Text: Orlando Whitfield
Artistic interventions have become commonplace in recent art history: Koons at Versailles; Murakami in Venice; Shonibare at the National Gallery. Artists and artworks have sought to disrupt, interject and subvert – literally to 'come between' (inter-venire) – the viewing experience and a system, place, or experience. In an intervention, there exists a sense of halting the course of something, of diverting its progress or message, what art historian Khadija Carroll La has termed 'phenomenological activism'. The artist or artwork performs the role of mediating agent and the resulting disruption is significant for the viewer as well as for the artist/artwork(s). The intervention is therefore of mutual benefit since it encourages a change in the analysis of both the intervening work, and the situation or setting into which it is placed.
This is not what the artists in Auto Couture are doing; they go further. The works here constitute an implantation, a grafting: while interventions merely intrude or interject, this show is really an invasion resulting in a mutation. They and their pieces have infiltrated Automotive Couture, occupying channels, embellishing surfaces and utilizing screens, making visible the hidden, and putting into use that which has been sidelined or reduced to ornament. This is not a coming-between, rather, it is a coming-together, a seemingly harmonious cultural enterprise.
The interior of Automotive Couture has not been much changed visibly, at least, not at first glance. The Bentley still sleekly holds pride of place, the desk and chairs are ready for business, and the tyres – imposing, columnar – are scattered about, while their shiny gimcrack counterparts, the alloy wheels, are piled haphazardly like medieval roundels. Although there is undoubtedly artistry here, there does not appear to be much art going on.
But look again; or rather, listen. From inside the car one can discern, variously, the shuddering urban bass of speed garage , the tinny bonhomie of a pop tune and the unmistakable – though unidentifiable – sound of 'art' music, that confusing brouhaha of cacophonous beats that fall into the category of 'I know it when I hear it'. An exclusive mixtape compiled by Gery Georgieva plays on loop: tracks by Patchfinder, Clemence de la Tour du Pin, C. Burman, Michael O'Mahoney, Brood Ma, Enchante and Vera Modena, and DJ City. Two at a time (this is no family vehicle), visitors may get into the car and listen. The incongruity is apparent almost at once: gone is the ambience of the car showroom and the traffic of Finchley Road as one is cocooned in all that leather and metal, carbon fibre chassis and ceramic brake discs: all that money. And yet, no engine, no V8 growl (although Patchfinder's track relays engine noises from sports cars just like this one), and no speed: no movement at all. Time stops in a still car the same way the first step on a stationary escalator always disarms: we wait for something to happen, and yet nothing does, nothing will. The music is the marker of time passing.
People mill about the space. There is free champagne. Many know each other, as is the nature of such events. The car comes to represent an almost sacred escape, not one of speed and flight, but instead a place of private encounter, both with the music, and with another person. In the car, the public and private space fuse, distance and proximity coexist. Two pairs of eyes look out, or look at the dashboard, admiring the many buttons and the dials, and while they do, many more look in. While the car is a potential portal of escape – even within this small space – it is also a magnet for attention, and its occupants (passengers hardly seems appropriate terminology) become unwilling exhibitionists. This is the feeling of the paparazzi-hounded celebrity, the gazed-at sensation of the dogger. The tension between the aural and the visual is darkly explored here: by consenting to listen to something, to protect oneself within the car, one is in fact visibly exposed.
CDs containing the music played in the car that are emblazoned with a print-pattern motif created by Susanna Davies-Crook and Mikey Gilles, are available to take away for free, and it is at this point that you realize there is more going on here. The artworks here aren't part of a different system to that of the shop; they are one and the same thing, blood flowing in the same veins. The first night isn't an opening; it's a marketing event.
It is in this spirit that Davies-Crook and Gilles have made their contribution to Auto Couture. From 6pm on the first night of the show, until 9pm, a young woman will be present in the shop, wearing a swimming costume that bears a print that Crook-Davies and Gilles have produced. The pattern exudes a sleekness, a sensation of concept-car chic: an element of radiator grille is crisscrossed with smooth, aerodynamically crafted forms; and a hint of carbon fibre meshing gives the whole thing a wet look, linking the body of the model visually with the 'body' of the car.
The presence of the model both lives up to and confounds expectations. It is ambiguous whether she is there because of the artists, or as a customary part of car gatherings – just another trophy object, like the cars, the pimped -out rims and the signed football shirts on the walls. The woman's presence also highlights the overtly sexual aspect of cars and of the car world, and the link is brought into question: the routinely accepted incongruity of scantily clad women parading around luxury cars is, in this context, accentuated and looked at anew. The line between performance and labour is also examined and broken down: she is working within the system both of the car world and the art opening and it is noteworthy that the model is not a friend of the artists, nor an artist in her own right, but was in fact employed by them. The same currents of masculine mass-cultural charisma that exist at race-car rallies and victory-podium celebrations are tapped into here and the visual language of art, marketing and commerce become indistinguishable.
