Automotive Prosthetic: Technological Mediation and
the Car in Conceptual Art
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
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
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
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.