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PHANTASMS ON WHEELS

Since Karl Friedrich Benz patented his first Motorwagen in 1886, widely known as the first modern automobile, it has become a basic life resource and the most important civilizational possession in the contemporary society. Furthermore, the automobile has become an important cultural indicator of social-economic changes, the social norm of the 20th century, as well as a reflection of social and cultural development in the Western world and beyond. As a technical device and an instrument of movement, the automobile has presented the most highly developed and widespread interface for human-machine interaction, while functioning as a carrier of meaning of individualized standard of living and a means of distancing oneself from others, but also as an instrument of creating a personal profile. Representing one of the key civilizational achievements, in the cultural-social context, the automobile presents the concept of mass production and status position in the society, but also a fetishistic aspect of desire for its possession or sexual extension. A world like ours, dominated by mass media, is characterized by the development of a society of plenty that replaces the psychology of saving and production with the psychology of wasting and spending, and the irresistible fascination with the automobile makes it the center of consumer culture and our society, and thereby, if something is the center of consumerism, it will inevitably also become an object of pop art. The number of automobiles as artificially shaped objects in everyday horizon of the man of mass society, as well as their influence of the formation of contemporary aesthetic habits, will bring to the forefront the attraction of speed and a sense of time and space that, accompanied by the emergence of the automobile, had great influence on the urban perception and the rhythm of contemporary life during the 20th century. The view through the windshield glass will represent our outlook on life today and a general view of reality in which the automobile has drastically changed the urban landscape both with its existence and the technical devices for functioning in traffic.

From Radical Artistic Experiment to Concept of Contemporary Artistic Practice

By studying different art narratives it is possible to conclude that the automobile has long since been romanticized and immortalized by artists who had made it an object of their artistic interests through classical visual media but also contemporary artistic practices. It is conspicuous that the auto-obsession starts with the artist’s fascination with dangerous automotive speed as a new ideal of beauty. A new sense of time and space by way of its fast movements can be felt even in considerations of futuristic painters. Their hyperbole and idolization of both the beauty of the race car and its speed, represents the historic, starting point of development of interest in this subject in art, but also wider, as a theme of studying through cultural-psychological aspects. The story of “automobility” or “self-propulsion” starts with radical new concepts in art and society, proposed by futurists linking humans and machines in a symbiosis through a new aesthetic of constant acceleration. In the Futurist Manifesto (1909), Filippo Tommaso Marinetti propagates the automotive speed and the race car as a new ideal of beauty that should replace the old ideal of beauty of the Nike of Samothrace. The futurists loved the realm of machines and described their enthusiasm for their speed by writing poems dedicated to race cars. In visual arts, Giacomo Balla and Luigi Russolo were the main figures of the Futurist movement, who presented through their painting their enthusiasm for automotive movements, a synesthesia of light, sound and speed in urban environment. These two artists form an introduction to the historical development of the theme that explores a number of aspects of the automobile as a carrier of artistic meanings, which has remained present to this day. Somewhat later, in the art of the sixties and seventies, the American way of life triggered a transition from enthusiasm for technology of the sixties to a critical relationship towards consumer society that is closely related to the automotive industry and the “mobile” way of life, as well as their propagation in the mass media. This lifestyle will be a subject of inspiration for many artists, members of the American pop art, as well as their predecessors, like Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, Mel Ramos, Roy Lichtenshtein and Don Eddy. The typicality of pop art comes from the fact that taken into consideration is the general anthropological condition that is being more distinctly characterized by technological development and its two basic dimensions, namely industrial production on the one hand, and mass consumption on the other. Contrary to this basic given condition, which characterizes in the most part the urban industrial and publicitary dimension in which we live today, artists that belong to these tendencies have a very precise and engaged attitude, the more engaged the more it leads towards radicalization and not towards compromise with evasive interpositions.

In Europe, on the other hand, the protagonists of the Nouveau Realisme discover to what degree the world of automobiles can mutate in art. This idea can best be seen in the works of artists like Armán, César, Gérard Deschamps, Mimo Rotella and Jean Tinguely, who transformed machine and automobile parts into art, whether by splashing across posters and applying layers, of compressing and disfiguring the material forms. In the European version of pop art, as, for example, with Konrad Klapheck and Franz Gertsch, as well as in the work of the artists exhibiting media-reflective tendencies like Gerhard Richter, the automobile often serves as a pictorial protagonist or a mirror of social developments. Long-term interest in this subject, as well as this stroll through the history of art, has lead us to a conclusion that the automobile as artifact represents a magical and mystical machine that is continually being revived by constant reinterpretations before being filed away again.

