Marcello Gandini remains the maestro of radical car design with the incredible body of work he did while at Bertone – think the original Lamborghini Countach and Miura, and the pioneering scissor doored Alfa Romeo Carabo. Long been an admirer, I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to speak with him, to reflect on his body of work but also to hear his candid thoughts on the missed opportunity with the first generation of electric car designs.
To quote him: ‘Nothing in an electric car currently makes you say at first glance: Wow, this is a different car, it carries a new message, it speaks evidently of a new language of change and innovation… It is a shame.’
A canvas of sprouting greens reveals a fading figurative image of family. The watercress has taken only a few days to grow thanks to the nitrate-rich Spanish water used to cultivate the seeds. As the green grows, the negative projected onto the cress panels fades. Eventually, the living artwork returns to earth. This is Family Album, the last chapter in The Pigment Change creation by the London based Spanish artist Almudena Romero for the BMW Residency at Paris Photo. Her autobiographical and at times impermanent organic photographs ask the viewer to question production, consumption and ownership. Hers is a meditation on the ephemerality of life and our relationship with nature. I met with the artist to understand more:
You talk of finding ways of renewing the medium of photography. Can you explain?
Photography has been a conservative medium. It has taken a long time for it to move out of print because it has largely been used as a tool for representation and documentation. For me photography is a process rather than being about the result. If we start to understand photography as writing with light, then it becomes a very simple rudimentary concept that makes sense. This way it can be liberated, become more performative, more conversational.
Your work is very organic, working directly with plants to create photographic images via photosynthesis, as well as being highly autobiographical. Can you explain your process?
I started my research on plant-based photography at my grandmother’s garden in Valencia. I work with her plants and her nitrate-rich water to create my work, then I use my hands to project images onto the leaves. Some of the images are sharp, some not. There is a lot of invisible feminine labor that goes into growing a family and growing a garden. The fact that my hand images are not all obvious I feel is a metaphor for the invisible labor that makes the trees and plants and nature grow.
Your grandmother sadly passed away before the original show in the summer at Rencontres d’Arles in France, yet her legacy continues through your work.
She passed away before I exhibited and I’ve been reflecting on our relationship and her impact on me ever since. When I was a teenager, my grandmother would tend to her plants and I would listen to the Spice Girls not realizing how much of her and her work stayed with me. My mother says this is the real heritage, my grandmother’s legacy and the passion and understanding I have of plants.
That is really beautiful. I’m intrigued by the layers of multiple meanings in your work. Is this intentional?
Much of my work is self-reflecting. As an artist, I want to know what’s the impact of one’s own practice, contributing to the dynamics of producing, accumulation — all of which is at the roots of the environmental issue. I want to contribute to a wider conversation as to why and where does photography exist, what’s our relationship to nature, to photographic productions such as photosynthesis. A better understanding of plants can help us be more respectful to nature.
Your final piece, the vertical watercress for the BMW Residency at Paris Photo, is made to disappear, which to me seems like a direct commentary on art ownership.
Forthe BMW Residency I wanted to move on my plant-based photography to be alive. I have a good scientific understanding of plants and began looking at all sorts of green elements until I decided on watercress. I got the idea from garden walls which always have cress as it can grow vertically and doesn’t need soil to make roots. I had to search hard to find the right type of seeds which will bring the color and tonality I’m after. Growing it vertically gives it one focal length so you get the sharpness in the picture, then as the plant grows the picture disappears in complete greenness.
I’m reminded of an ancient Persian ritual we perform for our new year, which falls on the first hour of spring. It involves cultivating seeds on a plate, watering them for 13 days, then releasing the fully grown green into a flowing river to symbolise letting the past go and welcoming new beginning. And I’m moved by the ephemerality of your artwork.
