OLAFUR ELIASSON freezes Berlin in near-tropical July with icy H2R car: a biomorphic sculpture that mixes metallic structure and frozen bodywork.
“Lack of charisma can be fatal” was spelled out in a contemporary font, in all silvery glittering capitals, on the inverted aerofoil of the car that once made its rounds in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1999, when American artist Jenny Holzer turned the white 12-cylinder high-tech monster into a mobile platform for her Truisms. The end of the 20th century, then, saw the end of a symbiosis of mutual admiration between engineering and the avant-garde. The century had begun with a declaration of love for such machinery from the technology- and speed-obsessed Futurists. Since then, there have been many artists who have fallen for racing cars, such as Francis Picabia, and many automobile companies have expressed an enthusiasm for art. Within this tradition, the history of BMW’s Art Cars is unique and, with the latest project from 39-year-old Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, has entered the 21st century with courageous and confident style. As beautiful as the painted M1, 320i, 635CSi, or 3.0 CSL by Calder, Lichtenstein, Warhol, or Rauschenberg were, these vehicles were also limited to equating the body of the car with a canvas. Yet it was in an outsized freezer that Eliasson presented an early version of his “Art Car” at his Berlin studio last July. With its spectacular mix of metallic structure and frozen bodywork, the biomorphic sculpture astounded every visitor who stumbled into the icy studio from the near-tropical warmth outside.
Eliasson’s cold shock is not the shock of modernism’s ice palaces. Cold and ice appear in his work as suggestions of vulnerability. On a warm and gentle July evening, one was asked to think of the threatened icy regions of the world – glaciers, polar caps, icebergs – now melting as a consequence of global warming. Cold and ice, then, no longer represent the concepts they once did for artists and philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead, with Eliasson, icy landscapes have become utopian, impossible landscapes, disappearing and lost. To burden an automobile with such fragility is a post-ecological détournement, the complexity of which does not impair a pop-cultural interpretation of the object – the “Art Car” remains trapped in the logic of the event without necessarily being defined by it.
Amazed bohemian Berliners took photos in front of the object, the haptic and aesthetic exoticism of which steered clear of any and all of the usual banalities of automobile design. Eliasson himself removed the BMW logo from the middle of the alloy rim and only the bare essentials of the auto – four wheels and a chassis – remained recognizable. The car was skinned and given a mantle of wire and ice, but the automobile nevertheless seemed to dissolve in the frosty White Cube. Mountain climbers and polar explorers have a term for this moment when all perception of the world fades to white: “white out.”
All of Eliasson’s works are naturally ecologically oriented, so it’s no surprise that he has taken the experimental hydrogen-powered BMW H2R as the foundation for his “Art Car.” The only waste produced by the H2R is water, the very element that constitutes the car in Eliasson’s studio. While the legacy of Futurism left transportation policy as the last battleground for rebellion against historicity, what follows the aestheticization of racing is that of conservation and environmental awareness, and for this we have Eliasson to thank.