Change from Practical Machine to Object of Cult and Fetish

Symbolic and often irrational structure that has been built around the automobile as the favorite toy opens up a field of artistic interest that explores the automobile as cult object and imaginary machine. Besides being seen by some as an egocentric, polluting consumer good, it can also be regarded as fetish material or, in some cases, as a sexual fetish object. There are different ways in which their fantasies vary from person to person and in which certain artists play with the power of fetish in their own way, by irrational adding of different values and interpretations in which the automobile changes from practical machine to an object of cult and fetish. In the last several years, the study of fetishism has shifted its focus from the exotic and marginal towards the center of the Western consumer society so that this whole world of merchandise looks like it’s talking directly to the customer. Although modernism suppressed the cultural phenomenon of fetishism as an act of “projection onto the object”, it did not disappear, so today some things are still being used and have for us formative fascination based on their look and feel, as well as attitudes and imagined qualities and most diverse forms of use and handling.
The difference between the automobile as a commodity and a sexual and religious fetish thus also becomes an interpretative framework for thematic depiction starting from commodity fetishism we recognize in the works of Armán, Jan Dibbets, Peter Keetman, Peter Stämpfli, or through the art of religious fetishism with Chris Burden, or as sexual fetishism (phallic extension, motor-potency, car as a bachelor machine) in the works of Erwin Wurm, Sylvie Fleury, Alana Kaprova, Richard Prince, Bruno Rousseaud…
Fetishes belong to the world of phantasms although as original objects they transform themselves into illusions that are being ascribed supernatural powers and the ability to turn wishes and dreams into reality. In this sense, as appropriate fruits of fancy that kindle desire in men, they can be determined according to religion, eroticism or variations on other subjects. When all these possible patterns of meaning converge, fetishes become cultural artifacts and are reposited in collective memory.

Phantasms on Wheels

Elaborating on the theme of “automobility” through the history of the 20th century art, starting from radical artistic experiments from the early century that would later develop in the direction of most diverse artistic concepts connected to the automobile and its social significance, we come to the artistic micro world of “phantasms of wheels” by the author Nikola Kolja Bozovic. With the exhibition at the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Belgrade, Bozovic shows us the results of his personal artistic exploration of different aspects of the automobile as a carrier of cultural and social meanings. What imposes itself first is the artist’s awareness of belonging to a society of “heterodirectional” type in which the production-consumption proportion has been definitely shifted in favor of the latter term, which brings it into confrontation with the environment in which he lives, on the level of consumption, while carrying out through his artistic practice some kind of inventorying of final products of technological process, giving them thereby dignity of new contents of an artistic act and subjecting them to a kind of demystification and reification.

Gallery Space as Art Installation

The series of works shown at this exhibition represents the result of a process in which every artifact goes through a unique evolution from artistic vision to completed presentation of it. Gallery space becomes for Bozovic a field for manifesting phantasms about forms of human creations that create our environment, where the artist consciously transforms settled routes and changes the settled direction of movement of realistic urban landscape. The next step in the process of experiencing the newly emergent picture of urban landscape belongs to the viewer. The views brings his history and perception of each object at the very entrance to the gallery because he gets pulled into a unique scenery of city landscape and coming into interaction with the artworks experiences a different static picture since he has the feeling of being in a constant movement due to the inborn human desire to move quickly through their surroundings. Going through the exhibition from one object to the next, we notice that the artist intentionally blurs the borders between an art object and everyday surrounding, contributing to the compactness of the exhibition as a unique spatial installation that connects art and reality with an aspiration to integrate the paintings and sculptures into surrounding atmosphere in which they will derive new objectivity by addressing the heritage of paintings and sculptures of modern industrial and publicitary reality.

