BP – Art in the Age of Mobility

Engine hoods, mudguards, crash barriers, engine oil, motorcycling suits, oil-drums, and the equally familiar but puzzling initials BP confront the observer of the works of this group of artists with a world which he knows well, but which he hardly expects to find in the context of an art exhibition. BP deal quite unashamedly with an art not drawn from a sphere detached from the world but which is instead explicitly connected with our contemporary daily life.

This artistic concept is evident even in the group’s name; the anonymous set of initials BP stands for a fraternity of artists who do not believe in the myth of the individual genius but who see artistic creativity as a group process, as team-work. On the one hand this places BP among those artist contemporary couples and groups which prefer teamwork to individual activity; on the other hand, in doing so, they deliberately adopt a working method long established as common in industrial production. At the same time, the name represents the central subject or theme of their art, since it goes without saying that this set of initials recalls the multinational oil operator of the same name and hence an essential part of our contemporary civilisation: the world of oil production, transportation and of individual mobility.

In pursuing the artistic strategy of making this significant part of our everyday life the subject of their art, BP maintain, in their own manner, a long series of efforts to associate closely art and everyday life. Since art became autonomous in the course of the 19th century, that is, when it broke loose from patronage and from the fulfilment of aims determined by society, its relationship to society and to everyday life has become a problem. The premise of absolutely autonomous art, as practised and preached after World War 2 especially by the « Informel » and the « Colour Field Painting » proponents, was challenged in the 60’s by the idea of certain young artists to integrate directly into their art the numerous industrial products of everyday contemporary life. One example is « Pop Art », which has consciously adopted everyday representative depiction as an art medium; another is « Nouveau Realisme » which has made everyday utilitarian objects into the basis for its artistic exploration or formulation.

In this context, an essential characteristic of the « Nouveau Realisme » of Arman, Cesar and Yves Klein, which has left its traces in France, especially in Paris and Nice, is the combining of everyday objects such as cans, springs or automobile parts into abstract pictures or sculptures. It is to this specifically French tradition that BP are linked, in their use of the artefacts of our environment as basis and subject of their work. In contrast to the « Nouveaux Realistes » who transformed into art various everyday objects by accumulating and compressing them, BP limit themselves exclusively to objects from the world of mobility, which, through stringent and well calculated alienation, they turn into works of art which are as abstract as they are eloquent. To this end they mostly use a substance apparently totally unusable as an art medium: engine oil. Because of its unimposing character and its property of remaining constantly liquid, mineral oil had never been used either as a painter’s or as a sculptor’s medium. Credit must undoubtedly be given to BP for having made this material usable as a medium and a subject for art.

In 1984 they filled double-glazed windows with different mineral oils and presented them as monochrome paintings. Shortly afterwards they reached the definitive breakthrough: by « painting » a « canvas » with constantly flowing engine oil circulated by a pump, they created a wholly new type of monochrome picture. In the exhibition, this form of picture is typified by two « Black Squares » which should be seen in the context of the earliest monochrome canvases in the history of art, Kasimir Malevitch black square or « White on White ». These works, dating respectively from 1913 and 1917, are incunabula of autonomous art, since they demolished once and for all one basic principle of then existing painting: the relationship of subject to background. With his squares Malevitch made impossible the observation of pictures as an perception of distinct and significant forms; the picture lost for ever its representational character, which had already been called into question by the cubists. Faced with the monochrome picture, the observer necessarily experiences the non-distinguishable or the non-significant, which experience can be seen firstly as the absolute autonomy of the picture and secondly as « access to infinity and to the reality beyond the form ». However one may interpret monochrome art, its discovery betokens not only the picture’s succesful achievement of autonomy and the sensory perception of the infinite or absolute, but at the same time the emancipation from the fetters of ordinary life of reality.

This is precisely where BP take over. In recreating Malevitch  » Black Square » with devices from the world of modern technology – screws, sheet metal an oil pump, engine oil – they again forge the link between absolute art and everyday life. In the process, their monochrome pictures constitute neither a mere quitation nor an aesthetic criticism or quip at Malevich’s historic incunabula. Rather, BP’s pictures create afresh the perceptive experience of monochrome painting when they « overpaint » the surface with black engine oil which is circulated by a pump and runs down over the picture’s sur face between two horizontal slits. Because of the typical propensity of engine oil always to form a closed film, a black surface is produced which, although moving looks still and uniform. When one bears in mind in this context that monochrome painting in the Malevitch style always strove to leave on the canvas no visible trace of the brush, for fear of disturbing the impression of total anonymity autonomy and universality, one realises clearly that BP may lay claim to having accomplished this again in an astonishing manner. Their monochrome pictures fully respond to these criteria, since, in contrast to the pictures of the traditional moderns and the art of the 60’s, they have not been painted by the human hand but are constantly recreated by a technical device the « painting » itself.

