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Automotive Prosthetic: Technological Mediation and the Car in Conceptual Art

by Charissa Terranova
University of Texas Press, Austin TX, 2014
361 pp., illus. 110 b/w, 20 col. Trade, $70.00; paper, $30.00
ISBN: 978-0-292-75404-1; ISBN: 978-1-4773-0224-8.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


The bar was raised on my aesthetic appreciation of automotive-based conceptual art by the installation "Visions in a Cornfield" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) in 2012.  This installation, conceived by Mike Kelley and Cary Loren after visiting a UFO site in rural Michigan, brought in Ibn Pori Pitts, the Kcalb Gniw Spirit and Ogun collectives, and Ape Technology to realize it, and featured wildly-spraypainted automobiles with flashing lights and self-opening hoods and doors, in a reconstructed lonely, noisy, scary tableau.  The cover of Automotive Prosthetic has a bit of Jonathan Schipper's "Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle: Slow Motion Car Crash" 2008, and we can pretty much hear its heavy metal crunch.  On first glance at the book, Schipper's artwork seems the only one really challenging, as two muscular cars grind together in slow-mo, which must produce fascinating sounds that, I hope, some Industrial Music producer is assiduously recording.

In the Introduction, Terranova discusses what the book is not, no "pimped out" customized cars and lowriders, or aspects of automotive design.  She cites the six exhibits on automobiles at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and contemporary car ownership statistics.  She then finds contrasts and congruence in overlapping art histories, plus the texts of Gregory Bateson, Marshall McLuhan, Jack Burnham, the philosophers of technology Gilbert Simonden and Donna Haraway, in order to establish an approach to her subject.

Chapter 1 "Rethinking Conceptualism Through Technology" begins with Lucy Lippard and Jon Chandler's 1968 definition of conceptualism as "dematerialization of art".  Brian Doherty's concept of "pop phenomenology", finding significance in the commonplace, is applicable to his trip to Las Vegas, or to sculptor Tony Smith's observation of the New Jersey Turnpike in the 1950s.  Their purposeful blandness reappears in works like Julian Opie's 1993  "Imagine You are Driving", his road-dominated featureless landscapes.  Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road—the latter typed on a roll of paper—is reminiscent of Cage and Rauschenberg's 23-foot unique monoprint "Automotive Tire Print" of 1953.  Roland Barthes' essay on the "mythology" of the 1957 Citroen emphasized the design of its dashboard to produce an experience like cooking with the appliances in a modern kitchen.

Chapter 2 "Photoconceptualism, the Car and Urban Space" compares Robert Frank's photographs in The Americans, John Baldessari's deadpan "Econ-O-Wash" 1967-68, and Ed Ruscha's photos of one side of the Sunset Strip.  Northern California photorealist Robert Bechtle's paintings of sensible cars in carports or parked on residential streets are cited.  While I remember the joy with which I pored over Art in America's 1972 issue on Photorealism (Wow! It's OK to paint a Ford Thunderbird!), seen in my high school art teacher's office, study with Bechtle a decade later made me realize I wasn’t a photorealist and that my aesthetic concerns weren't their own.

At this point in the book this reader felt Terranova was using the broad definition of "conceptual" to bring in work in other media normally outside conceptual art's Duchampian lineage, including the landscape photographs of Paul McCarthy (1970), Martha Rosler's photos of trucks on the highway, and Dennis Hopper's photos circa 1961. Hopper's motivation appears to have been largely documentary, keeping a record of his world when not acting in a movie, the L.A. arts scene.  She returns to work that might have made Marcel Duchamp smile, Edward Keinholz's 1960s installations used real (if truncated) automobiles, and Cory Arcangel's recent driving game mods (modifications).

"Looking at the World Through a Windshield" was the title of a song we used to hear Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen play, and that is the aesthetic concern of the next couple chapters.  Chapter 3, "The Nows of the Automotive Prosthetic: Moving Image, Time and the Car" takes the long view.  Regarding "Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle: Slow Motion Car Crash", Jonathan Schipper says "When we see an automobile destroyed, in a way we are looking at our own inevitable death...A moment that might take a fraction of a second in an actual collision will be expanded to take days...What was life threatening is now rendered safe."

Large-scale cinematic productions, the "Beneath the Roses" series 2003-2005 saw small-town Massachusetts lit cinematically by industry professionals to be photographed by Gregory Crewsdon.  Terranova compares Crewsdon's work to Don DeLillo novel Cosmopolis (2003), mostly set in a stretch limousine.  One notices that Crewsdon exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery, which supported and exhibited Mike Kelley's similarly staged "Day Is Done" performances, video and documentation around the same time.  Terranova misses the opportunity to note that Kelley's last major non-gallery work (2012) was a "mobile homestead".  But for Terranova, Crewsdon evokes meditations upon Husserl's phenomenological time, Merleau-Ponty's work continuation of that concept, and new media philosopher Mark B.N. Hansen.

