Car Culture

In the year 2000, 41,821 people were killed and 3,189,000 were injured in an estimated 6,394,000 motor vehicle traffic crashes in the United States; 4,286,000 accidents involved property damage only.

These numbers come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which goes on to note that those fatality figures represent an average of 115 deaths per day, one every 13 minutes, and that "motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for every age from four through 33 years old." Oh, and Texas led the nation that year with 3,769 fatalities, up 7 percent from the year before.

These numbers illustrate just one price Americans are willing to pay for their love affair with the automobile -- and point out why your car has seat belts, shoulder harnesses and air bags. But look at those numbers again. Out of the nearly 6.4 million accidents, about 70 percent "involved property damage only." The occupants walked away while the vehicles paid the price. Who will speak for these mute victims?

With Autoskinning: Passive Abduction No. 5 installed in the main gallery at DiverseWorks, cars and trucks have, if not an advocate, at least an observer. This is the latest, largest and last version of a project mounted by the international collaborative artists' collective KIT. Previous installations popped up in several locations around the country and abroad, but the show seems particularly appropriate in Houston, where dependence upon the automobile makes the cost of transportation the single largest item, on average, in the family budget.

Entering the gallery, you find yourself in what appears to be a schlocky '70s horror movie set. A couple of air bags hang from the ceiling, while others are stretched on the wall like animal skins (the most obvious reference to the installation's title), each bearing a mathematical formula. Eight steel-armature cubes sit on the floor, four across. Inside each is a large mound of the flour that is packed into air-bag compartments as a kind of lubricant; a circular membrane, also from an air bag and set in a Plexiglas frame, stretches across the top of the cube. Behind the cubes are rows of cocoonlike constructions made from seat covers, air bags and seat belts, hanging from their own steel armatures. Plastic tubing winds around the floor, connecting all these elements as though they were feeding one another. A creepy soundtrack of scratching noises and what sounds like some sort of breathing apparatus completes the mad mechanic's laboratory.

As do all technologies, the automobile allows us to transcend human limitations. And it's arguable that no other technology has been so successful, has so altered humankind's immediate relationship with the physical world. Indeed, in the suburban sprawl that has come to define America, the relationship between humans and cars approaches symbiosis. KIT (whose members guard their anonymity -- the collaboration's the thing) focuses on this near fusion of human and machine at its most intimate point, the automobile interior.

All the materials and components used in this installation are from wrecked vehicles, and the emphasis on safety features is deliberate. Safety features (which American auto manufacturers have always resisted) admit to a degree of hazard; they're a tacit acknowledgement of the inherent risk involved in a particular behavior or practice. (Sometimes the devices themselves aren't even safe, as we found out a few years back when air bags were breaking necks.) At the same time, they offer the occupants a sense of reassurance, even control. The most curious aspect of safety devices, however, is that they presume the transformation of the automobile into a different and unusable (read: crashed) form. Hence the logic behind the cocoonlike sculptures, suggesting metamorphosis and referencing the womb of the automobile interior. The mathematical formulas written on the air-bag "skins," formulas for measuring velocity and force and resistance, are codes of transformation as well. And the ghostly mounds of flour sitting under taut, framed diaphragms hint at a certain potentiality, too, though it's difficult to say in which direction it will manifest.

Autoskinning: Passive Abduction No. 5 measures our complicity in the creation of a world that centers so much on the automobile. The installation speaks to what society has apparently agreed is worth risking for speed, mobility and what we insist is independence. It questions our assumptions about who (or what) is in control.

If I had ten bucks for every time someone has said to me, "If I didn't have to have a car…," I'd probably have a nice down payment for one. But doesn't that sound more like codependency than a love affair?

In the Project Space Gallery at DiverseWorks, Elena Herzog's Negative Capability presents "drawings" that suggest an abstract painting that's been subjected to the loving attention of plastic explosives. The "drawings" are made by stapling a bright red bedspread to Sheetrock mounted flush with the gallery walls, the staples following the pattern and weave of the spread. The artist has torn parts of the bedspread away, again following the pattern and weave. Because Herzog's interests in these constructions seem to be primarily of a formal nature, the domestic associations of her manipulated materials -- associations of bed and board and body -- become conflated with an investigation of modernist painting and its presumptions of more "exalted," masculine themes and concerns. More beautiful and simple than Autoskinning, Herzog's installation is every bit as conceptually rich.

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John Devine