Considering its location down an alley underneath a multi-storey car park in central Melbourne, it was appropriate that the opening show at the new Murray White Room featured the car as its main motif. And given that the gallery space is an ultra-Minimalist white bunker, it was even more fitting that the car in question seemed to be an exploded ruin, frozen in time.
‘Spazio T’ is comprised of one black metal sculpture, and a separate grid of photographs. The sculpture is a delicate assemblage of carefully cut out forms, within which we recognize a car door and sections of a twisted grill. Its welded powder-coated steel form superficially resembles the 1960s work of Anthony Caro or even Jean Tinguely. It has something of the same lyrical mood, and a light, open infrastructure of cantilevered planes and lines. Alexander Knox similarly denies the weight of the material – the sculpture initially looks like plastic and seems almost to hover above the ground.
Artists have long been fascinated by imploded cars: Nouveau Réaliste French sculptor César created a sensation with his automobile ‘compression’ sculptures in the 1960s, inspired by witnessing a scrap metal hydraulic crushing machine in action. Spazio T looks more like a computer-generated drawing squeezed through the cables into the physical world. Its perfectly crafted black finish is far from how the burnt steel would have appeared during the welding process. It’s a striking abstraction, an object that offers new combinations to the eye as it encircles the wreckage. And while there is nothing remotely gruesome about Knox’s sculpture, no reference to blood or bodies, the silhouette of the mangled metal cannot escape looking like a charred human skeleton, scorched by heat.
This link to the imagery of global terror is somewhat overdetermined by the framed grid of low-res photographs of recently exploded cars. Snaffled from Google image searches and taken, one assumes, primarily in Iraq, one is reminded of how familiar and phantasmatic such images have become. The symbolic and sacrificial suicide ride of the terrorist is the nightly stuff of our media spectacle. Still, presented en masse as an image quilt like this, the grainy images of the burnt-out car bodies have a terrifying ‘shock-and-awe’ quality. One is reminded of the simultaneous feelings of horror and fascination watching the assemblage of hijacks and hostages in Johan Grimonprez’s dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997).
Knox’s exhibition seems to suggest that the car body is a perverted contemporary version of the romantic ruin. In a catalogue conversation with the critic Justin Clemens, the artist speaks of this romanticism and the strange temporality of the artificial ruin. Knox claims to be looking for a ‘logic in the blast’. Such clinical and fetishisic language would have fascinated Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who, as we know, bought a Fiat in 1908 and, obsessed with the beauty of speed, immediately crashed it. It was this singular, hedonistic event that is said to have inspired the Futurist movement. Not by coincidence,the car in ‘Spazio T’ is a generic Fiat model, with additional allusions to the cars used in 1970s Red Brigade Italian terrorism.
All of these references make more sense when we consider ‘Spazio T’ in relation to Knox’s earlier trompe-l’oeil work. The artist became known in the late 1990s for his low-tech yet distinctly baroque optical chambers; typically an extravaganza of coloured fluorescent tubes and mirrors. Given Knox's background in film and industrial design, these works frequently recalled props for a Dario Argento movie – ripe with psychological illusion – like the strange residue of the world of contemporary special effects. Often unfathomable, with titles like Harmonious Grandiloquence (2000) and Channel Me (2001), Knox appeared to be simulating an industrialized psychedelic aesthetic.
Closest to ‘Spazio T’ in conception and design is Death of a White Good (2005), for which Knox won the 2006 Helen Lempriere award, Australia’s biggest sculpture prize. A shattered white metal picturesque ruin, it depicts the shattered nose of a passenger jet plane uncannily at rest on the green lawns of the Werribee Mansion gardens, Melbourne. The airliner lies dejected, with small metal pieces scattered around it, in a lego-like crash site. Just as that work thoroughly aestheticizes the fear and beauty of flying, ‘Spazio T’ turns projectile terrorism into sublime object-making. The sweet anxiety produced by our body’s encounter with the twisted metal is doubled in the airless bunker of the gallery, whose bright red water pipes high up in the ceiling suggest a possible disaster at any moment.