheels and golden rims, we then move on to the eroticism of aerodynamic curves, to the speculation of future mobility, with bridges and parallels with artistic and architectural movements.
But the automobile is the main focus. The rest – art and architecture – revolves around it, like facts of an unmatched triumph, which forced cities to increase roadways, shrink the public space designated for human, social and cultural exchanges and sharing, bend space and time into a frenetic continuum, with endless highways that seem to offer the driver control over the landscape and the world. This is space-time compression, power condensed into a cockpit on wheels.
The awe caused by cars is evident – the exhibition and curatorship cannot tame it: Bird in Space (L’Oiseau dans l’espace) (1932-40) by Constantin Brancusi is lost in the gravity of the mechanical artefacts around which they orbit; Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (Force uniche della continuità nello spazio) (1913) by Uberto Boccioni is overtaken at high speed and left in a corner; the paintings of Giacomo Balla, David Hockney, Bridget Riley are fleeting landscapes; the works of James Rosenquist and Andreas Gursky fly in the whirlwind generated by the speed of General Motors’ Firebirds. The cars’ presence is so strong that it overshadows everything around; the paintings, sculptures, photographs and architectural and graphic communication drawings become fuzzy, confused perspectives with lines and colours, peripheral perceptual blurbs in a high-speed rhythm.
The exhibition compels a radical slowing down, contrary to the nature of the exhibited objects. This is the only way to see the magnificent photograms of Eadweard Muybridge, amuse ourselves with the optical illusions of Riley or Victor Vasarely, study Le Corbusier’s plans for the Plan Voisin, get carried away by Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood nostalgia, lose ourselves in the modernist avant-gardes of Boccioni, Sonia Delaunay, Balla and Benedetta Cappa Marinetti.
Beyond these observations, Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture is an exhibition with several research strands, boasting a substantial number of works, many of them of historical and artistic interest, and plenty of room for critical thinking about Modernity.
As such, the last gallery holds the most critical position towards the automobile, almost completely omitting it from the future and replacing it with other forms of mobility. Universities and architecture students have imagined a future in which cities become mobile communities, in which motorways are filled by humans, even promoting an antagonistic reinterpretation of the aforementioned Plan Voisin, where mobility serves sustainability.
But there are other layers to excavate in this archaeological exercise of modernity, of a past future, proposed by architecture, art, and the futuristic lines that some car models have created. It is indeed an archaeological exercise. Perhaps this is the only way to make sense of Modernity: to place it in a museological context, museographing its contradictions. John Chamberlain’s work is prescient about the ways of modern capitalism, partly autophagic and partly accelerationist: we shall let time accelerate, let everything speed up until it collapses. We will then build on the critique of paradoxes proposed by this same accelerationism. In this exhibition, we feel Modernity at an ever galloping speed, in which yesterday has a past eternity and is, therefore, accepted in the museum. In turn, the museum also accelerates its mission, along with an economy of capitalised attention promoted by social media, underlined by the photogenic nature of these vehicles and by the architecture of the museum itself.
From the very moment the automobile enters the museum logic, an ontological change is possible in the way we understand this creation, the period in which it developed and the present. Theodor Adorno’s thesis of the museum as a mausoleum encounters a new relevance: by becoming museum objects, these cars can never be switched on, and their former life disappears. In other words, the museum is the place where the automobile dies. And the exhibition is clear, even if not implicitly: it ends with a vision of a vehicle-free future, where the emotion and vertigo triggered by the automobile can only be experienced in an artistic emulation or simulation, as proposed in Sound of Motion, by Nick Mason, Pink Floyd’s drummer.
The speculative aesthetic of the last room says nothing about the future of this industry – not exactly the automobile itself, but the whole underlying capitalist economic system, with large factories, stands, petrol stations, etc. After all, and as we said, this is also an exhibition about capitalism and its tropes, symbols and cultures. If some universities explore extreme collective mobility, others consider a future beyond it, in a hyperlocal way of living; if some consider transport as an integral part of the infrastructure of buildings, others repeat the urge for exclusivity and the individual, rethinking the car as a stylised gadget, without human intervention. And if the future of mobility is driven more by the forces of industry and capital than by politics and collective will – and if the museum of the 21st century demands a political position, here’s another question: how political is this exhibition?
Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture is curated by Norman Foster, co-curated by Lekha Hileman Waitoller and Manuel Cirauqui, and is at Museo Guggenheim Bilbao until 18 September.
“Vaughan: I’ve always wanted to drive a crashed car.
James Ballard: You could get your wish at any moment.
Vaughan: No, I mean a crashed car with a history. Camus’ Facel Vega, Nathaniel West’s station wagon, Grace Kelly’s Rover 3500. Just fix it enough to get it rolling. Don’t clean it, don’t touch anything else.”
David Cronenberg, Crash (1996)