It's an iconic image: Ten Cadillacs facedown in the earth, tail fins in the air, a monument to consumer pop culture, just off the highway outside Amarillo. The extravagant, baroque vision of Cadillac Ranchhas become a Texas touchstone, a recognizable picture, interesting for its pure absurdity and audacity, while horrific for its finite, apocalyptic warning. Its ability to embody both architectural beauty and narrative power is the core strength of its creators, the visionary art collective Ant Farm.
This month, the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery presents "Ant Farm 1968-1978," a retrospective of the creative team that formed on the very same UH grounds in the late '60s. While teaching in Houston, Doug Michels and Chip Lord (of Yale and Tulane, respectively) hooked their UH architecture students to a radical idea. "I thought, 'We'll start an underground architecture firm,' " recalls Lord. The idea kicked off a wild, weird amalgam of architecture and performance art named, aptly, after the "underground architecture" of insects.
In 1969, Michels and Lord expanded and re-formed Ant Farm in San Francisco, taking a slew of Texas connections with them. Ant Farm lived as a starving-artist collective, drawing up manifestos and indulging in the Bay Area's counterculture of sexual liberation and psychedelic drugs, hatching its anti-architecture scheme. In Houston, Ant Farm had experimented in "inflatables" (movable architecture); in San Francisco, the idea took off. Ant Farm's giant polyethylene sculptures were both functional and trippy. The group even used its 50- by 50-foot Pillow as a medical pavilion at the infamous 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. "We called it the bad trips pavilion," recalls Lord, "for escaping all the bad vibes."
In 1973, Texan fan Stanley Marsh invited Ant Farm to create an installation on his property near Amarillo. As a child of the '50s, Lord was fascinated by the Cadillac as a symbol of status, freedom and excess. Ant Farm chose a plot of ground visible from Route 66, the perfect spot for a Cadillac graveyard. "It has a certain power as an image," says Lord. "It was just after the era of the oil embargo, and it demonstrated that oil and gasoline were finite resources."
By the time Cadillac Ranch was fully realized in 1974, Ant Farm was "paying attention to what Andy Warhol was doing," says Lord, "and we met other counterculture types interested in video. Some did documentaries; some were artists." Ant Farm embodied both, says Lord. For 1975's performance Media Burn, in which a car crashes through a wall of televisions, Lord's video documentary of the event is both historical record and visceral entity. That same year, Ant Farm staged a re-creation of the JFK assassination at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, emphasizing the bizarre fetishization of the famous Zapruder film.
The Blaffer exhibit includes blueprints, drawings, collages, photographs, architectural models, documentary video clips and re-creations of the inflatable structure ICE-9 and the 1972 refrigerator Time Capsule. The show represents a kind of coming-home. Ant Farm's Houston roots were a large part of its success. In fact, Lord pegs Houstonians as endemically art-friendly: "People in Houston were more open to our ideas, more sophisticated but more conservative."