Oil and water may not mix, but what about oil and blood?
Andre Molodkin’s deceptively simple but brilliantly lucid exhibition Crude, on view at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art through February 18, 2012, examines oil as a substance that runs black, green, and red as it powers the major geopolitical conflicts of the day.
Molodkin is no stranger to the omnipresence of oil. Born in Boui, in Northern Russia, Molodkin trained first as an artist but served in the Soviet Army. In the extreme cold of Siberia on numerous transport missions, oil was omnipresent, coating missiles and engines and then scraped off for cooking, heating, intoxication, or smearing the body in blackness for the sake of warmth.
The military implications were, then, clear to Molodkin from an early age. Indeed, Molodkin reflects on the less-than-comforting transition from Soviet communism to a purportedly liberating Russian capitalism. Another text mounted in the exhibit notes, “We lived through the communist project and watched it collapse. We then saw capitalism take over and are watching it get fiercer and fiercer as it begins to crumble from within.”
Looking at the Statue of Liberty I was both fascinated by the hydraulics of oil, pumping like blood in the veins of liberty, and dismayed by a face that simultaneously appeared to be drowning in it.
But oil is clearly if oddly aesthetic as well for this artist, influenced by Minimalist and Constructivist art of the earlier twentieth century. As Molodkin states in a text posted as part of the exhibit, “Oil is the symbol of transformation. That is what my art tries to capture.”
'Capture' is an especially apt word for the exhibit, the experience of which is framed by two massive hand-drawn ink images of the contemporary architects of American oil politics. On one end of the gallery, George W. Bush beams, a bible in hand to deliver the good news of American imperialism. Directly across, Barack Obama smiles similarly with his “Yes We Can” slogan at the bottom of his depiction.
It seems Bush and Obama are not so different when it comes to oil, according to Molodkin. A series of translucent letters, pumping with oil, spell out, after “Yes We Can” the words “Fuck You.” So much for Obama’s campaign of hope? When it comes to oil, no one remains clean.
Oil is fascinating as Molodkin’s medium. It is both the substance that pumps through a series of words and objects spelled out in translucent plastics, and also, ultimately, the substance from which these plastics are made. The letters spell out words like "Revolution," "Democracy," and "Justice," and it first it seems there’s something crude and crudely effective about Molodkin’s use of the stuff. If it is oil that powers an American culture purportedly dedicated to righteous virtues, then there is perhaps no justice, revolution, or democracy to be found.
But the experience of what seems like a mere idea is more complicated in the gallery. A system of tubes connect air compressors to each work. Every few minutes, a compressor pops with a sound like a gun firing or a car backfiring. Oil seems to continuously, sluggishly flow through the letters, coating and coloring everything.
It’s hard not to be utterly mesmerized, both intrigued and appalled, by the dark and sullying flow of Molodkin’s Crude.
Oil as creator and destroyer
In addition to words, elements of statuary — the arm and head of lady liberty, the winged classical statue known as the Nike of Samothrace and housed at the Louvre — also fill with oil. Images of these are projected on the gallery wall. Looking at the Statue of Liberty I was both fascinated by the hydraulics of oil, pumping like blood in the veins of liberty, and dismayed by a face that simultaneously appeared to be drowning in it.
It’s hard not to be utterly mesmerized, both intrigued and appalled, by the dark and sullying flow of Molodkin’s Crude. It is easy to ignore the terrifying consequences for the omnipresence of oil, something I rarely think about as I stop to fill up my tank.
It is as if Molodkin’s clear constructions allow us to see with his eyes a world indifferent to its own dependencies. Little seems to escape his gaze, and for Molodkin, one of whose exhibitions was titled Holy Oil, “The rise of oil as the false prophet is like that of the church, and, like it, is built on blood.”
In a video installation of Molodkin’s other words, the sounds of Islamic chants hover behind images of soldiers and of and a clear crucifix fills with a sluggish, reddish substance. This appears to be either reddish crude oil or a mixture of crude and the blood of soldiers, which Molodkin employed in an installation in the Russian pavilion at 53rd Venice Biennale.
Energy underlies everything we do, especially here in Houston, also known as the energy capital of the world. The question of what art has to do with questions about energy and sustainability is a fascinating one, at the heart of much inquiry. Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s marvelous red, black & GREEN: a blues at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center similarly poses hard questions about how ecological imperatives intersect with economic realities.
Molodkin may not answer the question, “What can art do about energy?” Strong political art needn’t impose answers. Rather, it asks us to see through pretenses and to see clearly what is opaque and usually unobserved in the course of everyday life. Molodkin’s question is clear.
What, indeed, will become of a world at the heart of which pumps black crude?