- Automotive Prosthetic: Technological Mediation and the Car in Conceptual Art by Charissa Terranova
by Charissa Terranova. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, U.S.A, 2014. 361pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 978-0-2927-5404-1; ISBN: 978-1-4773-0224-8.
The bar was raised for 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 spray-painted automobiles with flashing lights and self-opening hoods and doors in a lonely, noisy and scary reconstructed tableau. The cover of Automotive Prosthetic features a portion 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. (At first glance at the book, Schipper’s artwork, depicting two muscular cars grinding together in slo-mo, led me to imagine the fascinating sounds that the crash would have created and to hope that some industrial music producer was assiduously recording.)
In the introduction, Terranova discusses what the book is not—there are no “pimped-out” customized cars or low-riders, nor does she discuss 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, the texts of Gregory Bateson, Marshall McLuhan, Jack Burnham, and philosophers of technology Gilbert Simondon 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 [End Page 308] purposeful blandness reappears in works like Julian Opie’s 1993 Imagine you are driving, depicting road-dominated featureless landscapes. Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road— originally typed on a roll of paper—is reminiscent of Cage and Rauschenberg’s 23-foot unique monoprint Automotive Tire Print (1953). Roland Barthes’s 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 (1967–1968) 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 also 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 was not a photorealist and that my aesthetic concerns were not 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 that normally resides 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 then returns to work that might have made Marcel Duchamp smile, such as Edward Keinholz’s 1960s installations, which used real (if truncated) automobiles, and Cory Arcangel’s recent driving game modifications.
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