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Cover of the exhibition catalogue Automania, published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2021 (snippet)

From individual transport to mass congestion: the Automania exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York takes its name from an animated film from the 1960s. The film, which is well worth watching, paints a drastic picture of how the advancement of snowballing car transport can paralyse itself.

By Thomas Wagner.

Since the car began conquering the still very dusty streets of the 1890s, it has fundamentally changed how we move, live and work. Even today, cars remain an object of desire and status symbol for many – an aesthetic object which is often erotically charged and which embodies a lifestyle that is modern because it is mobile. Being mobile and fast is seen as modern, whereas being slow and sedentary is old hat. It is no surprise, then, that the car evolved into the ultimate symbol of progress and an indispensable fetish in a society programmed for permanent growth. Since the Italian Futurists frenetically celebrated the merging of man and machine in the car at the start of the 20th century, cities and houses have been built around rapid roads, and nature and landscapes have been sacrificed for a dense network of traffic arteries. The beauty of the Winged Victory of Samothrace has long since been outdone by millions of sheet metal panels, tailor-made for frantic progress.

The exhilaration of speed has faded

Halas and Batchelor. Film still from Automania 2000. 1963.
Halas and Batchelor. Film still from Automania 2000. 1963. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 1963 Halas and Batchelor

However, it seems the time has come to not only contemplate revising our modus vivendi in an alternative context, but also to make a real switch to alternative forms of mobility. All of a sudden, less car use could mean more mobility. Although the modern-day mobility of personal and goods transport may have created radically new conditions for perception and design and had a lasting impact on our built environment in the form of the car, mass motorisation, global warming and the climate crisis have caused doubts to grow. There is also a growing awareness of the social, environmental and ethical dilemmas posed by the proliferation of cars around the world. In parallel to this, the digital transformation has shifted the craving for physical experiences into the virtual realm. While the exhilaration of speed may quickly fade in daily congestion, it is not knowledge and reason that are slowing the strident desire for mobility, but rather carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide levels, fuel prices and the pandemic.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, one of the most prominent evangelists of modernism, is now presenting a show grounded in scepticism about the consequences of a society programmed for automotive mobility. MoMA organised its first car exhibition 8 Automobiles in 1951, featuring models that had been selected for their “excellence as works of art”. Since then, the museum has built a small car collection in its design department, around which the current exhibition has now been organised. The exhibition borrows the title “Automania” from the British animated film Automania 2000 from 1963, which is the most striking exhibit to be unearthed.

Where is mobility heading?

“Time expired” is written on a parking meter painted by the American artist Vern Blosum in 1962. Is it telling us not to stand still, but to keep exploring new shores and venturing beyond existing borders? Or is everything actually over with automania? Has the automotive age expired? How will mobility develop with a global population of almost eight billion people? Will individual transport (and suburban homes with carports) survive by turning to electric drives and autonomous driving?

When cars get longer and longer

The animated short film Automania 2000 by John Halas and Joy Batchelor is not only the namesake for the show, but also an eye-opening dystopian vision. What the film projected for the year 2000, which seemed a far-distant future back in 1963, was a drastic escalation of the reality of an automotive society devoted to science and progress. In their modern-day year 2000, there is an abundance of cheap power. Fish are sucked up from the ocean floor by a robot and made into nutritious pills. It is just a shame that a whole load of cars have unfortunately piled up around the scientist’s tower and city skyscrapers and have been stuck there for years. Children who have never known anything else believe that the pile of cars has always existed. Everything started with people wanting to own longer and longer cars, and these were soon being mass-produced around the world. To satisfy demand, the scientist eventually invents a car that can reproduce itself – and ultimately engulfs everything. Technical innovation and mass production may have promised mobility and led to an unforeseen standard of life, but they ultimately end in gridlocked immobility and the collapse of civilisation.

Sparks burn for beloved petrol

Alongside several cars and an Airstream caravan, Automania also presents architectural models, films (such as The American Look), photographs, drawings, paintings, posters and sculptures relating to the car – as a physical extension of the human body, as a technological marvel and as an expression of identity. These include Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s print L’Automobiliste from 1898, Lily Reich’s designs for a folding car seat made of tubular steel from the 1930s, photographs of American car factories, a VW Beetle, Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Living City from 1958 and Richard Hamilton’s Glorious Techniculture from 1961 to 1964. Francis Picabia, who loved fast cars and developed a machine aesthetic with Marcel Duchamp, portrays his Jeune fille americaine dans l’état de nudité (“Young American girl in the state of nudity”) as a naked spark plug that burns for beloved petrol. Five cars ranging from the Porsche 911 to the Citroen DS and the Smart have brazenly taken over the MoMA Sculpture Garden. And, last but not least, posters such as Herbert Leupin’s Trink Lieber Eptinger! (“Drink Eptinger instead”) and Klaus Staeck’s Und neues Leben Blüht aus den Ruinen (“And new life flowers from the ruins”) remind us that pointed criticism of the car is always part of Automania.

Cover of the exhibition catalogue Automania
Cover of the exhibition catalogue Automania, published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2021


Museum of Modern Art, New York

until 2 January 2022

Visit the exhibition homepage

I’m in Love with My Car: An Automania Driving Mix

For all those who want to enjoy the Automania lifestyle musically, the MoMA has compiled a playlist of songs and hits on the theme of Ato and mobility: I’m in Love with My Car.

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