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READ CAR

by Jeanne Randolph

 

It is said that "You can't judge a book by its cover," while people can get quite good at looking at the outside of a car and judging it. And by judging it instantly recognize whether it is, as they say, "a beater," or not; whether it is a Jag or not. Almost any adult in North America could interpret a car as if it is an artifact. As artifact of socioeconomic class, the formal lines of the car can be iconic for a swanky brand, the car itself gleaming like a money clip made of gold; or the rust, missing hub caps and duct tape be a dead give-away for the owner's hard times. Aesthetic judgment, or the lack of it, accounts for the full panorama of car culture, whether the rarest Messerschmitt or doomed Hudson, through the 1920s, '30s, '40s, '50s, yes and the muscle cars of the '60s and '70s. By the 1960s and 1970s automobiles could be interpreted as an artifact of the North American image: good-looking, strong, smooth, stylish, speedy guy. To some extent, thinking globally, the car has been an artifact of climate and of climate change.

This car, parked in The Toronto Sculpture Garden, is not only a car. A sculpture garden presents the opportunity to read an object deliberately parked here as a work of art. When an artifact of North American consumer society is set up, indeed well lit by night in this contemplative enclosure, no matter how crass the artifact might be (maybe even because it is crass) it welcomes our interpretation. These days there are growing numbers of people who might condemn all automobiles as crass, considering that seventeen per cent of the poison poured into the planet's exhausted atmosphere is from cars, or considering the millions of people dying, without noble cause, in a domestic car. A car, especially if it is hauled into a setting where its usefulness is of no concern, might even be interpreted as a form of dirty, noisy monster.

Anyone who loves cars, however, could never ever see a Porsche 911 as monstrous. This baby epitomizes style and performance. Its contours are elegant, its detailing glimmers. Head on it looks like it is gliding toward you even when it isn't moving. One look at the latest model and there is no doubt about the racy features waiting to be savoured: leather seats, alloy wheels, anti-skid control, Bose stereo, CD/MP3, dual exhaust, heated front seats, keyless entry, moon roof, navigation, power brakes, power door locks, power driver's seat, power lumbar, power steering, power windows, power mirror, cruise control. And computerized climate control -- for the inside only.

You can tell a Porsche 911 even from a block away.

It's been said that "All that glitters is not gold." This is the fulcrum upon which this car, parked in The Toronto Sculpture Garden, is not only a car. Upon closer inspection, to the Porsche 911 devotee this sculpture reveals itself to be a hoax. Even for the curious who can't discern the difference between a Lark and a Falcon, the closer you get, the more uncanny this car becomes. Under the porscheoid surface is another car. Under the phony appurtenances that seemed at first to read "Porsche 911" is, you might say, a real phony Porsche, an almost-look-alike actual Pontiac Sunfire.

Like most well-thought artworks this one evokes stories about ideas and values. From this burlesque of a Porsche emerges an analogy of what art/artists can do: reconfigure recognizable phenomena and relocate them such that there is no longer a pat answer to the question "What is that?”

From across the way the car's mystique had beckoned. It would have been the car aficionado’s own desire that sustained the illusion of performance and the promise of style. Up close, the details of disguise are a fascinating shock. Like so many fables with a moral, this sculpture embodies disillusionment. And this sculpture puts the viewer through a version of disillusionment of the most magical kind: paradoxical delight when an object of consumer lust reveals itself to be Cinderella at midnight, suddenly in reverse.

As a Cinderella in reverse, this car is just not a car. It is a talisman of modernity and modernization. This sculpture shines a light on the gulf between advertising hype and implacable necessity. Yet, in its absurdity, this artful Pontiac also demonstrates a proximity between what could be and what is.

Closer attention to this approximation one can study the details of the camouflage. Here is evidence of a bricoleur at work. Imagine the craft and glee as one car gets a make-over, but not a very clean job of it. Little messes and failures connote in this instance playfulness, and the touch of mischief. No one expects a stage set to be hardy and serviceable outside the theatre. This artwork sets out in another direction altogether: this stage-prop Porsche will drive away pure Pontiac when the show is over.

There is another aspect of this work that is particularly significant in a consumer society. This is the contrast between working to buy something and working to transform what you have into something special. One can imagine the artist, having purchased a Pontiac Sunfire at a smidgen of the price of a Porsche, taking the time and effort, the expertise and the imagination, to -- just for a momentary glance -- conjure the vision of a magnificent luxury car. All this labour for a dream. All this labour to enjoy an illusion. This art crashes into consumerism, for we all know that advertising does not lead toward crafting dreams, but to buying them. Still, here in the garden it is heartening how, with pliable time and space it is possible, as artists continually drive home, to fool around with the stuff of ordinary life just enough to see the riches of connotation they provide.