Media of Expression and Language of Art

When we consider the body of works of Nikola Kolja Bozovic we arrive to the fact that the artist definitely resists staying on one art medium, moving freely and relaxedly between sculptures/objects, installations and painting, while focusing on fashioning series instead of individual works. Rejecting the language of formalized art directions in the Yugoslav history of the 20th century art, with his body of works he talks engagedly about taboos and fascinations of the man living in urban surrounding of contemporary society by building his own fictional world. Using the structure of multiplied narration and adopting different messages and representations of media-articulated space as well as popular culture, Bozovic positions himself as an artist who balances between commercial and elitist practice, between authentic and multiplied, between original and copy. By abandoning the idea of traditional modernist normatives – stylistic refinements, formal innovations and aesthetic exaltedness, his works do not represent a formal or perceptual experiment, but seek a way to come closer and connect with different practices, in cultural industry or mass production. A change in practice stipulates a change in position – artist becomes a manipulator with signs rather than a producer or art objects, in other words an observer and active reader of messages rather than a passive deliberator of the aesthetic. As in the American art of the early eighties (Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach), Bozovic’s work endeavors are directed towards “internal” questions, observing the connection between an artwork and consumer capitalism, examining while doing so the principle of appropriation and processing of tradition in the manner of the successors of pop art by adopting and mixing the ideas of Marsel Duchamp’s readymade and the aesthetic of Andy Warhol, as well as the specific object of Donald Judd. The carriers of the concept of this exhibition are sculptures/objects with polished surfaces of high glow and perfect craftsmanship, which clearly point to their interdependence on the level of objects, as well as material and the process, with the society, a context in which the meaning has disappeared, while at the same time establishing a distance from it (the society) by deliberately withdrawing into the sphere of art. This is a distance that has kept a perfect but nonfunctional state of the object that in this way becomes an absolute statement, an attitude. Disrespecting the limits of genre and media conventions, besides sculptures as carriers of the exhibition, Bozovic also uses artistic expression through spatial installation, placing his works into correlation with the gallery space, imagined as a virtual urban landscape, which he “decorates” with paintings [similar to the expression of Allan D’Arcangel and Peter Phillips] that are not imagined as objects of autonomous visual expression but as an accompanying visual instrument for artistic recapitulation of the idea of “automobility” that the artist used in order to construct a new fictional world of personal phantasm, in a similar way in which consumer society indoctrinates its members even in their childhood through the world of toys.

Transformers

The title of the series of sculptures/objects Transformers initially gets us thinking about the products of the world of entertainment industry, the series of films and toys, but already in the next moment we realize that Bozovic used this term in the pop-art manner for his visual aestheticized objects/sculptures, developed through transformation of original automobile parts. The creative process that accompanied the development of the Transformers series of works tells us of distancing, turning from abstract and universal towards personal, psychological, economic and political relationship towards the object. Using everyday themes connected to city traffic and objects: original automobile headlights, brake lights, turn signals and wheels, the artist has transformed and recontextualized them into a new reality, and with the very selection and presentation he has placed them into a discursive relationship with a broader social reality of which they are a part. His method and idea is to transform the contents of a chosen object by putting it in a specific context using the method of appropriation of everyday objects that he connected and brought into collision with the foundation arranged like a highly modernist work. In the Transformers series of works Bozovic transformed chosen objects – automobile headlights, factory-made products that are precisely manufactured for a specific automobile frame, by incorporating them into different anthropomorphic forms made from automotive sheet metal. Objects incorporated in this way – headlights – deal with the question of immortality because if they stay nonfunctional in this way, they will last forever. In fact, the artist wants to point out to us the fact that some object can achieve such an “exalted state of being” while people cannot, because they disappear – die, pointing out to us the threatening aspect of the object, and that is a kind of an attempt to file away appliances that become a certain kind of artifacts. In establishing potential to resist the transience of time, to endure eternally in the unchanged presence of the new and present moment, Bozovic’s sculptures/objects acquire the status of intransient and extratemporal.