To the side of the car, like the fin of a fish, a white screen juts out from the black walls. The monitor, which ordinarily runs a looping slideshow of sports cars taken from racy angles interspersed with all manner of special fade-in and fade-out effects, display holiday snapshots. The images, selected by Stefania Batoeva from a family album of a trip to Greece, are piecemeal and haphazard. Some are cropped so that no obvious scene is discernable; some show landscapes blurry to the point of abstraction; others display people in part: arms, heads, a shoulder blade – never a cohesive whole.
That most of the photographs are scratched tells us they are old, but so too does a woman's hairstyle and a child's tee shirt. The pictures were taken on a road trip that the artist took with her parents in the early 90s. Although journey was a work trip (for the parents) and the photographs were taken during a brief period spent on a beach at the end of a long day of driving, Batoeva recalls only these moments. While the pictures give at once a fitting and eloquent portrayal of the fragmentary nature of memory, they are also demonstrative of how memory can be shaped by car travel. The impression given by the photographs Batoeva has selected give a sense of something fleetingly glimpsed. The strange cropping and isolated objects – an ornate stucco fountain against a blue sky, a rocky promontory seen from some distance – suggest the constraints of car windows.
The automobile is therefore both a conduit for the creation of memory, and a means by which it is distorted. The photographs are representative only of moments between driving, moments of arrival rather than the act of travel. The happiness evoked in these brief moments (if we assume the average shutter speed of an exposure to be 1/125th then these eight images show us little more than 1/15th of a second in time) is all that is remembered. Automobiles and memory are indelibly linked in the history of the twentieth century. They are vessels of sexual encounter and horrible injury, of stunning vistas and unparalleled freedom. More than anything, however, the acquisition of a luxury car is also the acquisition of memories, of moments to look back on in the car, with the car, because of the car. Automotive Couture isn't just in the car business. It's in the business of selling you future memories.
Though the showroom appears to be a place of aesthetic admiration, of lèche-vitrine gawping at these fantasy machines, it is of course primarily a site of commerce. On a Mac computer almost as sleek as the car that foregrounds it, Josephine Callaghan shows a single-channel video work. Against a blue background (reminiscent of the blue screens – precursors to green screens – used to film Michael Powell's 1940 The Thief of Baghdad), a fountain gurgles and trickles on a loop. It is a calm sight – ancient even – evocative of the Moorish fountains at the Alhambra. The camera's gaze, like ours, becomes meditative and amid the hubbub of the showroom, the trappings of wealth, luxury and innovation – of progression – the film, Can't Mirror Me Back, is a point of stillness.
Of all the works in Auto Couture, the film is most easily identifiable as 'art', and yet, presented as part of the office – an ornamental component of this commercial environment – the work operates on another level, too. It functions seamlessly as a cultural touchstone; the fountain instantly puts one in mind of Duchamp, but it also exists within an aesthetic of mail-order desktop trinkets and screensavers. The work subtly suggests that what we find culturally appealing – the fluctuating meaning of luxury – has changed dramatically. Any notion of a nobility of culture has been dissipated – or has at least been denigrated – and usurped by mainstream cultural hegemony.
Of the other pieces in the show, the film is linked most closely with the bikini-clad model, both probing the visual connection between wetness, or the look of wetness, and notions of opulence. The work provided by Yves Scherer, however, seems intent on exposing the structures, both real and virtual, that uphold the event. In placing objects – a photocopied poster stuck to the glass frontage that invites guests to an 'After Party', and, outside, in stark contrast with the champagne being served inside, a dustbin filled with beers – that jar slightly with the makeshift splendor of the interior, he is making concrete the unseen networks which are the precursors of this show. By alluding to events elsewhere and to a world outside the shop (the dustbin that is used to tidy away and is itself tidied away, now displayed) the works ask us to question our presence here; our physical attendance at an event we not only found out about virtually, but will soon be able to re-live – through Instagram posts and Facebook feeds. These rhizomatic networks, which have come to pervade our lives and now dictate and abet our cultural consumption, now overlap with perceived reality to such an extent that the 'space' in which things like this event happen hardly seem to matter.
But still, luxury obtains – regardless of the materiality of the work – by dint of association with a wider art world, but also with the car in the room. The pieces made for the show exist because of Automotive Couture, not in spite of or around it. And they thrive. It is by subtle, almost indiscernible gestures, by mimicking the marketing strategies and adopting their visual code, that these pieces operate within the system of the shop, offering up not critique, but heightened observation.
Orlando Whitfield, London, 2013.