I really like that! My work is ephemeral but at the same time in ephemerality there is hope for the future. We are facing a serious environmental crisis based on too much production, accumulation and disposal. I used to teach at the Stanford University overseas study program in Florence and I would often think of what I wanted to pass on to my students, what knowledge and skills would make sense to them in the future. This plant-based photography is part of my vision as a teacher in that these materials are ephemeral in the short run, but in the long run they are the only thing we will be able to practice. Because ephemerality is the only thing that lasts.
Perhaps it is a question of redefining object ownership in that the memory of a piece of art, that moment of connection, can be the value rather than possessing it as an object. In fact, we have an ephemeral connection to most works of art anyway since we see them fleetingly in museums or galleries after which they remain only in memory.
That’s a really interesting concept: this idea that because the piece is ephemeral it disappears. But art disappears from everyone’s eyes unless you own it. As an artist I’m interested in contributing to the wider conversation, help change our understanding of the photographic medium, of our own lives and our relation to nature, rather than decorating someone’s house.
That’s quite a radical statement. I like it.
We have to review property and ownership. This is part of the problem. “Me and mine” are the dynamics of the ego. It extends to “my perspectives”. This is why I’m very keen on collaboration and on passing my knowledge and processes to my students, as I think it’s rewarding to pass on your knowledge and see it grow elsewhere and without the need to be the master of the original idea. I feel the art world needs to move more towards this direction.
Two art projects commissioned by the BMW Group for Frieze London 2021 set out to explore the human/machine relation in new and exciting ways. Madeline Hollander’s ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ is an installation of 96 disused headlights salvaged from the company’s recycling centre. Playing on the responsive nature of these automatic adaptive car headlights which react to movement, light and weather conditions, the artist has matched each to different global time zones to create a networked map that mimics the sun rising and setting across the globe. Hollander’s art examines how our erratic individual actions and everyday technologies can synchronically align, become a collective and, in the case of the installation for Frieze, turn into a cascading technological dance.
Meanwhile, dance choreographer Wayne McGregor and experimental studio Random International’s ‘No One is an Island’ is a live performance involving a multi-armed robot and two human dancers. Playing the lead role is the robotic sculpture — an enigmatic machine whose liquid movements are steered by advanced algorithms. As it transitions from robot to human likeness, the two dancers in turn interact with the kinetics, all of which is performed to the hypnotic soundscape of Tokyo electronic music artist Chihei Hatakeyama. The idea here is to visualise how a minimal amount of information can animate form so that it can be recognised as human, while the most subtle changes in information can have an equally fundamental impact on our behaviour.
‘I’m interested in space and the movement of people and objects within space. There is a certain magic to it. It is as if you are inventing an order of things. I believe there is a secret relationship between space, objects and perceptible and imperceptible movements. Every artist working in this field tries to interpret that relationship in his or her own way. It is the composition and balance of those elements that give rise to the essence of drama and – why not? – the essence of life itself.’ These are the words of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most lyrical artists of the last century.
Known today mostly for his much-copied 1944 Coffee Table (an early edition of which sits here before me) and Akari paper lights, Noguchi tirelessly pushed the boundaries of art and sculpture. Working across almost seven decades and with a multitude of materials and mediums, his carved stones, stage sets, paper lanterns, portrait busts, mobiles, and playgrounds were collectively designed to be tools for understanding our place in the cosmos, and our relationships to history, nature, and one another.
The Barbican gallery in London is hosting ‘Noguchi’, the first of a touring European exhibition which sets out to document the work of this visionary creative. Thematically organised and curated to feature only the words of the artist himself, the exhibition successfully immerses the viewer in the mind and the world of Noguchi. The stripped back béton brut halls of the brutalist Barbican and the advantage of the two levels, allow the 150 works to breathe freely, and with the absence of excessive curation, the viewer is left in an almost meditative state to observe and absorb.
