Artworks made with fossil fuel? Clint Mclean explores how artists are using crude oil to make elegant and interesting statements about geopolitics today (just don’t put it on your toast!)
There is no escaping it. Oil makes the world go ‘round. It drives the economies of oil producing nations and powers the economies of oil buying ones. Oil is the blood that courses through transportation, heating, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and virtually every other industry, not to mention everything made from plastic. We’re entirely reliant on oil even as we recognize the need to ween ourselves of our dependency. Black gold reigns.
Though we rarely actually see oil, it is everywhere, and artists are pulling it from the shadows and using it to not only inspire their work, but to physically make it. Around the globe, artists are using the politically-charged commodity to highlight issues like industrialization, greed, democracy, perception and death. Using an alternative or unusual medium like oil puts an emphasis on the material. In a slight perversion of McLuhan’s meaning, in the work of these artists, the ‘medium’ is inextricably and overtly the message.
Here are five artists using the fossil fuel in thought-provoking ways.
More than 30 years have passed since British artist Richard Wilson‘s 20:50 was first created and it has never felt more relevant. Arguably the most famous artwork to use petroleum, the installation fills the floor space of an entire room with used motor oil. The result is a visually confusing medley of architectural reflections on a seemingly infinite and impenetrable surface. From the balcony you look down to the ceiling as well as up at it as you try to comprehend the deceptive depth before you. A walkway below cuts beneath the oil’s surface and is surrounded on three sides by the hazardous lake and its odour. Like other works by Wilson, the installation physically and visually transforms the space, but it also transforms the medium from a dirty and unwanted waste product, into something beautiful. It is toxic but captivating, unwanted and wanted.
There are echoes of Wilson’s 20:50 in the work of Taiwanese artist Shih Hsiung Chou. In Long Stay, the artist fills a transparent coffin with used oil. The surface reflects the space and people above and somberly evokesthoughts of death, finality and eternity. Since oil is made from masses of dead organisms, it’s an especially fitting medium for Long Stay.
Chou has attracted international acclaim for his oil-based works that explore and challenge art history and reimagine how mediums could be interpreted differently. In Oil Painting, rather than applying paint or even crude oil to canvas, Chou instead fills Perspex frames and vessels with inky, black oil. There are no brush-strokes, colours or shapes, just darkness. It would be almost like framing emptiness if not for the reflections that give the artworks life. Chou considers these works to be paintings by “other means”.
Provocative Russian artist Andrei Molodkin is a former soldier who, as the story goes, sometimes smeared oil on toast in a desperate attempt to get a high on long, cold train journeys to Siberia. It’s a convenient catalyst for some of the oil-centric work the artist is now known for.
Molodkin encases casts of iconic objects like the head of the Statue of Liberty or words such as Merry Christmas in plastic cubes. The objects and letters then have hoses inserted into them which snake over the floor like super-highways of a nameless metropolis. The other end of the hoses connect to a pump which forces oil through the words and objects as it monotonously drums a slow, metallic rhythm. The forms become little more than aspirations through which Molodkin highlights his view that money is the ultimate priority.
Azerbaijani artist Orkhan Huseynov created the video piece Oil Drinking in 2011 during his country’s second oil boom. The footage shows two workers in orange coveralls at a plastic table as though in an Azeri tea house. The table is set with traditional pear-shaped glasses, slices of lemon and sugar cubes. One of the men fills a tea pot with thick, dark oil and then pours a glass of it for each of them. The men drink them, and then have another and another. The video becomes increasingly manic as the men continue pouring oil as the cuts get quicker and the background music more intense. They pour more oil into more teapots until the it gushes out. Then they fill more glasses. The frenzy ends only when the final glass of oil is poured back into the cannister. Oil it seems is as essential to the Azeri identity as tea.
Piers Secunda is a British artist who frequently uses sculpted industrial floor paint when making the geo-political art he’s known for. It isn’t so surprising then, that he has also ventured into using crude oil to tell the same sorts of stories.
Throughout its relatively short but potent history, oil has had an extraordinary impact on the earth and its people. Secunda silkscreens scenes of this history to tell the story of oil, through oil. The artist takes it a step further by screening the images only with oil sourced from the same well he is depicting. The attention to detail is reminiscent of his work casting bullet holes by ISIS and the Taliban, and, as in those works, it lends a level of authenticity and historical relevance to the art.
Main image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery. Images courtesy of the artists
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