A great outpouring
When I was given the Centuri account to manage, I was told that this account was mainly to be used for buying works of art.”
André Tarallo, former C.E.O. of Elf-Gabon. (le Monde April 19,2000)
”In order to survive in the midst of the most extreme and darkest aspects of reality, works of art which do not want to be sold as consolation, must look like them. Today, a radical art means a dark, black art, like its basic colour.”
T W Adorno, Theorie Esthétique, l’Idéal du noir.
Oil is the Big Boss of contemporary life. Everything we use for transport, flying, floating, heating, wearing or eating is linked in one way or another to this tarry juice, the most consumed liquid, except for water, on earth. Since Iran, where the first large-scale drilling tooke place, at the start of the century, and continuing throughout the oil scares of 1974 and 1979, the Gulf War, or the invasion of Chechenia, following the black gold’s trajectory is enough to map out modern evil. However, it was not until the middles eighties, that art, society’s analytical eye, took note of this evidence. Kidnapping the logo of a well know multinational, British Petroleum, a group of artists from Nice took a dive into the murky waters of thc black orders of hydrocarburants, a long term investigation which logically wil1 only end with the drying up of the last oilfield, the day when the nuclear state religion definitively replaces the oil refineries, those cathedrals of tubes, with their naves of oil and gas tanks, surmounted by dark flamed minarets.
Using BP’s lpgo as an artistic emblem, irony apart, implies a precise and 1ong-term mission, as much as waving a striped banner or armorial bearings made of flower-pos on kitchen tiles. The stake here is to confer visibility on oil‘s ghostly domination; the world talks of nothing else, but it has no precise forms; it is decentralised, scattered. refined, transformed, polymorph; it makes the world go around, but how can one tot up all its failings and all its crises. An oil crisis often takes byways – there, a state coup or a civil war on the African continent; here a theatrical rise in unemployment. Artistic work consists in providing a shape for all whose interest is to remain unformed, like an anonymous company. Unformed means unconscious. i.e. untouchable, unthinkable. self-evident, invisible. To address this oil company, BP identified and isolated its most visible manifestations – barrels, petrol pump, automobiles, are turned into the basic signifiers of a petrol-based language, which send us back to single source: sump oil.
In BP’s work, this sump oil acts as shorthand for all the oil products, a black liquid recalling crude oil, while adopting a refined and fluid form, close to petrol. This black oil, set in motion by an array of motors and pumps, irrigates every work, brinyr)g up to the surface the underlying liquid which usually meanders invisibly, from the deepest wells to car tanks, wending its way through the arterial network of pipelines and petrol pumps. As soon as it attains visibility, the dark fluid flows in hemorragies, enshrouding all kinds of spaces. Trickling from barrels and tins, the oil flows, stains, dirties, escapes from open drains or splintered hul1s, like in that 1987 piece in wich BP took over a security rail, and turned it into an open-air canal, drenching the gallery with its viscous flow.
These dusky hues might appear Apocalyptic, if BP, far from a militant simplifications, had not restrained themselves to a coldly analytic and visual approach, which is not, however, humourless laughter is the negation of the worst, the essential lightness to bring to a successful close the journey to the ends of darkness.
The end of the oily night, the punchline of the story, will therefore be a simple « Splash » ‑ this is the title the group chose for its first exhibition in the year 2000. Splash, is first of ail, the title of a series of oil on piper, cheerful sports which shine out in their frames like negative sons, large dark points outlined with a lighter greasy halo, slowly absorbing the paper… By extension, this sound becomes a sort of war cry the oil « splashes » in the same way that leaves quiver, that thunder growls or that crows croak… the splash is the slang name for a brutal collision which produces a sound like a slap meeting an obstacle. In the art world, it is expressed through spatters, in the same way that, in other areas, it might take the form of a financial scandal or a bombing raid. And so, BP has opted for the Pollockian dripping method to fill up the space with an anarchic network of black oil projections, revolving in free variations around the framed Splashes.
The expansion of oil’s domination is shown through consecutive and increasing stages of contamination ‑ starting with piper (the Splash on paper), oil reaches the wall (the tapestry), then the screen, the full screen. By building a series of rudimentary TV screens ‑panes of glass mounted in raw steel cases ‑ BP takes oil out of physical propagation in space to a virtuel propagation through information channels. This BP’TV is a prototype with a single channel, the channel of imageless and soundless truth, or rather the synthesis of all sounds and ail images summed up in a black movie made out of oil. The only action in this long black fade‑out, is made up of sports which « splash » and then flow slowly, intermittently, on the inside of the screen, as if the world’s apparent exuberance on the other channels, could be reduced to this small black oil slick.