Artistic Production and Social Production

Artists like Nikola Kolja Bozovic present a vision of the world in which man’s relationship towards his products has fundamentally changed. In addressing the pleasure we derive from color, tactility and craftsmanship, his works on the surface seem to present a vision of consumer culture. Their reading reveals them as products of technological society in which people have become incapable to express themselves honestly and naturally and in which they can only maintain the illusion of individuality and choice by cultivating their relationship towards mass produced objects. In this cycle of works, as well as in his former cycles connected to the themes of robots, Bozovic reacts like a rebel against the norms of contemporary technological society. In the basis of this attitude is an essential pessimism, which, curiously, does not manifest itself in contemplative meditation or in complete rejection (like it was the case with Informel artists), but, on the contrary, in a vitalistic aspiration towards compromise, which can be explained with pragmatic roots of American culture and civilization, which were best explained by Oliva: “The American civilization has introduced the notion of consumption as cannibalism. Supported by the persistent power of the public, the production is trying to satisfy its own rhythm by creating a kind of hunger, a constant yearning for consumer objects. But now the situation is inverted: the object is chasing the subject. The production has begun its sadistic hunt for the individual so the man is becoming an instrument in the inversion of roles and in the new hierarchy of roles. Thus the society is no longer an arena for relationships between people, but a place of exchange for merchandizing.” Relying on the automobile as a product of contemporary technological society and using it as a model, Nikola Kolja Bozovic interprets it in multiple layers like a sculpture/object, changing its appearance and physical characteristics. The developed art objects imitate the production process in the automotive industry in a way in which the technology of this production has its spirituality, where aesthetic values can be produced through mechanical processes and serial products can have a certain quality. Certainly, if art as creation represents the pinnacle and metaphysical moment of economic production, it is entirely understandable that it strives to adopt the most modern and most powerful means of production, so the artist during the construction hires a professional auto body repair technician, as an “accomplice” in the work process, the ultimate goal of which is no longer a product of high-level industrial design, but an originally devised art object – a sculpture. Beside the work process, the materials that he uses are also adopted from the industrial production process since in creating his objects Bozovic exploits and incorporates original parts that are used in the automotive industry, like headlights and tires, which make a starting point for creative expansion with the final goal to produce an original artifact. According to this, the sculpture surface was constructed using industrial sheet metal, putty and plastics, which in the final process are painted with car spray of clear, pure colors, polished to glow. In this way developed hand-made non-functional objects with clearly emphasized difference from mass products, disregarding the use of original factory objects and production technique that imitates the industrial processing. From this arises the symbolic of their highly-polished, reflecting surface that offers the viewer the possibility to self-mirror and establish a dialogue (or a monologue) on the state of humanity in the 21st century. Using the precision of mechanical processing as well as fine optic glow, Bozovic has effectively used, but also somewhat ironized, the minimalistic compositional schemes of minimal art representative Donald Judd, whose work emphasizes purely phenomenal visual perception.

Fiat

Using parts of a Fiat automobile Nikola Kolja Bozovic relies on the poetic and material approach to the products of automotive industry that could also be seen in the works of other artists, like Damián Ortega and Gabriel Orozco from Mexico. The symbolic bond between Bozovic and these artists can be read in the use of cult automobiles, on the one hand Fiat with Bozovic, and on the other, Volkswagen with the Mexican artists. These two automobile brands represent significant achievement in the field of industrial design and it is therefore possible to talk about a symbolic component in regard to their purpose as well as their role in the global surrounding, but also about the symbolism of the design object in regard to the ideological attitudes that this object incarnates in the given social reality. Both automobiles have played an actual role in the globalization of the countries from which the artists come and have in a large degree sublimated a systematic game of visual and formal signifiers. The automobile Volkswagen Beetle represented one of the ideological projects of the 20th century modernism, which was envisioned as a national-socialist icon that represented for years a motive of modernity that was manufactured in Mexico under license, while in Yugoslavia it was the same case with Fiat automobiles. Vehicles like these had cult connotations in the social-political development of the countries with socialist regimes because they symbolized their political opening and growth of mass industry, as well as a way in the processes of growing financial market and turning towards capitalism and the general globalization movement. According to Jean Baudrillard, design objects are subjected to specific codes that no longer testify on their use and economic value and, furthermore, also direct the very existence towards a superindividual rationalization of life, object is not a soul or a material thing but in essence a social relationship. In this way a short-term product – a part from a Fiat automobile, stands against cyclicality – movement of time, which the observer, beside the code that he recognizes in the object he sees, feels in the gallery space as well, which, in fact, points out to us Bozovic's desire to arrest a moment of time, and to file away the original industrial objects – Fiat parts – as symbols of a certain time by giving them status of extratemporal artistic value, as possessed by museum objects.