There are simultaneous sounds and car-passengers' descriptive voices in Julian Opie's "The City" (1999), and Ant Farm's "World's Largest Bridge" (1970), the latter documenting a drive from New Orleans to Mandeville, Louisiana over the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway.  Moving into cinema, there is a driver vs. a semi-truck battle in the made-for-TV movie Duel (1970), there are long gazes through car windows in Wim Wenders' productions and a couch-caused traffic jam in Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975).

In chapter 4, the author plays with substituting "car" for Walter Benjamin's writings on "camera".  She examines the models of altered houses by Dan Graham, once a frequent contributor to Radical Software magazine.  But his work is about the view from ranch houses, not cars, and while one can say that cars and freeways ringing cities made them ubiquitous, it doesn't really relate to the automobile per se as the sketches from the studio of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown do, showing drivers' views of roadside architecture specifically designed for their perception.  This is an informative and readable essay, but try as Terranova might, Graham's picture windows, installed video monitors and surveillance cameras do not equal architecture as seen from the road.

Chapter 5 "Hummer: The Cultural Militarism of Art Based on the SUV" begins with failure of negotiations between GM and a Chinese heavy equipment manufacturer to sell the brand of the 5900 pound vehicle, gas hog.  I could never help seeing every Hummer on the road as a sign of homosexual macho, like leather chaps worn on San Francisco's Folsom Street.  Terranova creates "parallel triangles of psychoanalytical positioning" with points Hummer/Hummer Art/YouTube views to the road, and Repression/Sublimation/the Real.  Bush-era TV commercials for the vehicle are as weirdly menacing as the real YouTube videos of military contractors in Iraq roaring through cities in Hummers, wantonly shooting civilians.

Peter Lingon painterly "Hummer in the Summer" 2005 locates it in a Dallas suburb.  Margarita Cabrera's soft vinyl "Hummer" 2006, in tradition of Claes Oldenburg's soft toilet.  She also created a similar soft "Bicicleta Marrón y Azul" and "Nopal con Tunas" cacti the same year.  In 2007 Andrew Junge created a "Styrofoam Hummer" from scavenged packing materials.  Video works like Angie Waller's installation "Armored Cars: Protect Yourself from Ballistic Attacks" 2007 and Alex Villar's "Crash Course" 2008.  Most challengingly, Jeremy Dellar towed a bombed-out car from Iraq called "It Is What It Is" 2009 to various exhibition venues, for what Terranova calls a "discourse-based project".

Then follows a detailed examination of the work of Richard Prince, almost a little monograph in itself.  His automotive artwork includes a muscle car on a rotating platform, turning a gallery into a glitzy auto showroom.  Another car was mapped with girlie-magazine photos of women sprawled over fenders, hood, obscuring its windows as would breath from lovers parked within.  Prince has also exhibited paintings upon automobile hoods.

My engine warmed to this book on second reading.  Though cinema and fiction enter the discussions, all the artworks the authors cites are gallery-centric, safely affirmed zones of discourse within the white cube.  As we were warned at the beginning about what the book would exclude, I suspect the author didn't draw rail dragsters or monsters in hot rods a la Ed "Big Daddy" Roth like the boys of my generation.  Most glaringly, nonwhite aesthetics intrude only in Margarita Cabrera's sculptures; I would have liked to see the Ogun Collective mentioned, African American artists and poets decorating abandoned cars in 1990s Detroit with ornate spray-painted patterning.  Or Detroit artist Tyree Guyton, responsible for turning a block of Heidelberg Street and its houses into an outdoor drive-through art installation, who often paints on car hoods too.

As an artist reading the book, it's sometimes overly didactic (as so many Ph.D. theses are, sigh), but Aesthetics needs constant re-invigorating, and new voices like Terranova do exactly that.  There is a place for philosophers of the image, and that's good.  Yet the exhaustivity demanded of theses, perhaps nowhere more so than Philosophy departments, means that at its most traffic-jam lugubrious, it’s got its longeurs and clogged alleys of digression and dubious comparisons.  But sometimes Charissa N. Terranova smoothly cruises her well-polished Prosthetic Aesthetic, finds unexplored open road, floors it and goes sailing, and we're her lucky passengers.

Last Updated 28th November 2014

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