The act of placing a car in an art gallery forms a minor tradition of it own: Gabriel Orozco sliced a Citroën DS in half and removed the central section; Tobias Rehberger commissioned relatively unskilled workers to build a Porsche 911. More recently, Alexander Laner made a symmetrical butterfly configuration out of two Mercedes coupés with their wing doors open to be viewed from above. The basic conceit is that of the art object as synonymous with the consumer item, which is rendered dysfunctional by the artist’s modifications and by the object’s adopted role as art – a new sculpture but a crippled commodity.
Israeli artist Ariel Schlesinger’s A Car Full of Gas (2009) puts a contemporary political twist on the gesture. A propane gas tank occupies each of the front seats of an original black Mini Cooper, with a flame as small as a lighter’s emitted from a valve in one of the car’s side windows. The constellation of signs refuses to settle into an order: the old Mini was a Mod icon, but is now a collector’s item. Schlesinger makes of this ambiguous inheritance a potential terrorist’s car bomb or suicide trap. Capitalism has been converted into a weapon; a countercultural relic has rediscovered its rebel spirit. Although the original Mini is no longer produced, it remains a desirable design object. Leaning back in the seats, the orange bottles somehow make the pert car look more turbo-charged and aerodynamic. It may be threatening, but it is also endearing and faintly ridiculous – a little rocket with its lick of flame. The object shuttles between potency and weakness, modernity and nostalgia, without finding equilibrium.
Schlesinger’s works tend to seem purely conceptual at first, as though their physical realizations were almost incidental, but they possess details that make them specific as sculptures. In Untitled (socks holder) #3, #5, #9 and #10 (all 2009) four differently coloured socks are threaded through holes in four cards bearing an identical sepia image of a man’s suit and tie ensemble. The socks’ fabric emerges from the holes to substitute for the tie and handkerchief in the image. You might expect them to be new to articulate the sharpest stand-in for formal silk, but they are worn and dirty. As in Richard Wentworth’s series of photographs ‘Making Do and Getting By’ (1980) – whose inventive opportunism Schlesinger’s work often resembles – a serendipitous conflation of ideas turns out to be implicated with messy, contingent life.
The longer you look at Oil Lamp (2010) – a disposable lighter fitted with a bespoke glass handle and a burning wick protruding from the side – the more it escapes and replaces the customer standard which it serves to customize. The dark glass handle, as organic as a bone, seems to come from another era to the generic metal lighter’s head cobbled onto it. While the Mini’s alterations make it a mere stub to generate a tiny flame, this balance is reversed in Oil Lamp, where the lighter’s handle outweighs, in presence, the flame it is there to produce.
Untitled (pair) (2010) is a glass teacup fitted flush inside a paper cup and filled to the brim with water, so that when the paper is torn away the liquid’s meniscus appears to be held vertically as well as horizontally. The water is sparkling, emphasizing its fluidity: it could not be mistaken for ice. Schlesinger’s destabilization of habitual perception makes previously reliable matter seem vulnerable, unpredictable, even humanized. The boxy Mini appears helpless in the face of its newly aggressive capability. It recalls the poet Joseph Brodsky’s recollection of his astonishment at first seeing a Citroën 2CV in Leningrad in 1960: ‘It stood there, light and defenseless, totally lacking the menace normally associated with automobiles. It looked as if it could easily be hurt by one rather than the other way round. I’ve never seen anything made of metal as unemphatic.’