Fetishes belong to the world of phantasms. Though they are genuine objects they are transformed into illusions credited with supernatural powers and the ability to make wishes and dreams come true. In this respect, these corresponding figments of imagination, which ignite desire in people, can be determined by religion, eroticism ,or indeed a variety of other things. When all of these possible patterns of meaning converge, fetishes come to be general cultural artifacts and lodge themselves into the collective memory. The "Fetisch Auto. Ich fahre, also bin ich" (Car fetish – I drive, therefore I am) exhibition in the Museum Tinguely in Basle, explores the role of cars as a fetish. With 160 works by more than 80 artists, including Giacomo Balla, Ed Ruscha, Allan Kaprow, Roman Signer and Gerhard Richter, the show shines light on different fetish fantasies, which can transform the car into an individualized living room, a means of escape – whether small or great –, or a method of alienation or personal profiling, to name a few...
Gods, goods and criticism
Of course, futurists have to be there as well – their hyperbole and idolization of the beauty of racing cars and their speed forms the historical starting point of the tour. The American way of life, by contrast, caused a shift from this enthusiasm for technology of the 1960s to a consumer and commodity-driven society, in which Andy Warhol discovered his Pop Art subjects. Nouveau réalisme artists reveal the extent to which the world of automobiles can mutate into art. Leading the way, Jean Tinguely, whose work is present in Basle and the Museum in many respects, and who pursued his fascination for machines in rusty and at times monstrous installations, which featured spinning mudguards and spoilers alongside circus horses and rubber tires.
Time and again, this walk through art history, curated by Roland Wetzel with a compelling exhibition concept, presents the car as a magical and mystical machine, which is revived by constant reinterpretations before being buried again. The way in which these fantasies can vary from person to person and how they all play with the power of fetish in their own way, is also demonstrated by Pipilotti Rist's impressive 1997 video "Ever is Over All". A woman walks along the street in a flowing summer dress. She smiles happily, somewhat distant, she greets passers-by and tosses a large flower stem from one hand to the other, while on the other side of the shot a landscape full of such flowers unfolds. Suddenly the woman strikes out with the flower and uses it to shatter the windscreen of a parked car with an almighty blow – then, she continues down the street just as happy and distant as before. A policewoman approaches her from behind, the two women smile at each other and continue on their way.
Death and fire
There is hardly a single aspect of this fetish that the Basle exhibition has overlooked – from studies of color to Hans Hansen's dissected VW Golf and Erwin Wurm's decidedly skew-whiff Renault 25. In the central rotunda, around which the exhibition rooms are lined up side by side, like slices of cake, Damián Ortega's 2002 "Cosmic Thing" is on display: the large-scale installation by the Mexican artist depicts a VW Beetle that has been taken apart to form – like an explosion into thousands of pieces –a larger-than-life cosmos in the central room. The Danish group of artists Superflex, on the other hand, have chosen not to celebrate the hyperbole that turns cars into divine subjects but rather the magic of their destruction: in their 2008 video "Burning Car", the audience become witnesses of a disaster, which occurs in real time on a real-life scale, right before their eyes. Little by little, an old, silver Mercedes goes up in flames and shrivels under the destructive force of the fire, which in its own way spreads, until it leaves but a mere skeleton behind.
125 years of the car – what now?
Death and a sense of happiness – traumatic weekends such as that in Jean-Luc Godard's "Week-end" – as well as individual happiness come together in the exhibition. In line with the 125th birthday of the automobile – celebrated on the day Carl Benz submitted his patent application for a motorized tricycle – a large, collective archive of models of society spread out in Basle, lending this moving sub-frame every single role imaginable. As such the question remains as to which role will the car play next? Is there even a fetish role that is not yet been accounted for?
In the museum garden cars galore have been assembled for a film showing. And those who have to experience a drive-in cinema can watch "Death Proof" or "Bullitt" from the driver's or passenger's seat – and perhaps feel a little like Tinguely, who can be seen in the exhibition in a large-format photo behind the wheel of his Ferrari Lusso 75.
Text: Sandra Hofmeister
"Fetisch Auto. Ich fahre, also bin ich" (Car fetish – I drive, therefore I am)
Museum Tinguely in Basel
8th June - 9th October 2011