BILBAO, Spain – “Unlike any other unique invention”, says the text on the wall at the entrance to Movement: automobiles, art, architecture, “the automobile has completely transformed the urban and rural landscape of our planet and consequently our way of life.” As if to lend its support to this audacious declaration, the crackle of an engine suddenly rose from somewhere within the maze of galleries in the special exhibition space of the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Certainly this account of the car’s importance is flattering to the likes of Volkswagen and Cadillac – listed, respectively, as sponsor and collaborator of the exhibition, which is curated by Norman Foster, the British modernist architect of Pickle fame, alongside Manuel Cirauqui and Lekha Hileman Waitoller.
A Noted A classic car enthusiast, Foster drew from his private collection the core of what he called his “requiem for the age of combustion”. The result is an exhibition that touts the personal automobile as object of‘art of unparalleled cultural influence while minimizing its negative effects. The fact that Foster’s exhibit overlaps with the war in Ukraine, which sent gasoline prices skyrocketing around the world – taking a heavy toll on car-dependent households – is perhaps a unpredictable turn of events. The fact that it takes place against the backdrop of a decades-worsening climate catastrophe, driven in large part by the burning of fossil fuels, should be news to no one, however. The week of my visit, for example, coincided with a record-breaking heat wave in southern Spain. In this context, to put it bluntly, the content of Movement indicates an almost unbelievable inability to read the moment and react.
What story does Foster come up with on his chosen topic? At the time of their invention, Movement As it would have been said, cars “saved cities from the stench, disease, and pollution caused by horse-drawn vehicles”. It is a narrative on glossy paper that leaves aside, as Paris Marx asserts in her recent book road to nowhere, the huge spike in deaths from Model-T crashes, especially among children. But the show does not include artistic depictions of 20th century cars as “Modern Moloch”, which might prompt some uncomfortable thoughts about the degree to which we have since grown accustomed to these dead. Along the same lines, the absence of Warhol car crash silk screens seems like a particularly glaring omission, as does the choice to devote a gallery to delighting the glamor and romance of the American highway without discussing how these infrastructure projects have sliced and diced the historic minority communities of the country. Movement is particularly suspicious of the appeal of the personal automobile to fascists (and here one might note the show’s sponsor Volkswagen’s extensive use of slave labor both during World War II and under the Brazilian military dictatorship) — although it has obvious ramifications in the realm of the visual arts. Foster has a lot to say about the appeal of car dynamism and speed to Italian futurists, for example, but stops short of acknowledging the latent and dangerous anti-humanism of this fascination.
Acknowledgments of Earth’s climatological collapse due to fossil fuels are rare – usually accompanied by an assurance that electric vehicles are about to save the day. The show’s final gallery is devoted to design student proposals for the future of transport, almost all featuring partnerships from companies like Bentley, Hyundai and Ford; as well-rendered as they are, the visions presented here often look like clumsily over-elaborate ways to dodge the boogie man of public transport. There is more than a whiff of neoliberalism in this whole enterprise: that problems can be solved individually, that systemic changes need not be considered.
Foster has drawn ire in the past for undertaking architectural projects adjacent to fossil fuels. In 2020 it was revealed that Foster + Partners had signed agreements on a number of developments in Saudi Arabia, including an airport to be serviced red sea luxury trip, after which the Architects Climate Action Network publicly questioned the company’s stated commitments to combating climate change. In response to this challenge, the company got out from the climate action group Architects Declare, instead issuing a statement doubling down on their position that building airports and environmentalism were compatible.
Along with its historical narrative, Movement also poses the cars as works of art themselves, a stance that sometimes comes across as defensive. Serving that idea, we’re shown a slew of sleek mid-century roadsters flanked by a stretched-out Henry Moore, sprawling Calder mobile and Brancuşi’s upward sweep of “Bird in Space.” Stripped of their own context and history, the sculptures are reduced to little more than background pieces to reinforce the freshness and cachet of the vehicles. “Like great works of art,” the wall text tells us, “the Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, Hispano-Suiza H6B Dubonnet Xenia and Pegaso Z-102 Cúpula have rare value as limited editions for connoisseurs” – a limited view of what art means if there ever was one. Are cars art, by this definition or any other? Surely there are more interesting – not to mention pressing – questions we could ask.
Movement: automobiles, art, architecture continues at the Guggenheim Bilbao (Avenida Abandoibarra, 2, Bilbao, Spain) until September 18. The exhibition was curated by Norman Foster, Lekha Hileman Waitoller and Manuel Cirauqui.