Fetishism and Art

Although bearing the historic weight of bourgeois phantasms, since the early eighties fetishism has been enjoying an exceptional revitalization of popularity as a discourse of critique and aesthetic and particularly in film and visual art critique. As early as in the thirties Walter Benjamin anticipated contemporary hypersensibility to sexuality of things, objects that expose themselves as provocations to desire and possession. There are three basic models of fetishism, three views on the perception of object as fetish: anthropological, psychoanalytical and a view derived from sociological thought that starts from Marx's thesis that fetishization of unique object was artificially constructed by the class of rich. All three models define fetish as object gifted with special power of independent life. Starting from that view we conclude that Bozovic's series of objects pulsates with transformative energy creating phantasmal props for a true fetishistic experience of “automobility”, representing in a way a collection of toys for growing up, blue toy for boys, red toy for girls, a headlight that shines on the scene, a traffic light that bends and melts… Examining the fetishistic role of artworks, through the prism of Bozovic’s sculptures, we conclude that through stylistic transformation all objects can acquire fetishistic implications of social conditions, where fetish is not connected specifically to genital functions. It can function as a magical object, a symbolic object in religious rituals, a mark of romantic love and as a special tool, an attribute in a children’s game. Donald Kuspit expands this interpretation by the assumption that fetish can also function in artistic ritual or as a special tool in an artistic game. For him every object is capable to remain intact outside the body, so it could be visually introjected at the same time, it can act fetishistically as long as the desire for indestructibility of the fetish is satisfied in order to confirm its reliability as a replacement that fills in for the feeling of deficiency in the image of body. In this context, the objects of high glow, due to their strong glossiness, remarkably eminent quality and strange quivering lifelessness, echo with fetishistic meaning, which points to another possible aspect of the status of art object, in this case the sculptures of Nikola Kolja Bozovic. All this leads us into thinking that it is “natural” for a man (in this case the artist) to see in his automobile a sexual equivalent of his own or opposite sex. The automobile can in this way be perceived as a female friend, lover, wife, adventure, because it and dog are the two most typical examples to which a man can give sentimental attention, while feeling their complete owner. Man gives his patheticalness in the same way both to his dog and to his car, washes them, walks them around, polishes, combs, which he does much more rarely with his children, wife, or friends. The automobile accepts his master’s “gentleness” without exaggeration and with obvious “pleasure” to shine and glow, which comes as a sign of pleasure while rather influencing the fact why a certain type of shining bodywork sufficient to repay its owner for his maintenance efforts has remained in use for so long. According to all the above mentioned aspects, Bozovic recontextualizes or reshapes real consumer products through his creative process in order to stop them from functioning in the real world, aware of the desire we invest in objects that we buy: desire for safety, sexual gratification and status position in the society, subjecting manufactured products to various modification processes, carefully choosing the objects’ categories, using their form as sculpture, their function and social significance as a theme.

Automobile as Status Symbol

Elaborating on the theme of “automobility” through Bozovic’s iconography we arrive to the last, but not insubstantial status indicator that the artist contextualizes through his works, showing as an engaged attitude towards society in which he lives. With his works Nikola is trying to show us how man almost always tends to highlight with his automobile some human quality or an ego moment that the owner wants to emphasize because it represents one of the most indicative examples of a mechanical product, a completely standardized means that can be identified as a status or social symbol of contemporary society. The term status symbol denotes that object, situation or web of circumstances that are capable to present to a subject a symbolic element of a special social condition, social-economic, racial, class, proprietary and ambient in which a person is or that will serve almost as a characteristic of that situation. The fact is that people today are getting more and more similar in their physical appearance or way of talk, and in order for someone to distinguish himself from someone alike and show his belonging to a higher social class, he must resort to means like suit cut, quality of material or use or showing his private automobile. Hence originates the unstoppable marketing of new models or at least different automobile bodies that, more than serious technical and functional reasons, suited the market conditions, the competition, right according to its own role as a social symbol, believing that by buying an automobile of foreign manufacture, but with less power, the buyer will achieve higher social differentiation for the same money, to which as a sociological moment Nikola Bozovic, with the series of objects called Transformers, perfectly points. Gathering the experience we had through Bozovic’s “phantasms on wheels”, we come to a conclusion that the strength of his art lies in a diverse equilibrium in which a recognizable object is drastically transformed, his social role disrupted and replaced with an aesthetic one. Objects that he uses in his work symbolize notions and situations, in fact rituals developed between man and society, which are already full of meanings and identifications. These rituals include consumption, fashion trends and collecting of artworks, and it almost implies that they can, and often do, become a substitute for relationships between people. This is in accordance with anthropomorphic qualities and also with his story that with these transformations he wants to accentuate the “personality” of an object. The automobile has eyes (headlights), mouth (cooler), internal organs (carburetor), cylinders (pistons), central and peripheral nervous system (electrical installation), blood (fuel), skeleton (self-carrying body or chassis). In this way every chosen configuration creates a discourse of sociological and psychological identity of an object. There comes to a renewal of interest for locating the desire of an individual, by which we mean his personal enjoyment in objects and goods, which also includes what we call artworks. For the artist there is more sense in being an accomplice with the products of desire that we traditionally call beautiful, alluring objects, than to be positioned somewhere outside them.

Mišela Blanuša

nikolabozovic.com