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Gerald Cummins
This was an exhibition held in the Glasgow School of Art in 1993 which looked at the impact of the car on society. The article is written from a road safety perspective but may still be of interest.


Infanta with Mexican Coupé

When I saw this I thought at first that it was Hindu and a statement on the worship of the car. That it was a kind of Mexican baroque with the title "Infanta with Mexican-Coupé" and effectively the same message did not detract from it. Indeed one could easily see devotees of Candomblé worshipping this as a fetish of a dark god.


Such in fact was the message of this exhibition - that the motor car is evil and if not controlled will destroy mankind. From the display panels there was plenty of evidence of this: animals squashed, pedestrians caught forlorn in the middle of roads, a child beside a huge truck, great motorways, towns seemingly given over to traffic. The message was that the impact on the environment and quality of life, and indeed the threat to life, was out of control.


The exhibition was in commemoration of 100 years of the motor car and was aimed at taking an appraising look at what the car had done to us. Originally shown in Germany, it was appearing at the Glasgow School of Art, with supporting art work by the students.


It was preceded by a short and essentially "green' conference along with a performance of Autogeddon, the poem which made such an impact on TV a year or so ago. The powerful and emotional language of Heathcote Williams demonises the car -"thanks to greed's halitosis, breath is no longer a birthright" ....... that sort of thing; and to some seems unfair but go back to the Futurists and see how they extol power and speed and the thrill of driving, a trend that still exists in car advertising today. To counter such glorification you need vilification, and this poem has it in full.


The displays were a bit disappointing - photographs and explanatory text - but they raised many points about the impact of the car. Those on the environment and on pollution didn't really register with me but there were quite a few linked to safety. There were some sad photos of dead animals and the caption noted that on a 100 km stretch of motorway in Germany 13 birds, 3 cats and 17 hedgehogs were killed in just one day not to mention countless butterflies, beetles and other insects.


General view

There was a particularly gloomy subway with the note that pedestrians have now become a traffic obstruction, foreign bodies disrupting traffic, with injunctions against crossing. Forbidden to cross the road they are forced over footbridges or down subways. The photos of crowded streets showed only too clearly that we are displaced persons. "Pedestrians share the same fate as the American Indian - their reservations were gradually eroded too." And again: "A constant stream of traffic means a constantly hectic existence for us humans and continuous stress for young and old. Even crossing the road at a green light means taking your life in your hands. Are drivers a different breed?"


There were some good photos of children playing in the street - presumably nowhere else to go. "Young children need basic, natural things such as water, dirt, bushes and space in which to play. They can grow up without all of that - with carpets, cuddly toys or tarmacadamed roads and yards. Of course they will survive, but one should not be surprised if they are later unable to develop such basic social attributes as initiative, or a feeling of belonging in a place." (Alexander Hitscherlich)


There was a delightful section on how we are conditioned to accept the car from early childhood. 'Aims and objectives: auto-conformity in the child. With his mother's milk, the child should absorb acceptance of the car into his system. Toy cars, cars everywhere in his environment and the example of his parents develop in the child a love of the motorcar and an appreciation of its seemingly absolute necessity. The process is completed by the driving test as an initiation rite into the world of the car."


The glamour of the car, its association with power and speed didn't escape attention - motor shows, racing but curiously, no adverts.


Adverts of a different kind were supplied by the students of the School of Art in the form of posters for the exhibition. The seated figures suggest robots in a production line, faceless, carried forward by an alien and malign impetus. The "mechanical man", made of cars, takes up the soulless theme while the tangled roads, red and black suggests a pointlessness to all our journeys. Some of these themes were repeated in the exhibits - the sculptures and paintings. Clearly cars, if viewed negatively, suggest these.

Kross Karefully Yahoo! Giddup!
There was a touch of humour though. "Kross Karefully" showed a fine use of colour and fabric, and made for an altogether softer, gentler pedestrian crossing. There was a book showing a plan of motorway service areas - 'Yahoo! Giddup! - which I couldn't make sense of, unless it was to do with the pointless scurrying about we all do.

Some works took up the theme of decay, mangled metal shapes and piles of rusty metal on the floor.

Jelly Cars

There was also a set of jelly cars - funnily enough, I met the artist in a vegetarian restaurant and she told me that they were meant to deteriorate over the lifespan of the show and were a comment on the built-in obsolescence of the car. She also explained that the powerful "Infanta" item was originally focussed on the doll, showing that for many people the car is like a substitute child; and that it later took on the religious overtones - at least I think that's what she said.

Overall, this was an interesting exhibition. There was a lot of hyperbole about the evils of the car but if one allowed for this, it made many valid points. I particularly liked the work of the students. There is a lot of talent there and all too often it goes into creating the type of car advert that this show, and we ourselves denigrate.

It's odd to think that one and the same individual in an advertising agency could be working one month on a car ad and on a road safety advert the next. But that just reflects the basic ambivalence we all have towards safety and the environment.