Automobiennale' in Antwerp putts instead of roars

One of art's uses is to bring an entirely unfunctional view of things to bear on the essentially functional. When sculpture finds its inspiration in the automobile, that is exactly its role. This summer's Biennale in Antwerp's Middelheim Park has been dubbed the ``Automobiennale.'' Its theme is the car. The exhibition presents a multiplicity of artists freely exploring this familiar tool of modern man as an object of whimsy, irrationality, affection, or dismay.

A '60-ish aura pervades. Pop Art's wry adaptations of the trivia of urban living still echo (though its originality and funniness have become very faint). Some figures from that period have not been forgotten: C'esar, with his compressed cars; Arman, with his accumulations of car-parts; Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, with their decorated BMWs.

These last are among the few exhibits that apparently see the car as an object worthy of admiration, as a relished symbol of modernity. But for most of the exhibition, the word-playful comment of Marshall McLuhan might be taken as text: The car, he said, was ``the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man.''

Many of the exhibits might almost have been washed ashore in this pleasant, Sunday-stroll kind of park, as if it were the fringe of some urban ocean: Abandoned car shells monumentally piled on each other (Are they scrap or are they sculpture?); a car crashed into the shrubbery; another driven into a bank of black coal (to the delight of child visitors).

Much of it is rather sad, an in memoriam for the car, a small whimper for the triumph of moth and rust.

But other aspects of car culture are explored: The car as cuddly animal, the car as speedster, the car as fantasy; car insectile, car eccentric, sexy, or sinister. There is even a car painted as if it were a cheese: car consumable.

Surrealism (in the latter-day tire tracks of Edward Kienholz's ``Back Seat Dodge'' of 1964) still lingers in ``car sculpture'' today -- the most effective example here perhaps being ``Hommage `a Jef Verheyen. A long way to walk,'' by Albert Szukalski, with a shrouded ghost-figure lifting paintings out of a hatchback.

A lively and amusing notion does display enjoyment of one of the car's moving parts -- the windshield wiper. This is the work of Hugo Roelandt and his group. It consists of a gathering of wipers sticking like reeds out of the shallow water of the park's tree-shaded pond. Here they creakingly wipe the empty air, back and forth, performing a new and functionless function. They have become almost natural kinetic objects, oddly primitive and amiable. The ducks on the pond float between them unconcerned, uns urprised.

A touch of nostalgia for the pioneering days when cars were heroic and their drivers heroes is found in Roland Rens's ``Promenade'' -- the car and its occupants made monumental in bronze and displayed on a pedestal.

Its converse is ``Gloria,'' an aloof, cool aluminum affair with gigantic wheels, made by a group called Mass & Individual Moving. One can visualize it trundling, with immaculate precision, along a lunar highway.

Less visionary and more improvisatory are various works exploiting that ubiquitous car byproduct and feature of school playgrounds, the worn-out tire. David Mach's ``Parthenon,'' which bears no more than a jocose resemblance to the original, is made entirely out of tires.

The car and its parts are not ignored by artists today, that much is clear from the Antwerp Biennale. But the overfamiliarity, and perhaps the inhumanity, of the theme itself has a rather deadening influence and too often prompts the expected instead of the inventive. On the whole, the artists do not see the car as vital, as a vigorous extension of the capabilities (or the expressiveness) of the human body (traditionally the motif of sculpture). Instead, the Dada precedent of the ``ready made,'' o f the ``found object'' and ``junk art'' tend to predominate.

On the day I visited the exhibition, there was a row of superbly preserved privately owned cars of yesterday -- vintage and more recent -- exhibited just outside the sculpture park. They easily upstaged every sculpture in the show itself. They were the real thing -- magnificent craft objects, the fruit of extraordinary imagination and contrivance.

It was these, rather than the sculptures, which lived up to an observation once made by Roland Barthes. He wrote that ``cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: . . . The supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.''

That is a recognition, if ever there was one, of the car as art. But I can't imagine this critic and sociologist of fashion discovering much of a magical nature in the Antwerp ``Automobiennale,'' and more's the pity. The exhibit runs through Oct. 6.

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