Thus, with the use of engine oil as paint, BP had invented a new dimension of monochrome painting and likewise discovered a medium whose expressive power and inherent implications for art had hitherto gone unnoticed. Shortly afterwards BP turned to other of art, they turned to sculpture. In1987, for the first time, they covered an oildrum with flowing black oil. With this artifice, as in Christo’s packings – the original subject is is made invisible, although its purely sculptural profile – or rather, its shape and mass – becomes clearly perceptible. By means of the film of black oil which clings like an opaque stocking to the shape of the concealed subject, the beauty of oil drum becomes evident, a beauty resulting from the interplay of basic shape and undulating internal forms. As in Christo’s latest packings, light plays significant part being reflected with soft iridescence in the constantly flowing film of oil. The oil drum in itself nothing more than a prosaic industrial receptacle, is thus transformed into an abstract sculpture of enormous aesthetic attraction.

In this manner BP have connected the artefacts of the automotive world and the existing tradition and themes of contemporary art, giving these new interpretation. At the same time they have been able to endow the world of the automobile with a new symbolic expression. If we ignore the demonisation of the motor car executed with greater or lesser success by « Happening » of the 60’s and 70’s, and its mythicisation by « Pop Art » and comtemporary variants of « Happening, then it is mainly BP’s works which have found a successful artistic formulation for this area of our life today.

One can name in this context, for example, « Oil Line », created in 1986. This sculpture consists of four sections of crash barrier forming a sloping surface. Into the groove of the crash barrier, which is open at the top, there flows a constant stream of oil suggesting a pipeline (i. e. the exploitation of natural resources) or perhaps the unending stream of private transport. The close circuit of the oil flow unexpectedly transforms the this everyday object into a symbol of that constant movement in which our age seems to be trapped. The oil is perceived as the material or rather as the fuel, which keeps our age in motion

Similarly, the sculpture « Start/Finish » composed of two indentical crash helmets, one with « Start » painted on its vizor, the other with  » Finish « , can be interpreted in the sense of this unending circulation: the beginning and the end of a journey are different only in name; the journey opens no new horizons, (the vizors are blind), but merely retraces a motion which goes round in a circle

If BP’s later works this absurd aspect of our automotive world is joined by another dimension, ghostly and sinister. The film of black oil which originally gave the nonrepresentational pictures and objects a distinctly aesthetic character becomes transparent. Flashing lights, dummie’s gyrating heads, crash helmets or motor-cycling suits now appear behind the black surfaces of the pictures and the cuboid masses of the sculpture. Now it is warning signs, protective clothing or dummies, in other words symbols of automotive man, wich become apparent. One feels nothing of the exhilaration of speed, the joy of movement normally associated with crash helmets or motor-cycling suit. Rather, one is suddenly struck by the absence of the one thing for whose ever faster and safer transport alf these objects exist: Man, who appears nowhere in this world of automotive artefacts.

This undoubtedly reflects the trend, found in actual traffic development, of minimising human influence. For years the automotive industry has striven to reduce the part played by the human factor, through the development of more nearly perfect and more intensely automated vehicle technology Under the threat of total traffic stoppage there has recently even been talk of self-driving cars wich would make the driver superfluous. This evokes the really gruesome scenario of a traffic system directed as if by ghost hands, as the ultimate consequences of private transport. The motor car, which originally promised and and bestowed on man a greater individual liberty through freedom of movement,then destroys this very freedom through its colossal presence. If we contemplate the now well-known consequences of private transport for our lives and our environement, we see in this same evolution of traffic the dialectical paradox of our times: this brilliant technical progress has its dark reverse side, the extent of wich we are only just beginning to feel.

The absence of man in BP’s latest pictures and subjects points to a further paradox of our times: the nearer the strange and remote is brought to us, thanks to improvements in transport methods and infrastructure, the smaller is that experience wich we can gain through movement. For experience is reduced on one hand to the process of driving consisting of identical repetitive movement (gear changing, steering, accelerating and braking); on the other hand to the perception of scenery which passes as in a film. Its hills and valleys, its climate and its smells are hardly noticed any more. On top of this, thanks to global mobility and international trade, the differences between the places which we can go to gets smaller and smaller. Almost everywhere one is greeted by the same petrol station, hotels and places of entertainment. Point of departures and arrival tend to become as similar as the start and finish point of a racing circuit.

Perhaps this kind of reduced experience, consciously overstated here, finds its most telling expression in “Simulator”. Built like a driving simulator worthy of an amusement arcade, there stands a large screen, wich remains black, before a driver’s seat devoid of controls. But for the factthe screen is also a monochrome painting reminding us that comtemplative observation can evoke new levels of experience, one would perforce interpret “Simulator” as the depiction of total loss of experience.

René Hirner, in catalogue “BP Kunst um Zeitalter der Mobilität”, Kunstmuseum Heidenheim, November 1995