Crucifixion in black
With their earliest sculptures, BP spontaneously assimilated the frantic oil boom to a new religion. The metal drum, the famous barrel whose rise and fall ensures the artifical survival of the economy on a lifesupport system, is a cult object, a totem. According to Freud, in Totem and Taboo, the totem is « first of all the ancestor of’ the group, secondly its protective spirit and its benefactor. » In 1988, the group set up on a 3,90 metres’ plinth, a BP drum, in the British Petroleum colours. All along the plinth, an outpouring of oil, fed by a pump. A totem is only efficient when it is surrounded with a certain amount of taboos. The sacred object must remain out of reach, on its pedestal. Its power, from a hidden source, relies on secrecy. Like their underground merchandise, the oil companies turn their management into sticky synods, into black masses whose echo is only heard after refining it was (for instance) only with the fall of the Elf totem (which was re‑incarnated in the super‑totem ElfTotalFina) that the taboo was lifted on its infiltration of ghost‑states in Gabon or in the Congo, its secret negotiations with Irak, during the Gulf war, its dizzying financial operations… What is a religion, other than the divine decree by which sonic powers are removed from human laws.
The BP‑sculpture emphasises this oil domination by following Constantin Brancusi’s path, the incontrovertible master of elevation. In 1991, shortly after the Gulf war, BP gave us its version of the famous Bird in space. Placed on barrels, casts of rockets, glistening with oil, recall the Bird’s spiritual flight, while simultaneously bringing it back to reality, the attacking spirit of the celestial armadas. The barrel is the « loot » no‑one must touch, for fear of setting off a genuine gang warfare, with the semblance of a crusade, sanctified by international laws. Although fiercely defended, like all integrism, the cult of the (oil) tank is fragile. It is through a parody of the Endless Column (another of Brancusi’s well‑known emblems), that BP best shows up the vulnerability of this vertical accumulation of barrels. The endless column of the oil religion is not underpinned by an idea of Infinity, but rises, like prices rise. The building shivers, threatens to fall, like the 1987 BP‑column, in which little barrels, covered in glistening oil, arc holding up large vats, in a construction equally unstable and massive. Another work from 1987, « Babel » is made up of four metal vats, heaped up in decreasing height, to suggest the building of high‑rises towers in olden Babylon. The title refers to the famous episode in Genesis, describing the putting up of a high building whose ambition was to rise up to heaven. God, jealous of his aerial space, introduced a diversity of languages to bring down the enterprise which turns into a cacophony of sounds. Such is the oil religion ‑ everyone swears by it, but nobody agrees on the price of the barrel.
In order to create a religion, the economy is an essential but insufficient ingredient. One must add a large dollop of superstition to the cocktail. Leaving the entrails of the earth, where most mythologies place their hells, oil, a fossil energy made from antediluvian rot, reawakens fantasies linked to the fear of death. A particularly powerful piece by BP shows an upstanding petrol pump, like a cross, in front of a pit of black oil, which spreads around its feet, like its shadow, like its grave.
The essence of painting
Alongside their sculptures, BP also take an interest in oil painting. This reference to the « noble » art, (as opposed to acrylic, an industrial means) plays on the meaning of the word oil: is oil painting not, basically, to cover a surface with oil? Are the brush, the colour, the subject or nonsubject, not simply accessories, which we can do without, to empty painting of its traditional connotations? And so, quite logically and according to a cynically conceptual reasoning, oil is thought of as the accomplishment of oil painting, reduced to its definition, its essence. By its very nature, oil, flowing in smooth surfaces, with its heavy, deepBlack, confirm this beyond a purely hypothetical demonstration. BP’s monochromes go one further than the modernist black paintings, from Malevich’s suprematist icons, by way of rayman’s brown canvases or Soulage’s darkly obsessive pageants. Th e aim of this family of ultimate abstraction is to produce the last possible painting to approach as much as one can, the impossible, which would be like attaining the absolute b means of absurdity. But, as Bertrand Lavier proved with his painting Double chromes, using the same colour by two different brands, monochrome is not in itself an absolute value ‑ there are as many blues, reds or blacks as there are brands of paint on the market, which means that the so‑called radicality of the genre is no more than a form of sampling. In this seeking for the ultimate painting, oil in fact appears as the absolute black: it is not a certain kind of black obtained through mixing or dosing pigments, but a black in its raw state which only needs to be activated via a system of pumps to instantly cover the chosen surface.
During the nineties, BP‑painting, having solved in its own way the question of black monochromes, concentrated its efforts on the question of framing. Industrial age pictures are made out of fragments of automobile parts, often damaged, sometimes rusted or scorched. From now on, the square of black oil is seen inside tin, like a small window examining the innards, the depths of the machine. The appearance (the bodywork) is pierced and reveals its essence, this tarry liquid which, for the engine, is like blood for the heart. Beyond the variety of body parts, variegated and changing like fashions, the redundant dark oil stain, reveals the autmobile’s imaginary as a surface imagination. In fact, the energetic principle has hardly changed since th first Ford serial models, in their Detroit workshops. The age of oil is a monochromatic period, brought back to a single source, movement, raw material.