Born in Los Angeles in 1904, Noguchi’s mother was an Irish American writer and his father a Japanese poet who had abandoned the family on his birth. At the age of two, his mother took him to Japan to reunite with his father, sending him back to the US and onto Indiana for schooling for fear that the biracial child would receive racism in Japan. Noguchi eventually settled in New York where he trained in traditional sculpture, but his real break came while on an internship at the Paris studio of Constantin Brancusi. Here Noguchi gained a seminal introduction to the modernist principles of abstraction and presumably met the international avant-garde who were gathered in Paris in the 1920s. It was thanks to Brancusi that he became passionate about materials and craft – elements that remained fundamental to his work throughout his career.
By the end of the decade Noguchi was back in New York sculpting portrait busts, mainly to make a living, many of which are on display at the Barbican. They are a curious mix of expressionist and whimsical. He later referred to them jokingly as ‘headbusting’ since it was a useful way to make money and meet people. It seemed to have worked as they attracted the attention of the pioneering choreographers Ruth Page and Martha Graham for whom Noguchi went on to design sets using an interplay of his sculptures. He also befriended the architect and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller, who he referred to as the ‘messiah of ideas’. The two shared a vision for shaping a more equitable world through technology, innovation and design, collaborated on several projects including a futuristic car.
By the 1940s, Noguchi was working with manufacturers Knoll and Herman Miller. He continued to explore the possibilities of material and form with his interlocking marble slab sculptures and Lunars lights, created after his devastating experience of ‘voluntary’ internment at a camp for Japanese Americans in Poston, Arizona in 1942. The Lunars went on to influence some of his best-known works, the sculptural and ethereal Akari light sculptures – a contemporary take on traditional chochin paper lanterns using washi paper and electric bulbs. After the war, Noguchi travelled to Europe and Asia to understand the different uses of sculpture in a spatial and cosmic sense. He wrote at the time, ‘I find myself a wanderer in a world rapidly growing smaller. Artist, American citizen, world citizen, belonging anywhere but nowhere.’
Noguchi went on to complete over twenty public works around the world – gardens, fountains, playgrounds, plazas – using space to challenge civic and social life and its intersections with nature and time. His final contribution was Moerenuma Park. Located on a reclaimed municipal dump outside of Sapporo in Japan, it included play sculptures, fields, and fountains, and a revised version of his first-ever play rejected concept, the monumental, stepped pyramid he called Play Mountain (1933). Moerenuma Park was realised two years after Noguchi’s death in 2000.
Ultimately his was a life dedicated to sculpting the world he wished to inhabit. With a deeply humanist perspective, heightened by his prison experience, Noguchi understood the power of art and artists to make sense of the world. His work was political art. Wandering the exhibition, immersed from above and below in his delicate paper lanterns, colourful furniture, architectural playgrounds, and expressive and often funny abstract and figurative sculptures, you get the sense that in life and work, Noguchi remained an explorer with a philosophical and playful eye. In his own words: ‘Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.’
We’re finally at the concluding chapter of (to borrow a lovely phase by a friend and colleague Stephen Bayley) the ‘age of combustion’. I say finally, because ever since I stumbled upon the automotive world (quite by chance some decades ago) we’ve been promised a new beginning, a more progressive landscape of non-polluting transport that isn’t showy, isn’t congesting cities and isn’t harming the planet. And it has taken a mighty long time for this transition to actually happen. But it is here, and I’m having strangely mixed emotions.
As I drive the last few gasoline powered cars (I’m referring to lean and sexy grand tourers and sports cars, not bloated SUVs) I’m sensing a touch of loss, perhaps even a little sense of nostalgia. Who would have thought. For all its shortcomings, the age of combustion gave us some incredible beauty, lots of sexiness and so much desire, even if the last two were often a little on the side of cliche.
Will these raw emotions survive the age of electric? Or the age of autonomous? Better question, do they need to? Can’t a car just be a smart, safe place to take us from place to place and not have to communicate so many extra layers? Or will the age of electric, hydrogen, autonomous, space… bring even more exciting emotions to the road?
The car of the age of the future will need to find its own expression. And that in itself will be interesting to observe. But for now take a look at a car that to me seems like the perfect farewell ode to the age of combustion, the Bentley Continental GT Speed.