Sunday, February 13, 2011

Car Wreck Art

Look at the 1993 Saab 900 ad above and you can see how integral an aesthetics of destruction is to the appeal of car advertising. Not convinced? Check out this 2007 Renault ad:

or how about the 2011 "the hard way" Lexus video in which car leather is subjected to a blow torch (just one of 11 brutal durability tests) in beautifully rendered slow-motion:

I suppose in some ways it's only natural that a century of sexualizing automobiles should steer us toward machine torture porn. Cronenberg's kinky "Crash" (1996) and Paul Haggis' touching "Crash" (2004) both use car wrecks as metaphors for social dysfunction. The first lines of Haggis' film show how unmet emotional needs can erupt into and be satisfied by cathartic violence:
"It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something."
Free associate for a moment. CARS. Go.
speed. sex. safety. danger. expensive. isolation. protection. freedom. road rage. Gary Numan...what the..? How can I actually get to the photography portion of this post without first flashing back to the 80s? Indulge me:

Wow. Videos were dumb in the '80s.

Now let's talk about how it is that two of the books on Photo-Eye magazine's "Best Photobooks of 2010" list are about crashed cars: Raffael Waldner's Car Crash Studies: 2001-2010 and S├ębastien Girard's Desperate Cars. I bought both books to see what all the fuss was about. They are sitting on my coffee table alongside another car-related best of 2010 book, Lee Friedlander's America by Car. I will leave the latter book to some future post. For now, here are some of my thoughts on Girard and Waldner's books.

Desperate Cars
Desperate Cars is the second self-published book by S├ębastien Girard. His first book, Nothing But Home, is sold out, unfortunately for me. Desperate Cars copies are still up for grabs in a special edition of 100 or the standard edition of 500. For a self-published work, the distribution is impressive. Photo-Eye sells it, Colette (which, if you haven't heard of it, is the boutique in Paris that tells the in-crowd what they are supposed to like) sells it, and several other sources, including, of course, Girard's own site (which is where I bought it). The book is beautifully designed, thoughtfully sequenced, and very well printed. That's about as much as I have read in any of the reviews, which is why I want to go further and address the content.

The inside cover features a ghostly image of a car, suspended in darkness, almost speeding toward the only textual introduction, the plea: save their souls.

(see a multi-page preview at photo-eye)

Turn the page, and you see rosary beads hanging from the rear-view mirror of the first in a series of damaged, neglected, abandoned cars. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek imperative for Messianic intervention sets the tone for the a darkly comic ride into car purgatory. The book is theater of the absurd mixed with tragedy because after spending so much time anthropomorphizing cars it's only natural to feel a little guilty about their demise?

I remember a Saab commercial, maybe 1993 or so, that featured a a camera admiring every angle of the car with a voice-over, "You have a mind. You have a body. You have a soul... So should your car." In the commercial, dual air bags inflate like lungs in slow motion and a gleaming dashboard lights up like neurons firing. In contrast, Girard's book shows us wires that spill out of eviscerated heating systems, duct tape that clings to the doors like field trauma sutures gone wrong.

A predominantly steely palette accented by an occasional pop of a primary color gives the book a pleasing continuity. A photo of a tire's encounter with, um, a certain organic brown substance might be a misstep in more ways than one, but then, I'm not big on scatological humor. The sequencing and simple layout create a flow that is never heavy handed but that allows the viewer to create fragments of narrative. One spread, for example, features a photo of a broken headlight on the left page, while on the right page, a shelf with headlights cannibalized from other cars looks on. In another spread, a circular yellow air freshener stuck to a dash looks ready to plug a hole in the photo on the right page of a yellow hood that is missing a round emblem in its grill. Other spreads have such perfect balance of scale and geometry that the photos seem to belong together as sublime diptychs.

Desperate Cars has been sitting on my coffee table for weeks now and I find myself drawn to it, trying to decipher its enigmatic beauty. It's not the kind of book you "get" right away, and maybe I still don't get it. But I find it inspiring and I look forward to Girard's next book.

Car Crash Studies 2001-2010

Car Crash Studies by Raffael Waldner has an obvious thematic similarity to Desperate Cars. Both books isolate vehicles on a dark background, stripping them of their geographical and social context. Both books feature cars that have passed into the great beyond. But Girard is not Waldner any more than Stephen Shore is Lewis Baltz. In other words, you can put them in the same exhibit, but would never confuse the artists unless you're not paying attention.

Walder's obsessive project began in 2001 and includes more than 300 subjects, a sampling of which we see in in this 2001-2010 collection. One big difference between Desperate Cars and Car Crash Studies is that the latter focuses specifically on sports and luxury cars. Not only is each wreck labeled with make and model, but an index gives us both alphabetic and chronological listings of the cars. 5 Mercedes, 6 BMWs, and 6 Audis top the pantheon of the honored dead.

I feel less compelled to write about this excellent book because:
1. I can point you to 5B4 for a well written review
2. The book itself has two brilliantly written essays (Oh that every photo book had essays!). Let me give you a quote from Christoph Doswald's essay:
"This typology, researched and documented through numerous night-time forays into the scrapyards of vehicle breakdown services, is a contemporary interpretation of the Vanitas theme, and the piles of scrap metal—now functionless and desecrated by crashes—speak of the transitory nature of material power and also a little bit of the loss of the erotic in society."

3. This post is getting long and I'm tired.

When I look at Waldner's book, I feel less connection to the cars. I don't mean that in a negative way at all. I think my sense of detachment comes from the fact that I will probably never own a luxury car. My last car was Honda Civic I drove for 18 years and finally sold to a junkyard for about the price of a video game. My current car is a Honda Civic. So maybe I am experiencing schadenfreude when I contemplate the wreckage of a Lamborghini Gallardo. Maybe the totaled car as an art object is more pleasurable than the one that can zoom past me when the light turns green. When I look at Girard's book, part of me does want to save those cars' souls. When I look at Waldner's photos, I say, "Good. I like you better that way." Oddly, or appropriately I suppose, the people who can afford to buy Waldner's prints will be the same ones who can afford to drive those cars. That way, they can experience even the destruction of luxury as a luxury item.

One of the early images in Waldner's book is a damaged paint job that looks like alien terrain. From there, the objects are shown more zoomed out, but often so twisted as to be just as alien. The tortured metal looks as if the vehicles fell from the sky. Who knows? Maybe they did.

As a postscript to the zeitgeist of car wreck art, I also encourage you to check out Nicolai Howalt's series, "Car Crash Studies" (yes, that's what I said, car crash studies).