On the road
The road makes up the universe of oil, tar, and carburants. BP’s road is no longer that of the great American journeys, like Jack Kerouac’s, but the fast track, with its monotonous segments. It might be recalled that i was Mussolini himself, wanting to re‑introduce the great Roman ways o old, who undertook the first highways. The security rail, separating the tarred surface from the landscape and isolating it from the rest of the world, is a recurrent theme in BP’s work. In 1986, a piece entitled Oil line showed a 17 metres’ long rail, used as a drain for a flow of black o’ In its recent photographic work, the group combines differing landscape ‑ fields, towns, villages, mountains ‑ along this metallic band. This roadside geography substitutes a suite of scattered fragments, for the coherence of an earthly landscape, chosen along different parts of the road network. Beyond the security rail, the inaccessible landscape flies past like a picture postcard decoration. Road travel is a non‑voyage, with interchangeable destinations.
The road’s universe is ideally organised like a perfectly marked system, in which every solitary element, at the wheel of his vehicle, is trained to respond automatically to the inflexible rules of the road. In 3`e peux continuer dans cette voce (« I can continue this way »), a leaflet which outlines several typical situations for to drivers passing their test, BP underlines the use of an authoritarian language, which recalls the rigid codes of geometric abstraction ‑ white or yellow lines, like Newman’s Zips, road signs like Malevich’s icons… This harmonious picture, designed by the engineers of the Highway Department, cannot survive for long in the chaotic confusion of the networks, the criss‑crossing of freeways, as well as secondary roads, in which vast human migrations throb: the floods of workers, of holidaymakers, and of merchandise, in an absurd ballet of traffic jams and petrol fumes. Every impostion of order increases the global tendency of a system towards disorder, as is proved by the laws of thermodynamics. Perfectly ordered, the network of roads is paradoxically the scene of all excesses and of maximum danger, almost a return to nature in which pulsions take over ‑ it is no coincidence that in this new Far West, the road safety campaigns have taken as their emblem a « Clever Bison ».
Following the road wars, the utopia of fluid traffic and of great open roads, ends up in a tailspin within the unformed mass of accidents, to be found equally in some of Warhol’s silkscreens, in the Australian « Mad Max » at the start of the eighties, or in David Cronenberg’s « Crash », the story of a sect of car crash victims whose fantasies reside in re‑creating collisions… BP develops this theme of the accident in a series of « portraits » made up of window‑panes surrounded with steel frames, like windshields, behind which are posed mannikins’ heads. In these fixed faces, whose only characteristics are summed up in a few coloured dots designed to mark the impacts, we recognise the anthropomorphic guinea pigs used for the simulation of accidents in laboratories. In another 1994 piece, we can make out inside a transparent case slowly overtaken by dark oil, a biker’s black outfit, surmounted by a helmet. This panoply looks like an authentic armour, designed for the absurd jousts of speed.
To « breakneck » speed, can be opposed the counter tempo of drifting, aimlessly wandering, like in Martin Scorsese’s « ‘Taxi Driver », checking out the city’s petty intrigues, cruising the streets haphazardly, seeking hypothetical clients. In contrast to profitability which never stops increasing to « gain » time, increase competitivity, reduce delays, improve productivity, the artistic perception of time is slowness, lateness, as Marcel Duchamp might put it, who had indeed chosen as his emblem a bicycle wheel. It is when it slows down, or when it stops altogether, that reality stops fleeing and can be experienced. The BPcalendar for 1991, a pastiche of the lorry drivers’ calendar with its pin-up shown among the heavyweights, is precisely the opposite of the myth. Here, the nude models are positioned in a dump, amid the cars’ carcasses. The foundations of the automobile culture, as a derisory substitute for the female body, are stripped bare as soon as the movements cease and that the high powered machines become simple tin cans, pumpkins, like the coaches in fairytales.
For every form of energy, there is a specific type of humanity ‑ slavery for instance, defines societies using the human body’s energy, in the same way that horses’ energy is used for transport or agriculture. Industrial societies have replaced these primitive methods of exploitation by coal, hydroelectricity, petrol… Despite of becoming less alienating, since they no longer imply physical strength, these forms of energy have produced desincarnated types of lives, drawing motion and heat from substances which they no longer control directly. In the middle of this hydrocarburant age, BP has opted to explore the outlines of Neanderthal man’s successor, these cleaning men whose silhouette painfully emerges from a barrel of black oil. This leads to large silhouettes on paper, traces of real bodies, outlined in oil. In time, the oil, impregnating the paper, these anthropometries deepen with a sombre halo, like a stain spreading. This dark tracery, around the missing body, announces a sort of organless body. After the period of very swift travels ‑ that of the oil era can already be glimpsed as a time of absolute virtuality, in which, all movements being useless, the body will sink into a deep slumber, whereas the brains, turned into electric waves, will range over the networks, like wandering souls.
Translation Ann Cremin