Oil. Beauty and Horror in the Petrol Age
John Gerrard, Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), 2017, simulation, variable dimensions, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021, courtesy of the artists and Pace Gallery

John Gerrard’s “Western Flag” denotes the start and end of the modern petroleum era. The digitally generated black flag made of atomised raw oil asks pressing questions about a global realignment. Cars, oil heating, planes, tanks, space rockets, motorways, shopping centres, suburbs, nylon tights and mountains of plastic – the materials, technologies, ways of life and visions of our era are in many cases owed to the energy density and transformable nature of oil. There is no other substance that has shaped life in the 20th and early 21st centuries as deeply as “black gold” has. The end of the “oil age” is now looming, even if a precise date has not been set and the consequences are anyone’s guess.

At the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg until 9 January 2022, the exhibition Oil. Beauty and Horror in the Petrol Age will be casting “a speculative, poetic look back at the presence of the modern age of petroleum, which has lasted for roughly 100 years”. From the distant perspective of a hypothetical future, it asks about what was typical of this time of ours, what was great and beautiful and what was ugly and dreadful – and how all of this is reflected in art and culture. What is fundamental to the exhibition, the creators say, is the observation of a deep conflict. Petrol, kerosene, plastic, asphalt and synthetic fibres birthed a promise of unlimited mobility, individual freedom and unimpeded transformation during the oil boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, on the other hand, oil is linked with global struggles to share the resource, mountains of waste, global warming, marine pollution and air pollution.

Accordingly, the show sees artistic work being confronted with science, technology, politics, everyday life and knowledge, practices and devices from chemistry, drilling, geology, day-to-day working life, pop culture, industry and cultural theory. Well-known and lesser-known artistic work from the canon of the Western modern era as well as oil regions around the world are observed anew “in the black mirror of oil” and set in context with current artistic positions. The “world’s first retrospective of the global modern age of petroleum” was initiated by Alexander Klose and Benjamin Steininger, prepared until 2018 in conjunction with Ralf Beil, the former director of the Kunstmuseum, and then curated jointly with current director Andreas Beitin.

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