1. author — Anna Sinofzik
  2. published in — Carhartt No. 10
  3. year — 2013

Art, as a mechanism of human understanding, has turned to the car crash repeatedly, and more or less directly, over the course of the past decades.

At the Crossroads
Nicolai Howalt Lets Art and Agony Collide

A study of car crashes is a study of the world’s fascination with them. Cars crash throughout the story lines of drama, pulp fiction, soap operas, and video games, to be watched from remote controlled safety or steered with joysticks in technology’s remove. The world has watched Jackson Pollock, James Dean and Lady Di perish in wrecks. Reading about car crashes in the news, we empathise with their victims, yet their tragedies feel remote. We are “adepts of proximity without risk”, as Susan Sontag once put it, but strangely insatiable. Like junk food, we tend to consume tragedy in supersize portions while gaining nothing in substance.
There is an abundance of amateur dashcam footage online. Eastern European websites, especially, present uncut and unflinching videos of lethal manoeuvres and fatally injured passengers. In Russia, the combination of poor road conditions, awful traffic enforcement, the horrendous number of road deaths, inexpensive cameras and sloppy online content policies have turned the dashcam phenomenon into an online supergenre consumed across the globe. A special kind of morbid curiosity called the “Car Crash Syndrome”, the supposed attraction crashes hold for passers-by, represents a major cause of traffic collisions worldwide. In the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, so-called “incident screens” are commonly erected around accidents to discourage “rubbernecking”, motorists slowing down in order to cast a glance at the scene of an accident. As Aristotle noted in his “Poetics”: “We enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose sight is painful to us.” The Danish artist Nicolai Howalt introduces his project “Car Crash Studies” with a quote by J. G. Ballard, whose novel “Crash” explores a particularly perplexing form of the human fascination with traffic accidents. The ultimate sexual fantasy of Ballard’s protagonist Vaughan is to die in a head-on collision with movie star Elizabeth Taylor. The author describes the full extent of Vaughan’s fetishism with details even David Cronenberg deemed too abysmal to be included in his 1996 movie adaptation.
Soothed by artistic camera work, Cronenberg’s portrait of the group of former crash victims focusses on their collective aim to re-enact celebrity accidents. Howalt’s photographs have no protagonists, nor do they strive to reconstruct catastrophes. Keeping a distance from victims and violence as such, they let tragedy resonate with us in due stillness. We know nothing about the accident, and neither did the artist when taking the series of photographs in a junkyard over a period of three years. The anonymity creates a feeling that it could have been us. The ambiguity inspires a sense of accuracy, as it affirms our struggle to comprehend life and its incomprehensible truths. There are objects from everyday life (a shoe, an air freshener), reminding us of how just one minor (wrong) move can crush everything. In today’s technology-buffered world, the possibility of crashing is opposed by alleged safety, by noiseless cars and smooth rides. In Howalt’s work, proximity creates abstraction. Closeups of crumpled metal look like aerial views taken over glaciers or deserts. Taken to extreme in the gallery, where the artist blows up the details to larger-than-life size juxtaposed against small interior prints, the effect is that of a camera’s zoom function. Shifting focus between near and far, documentation and abstraction, fear and fascination, Howalt’s “Car Crash Studies” explore the abstruse intertwining of aesthetics and ethics.

“Art, as a mechanism of human understanding, has turned to the car crash repeatedly, and more or less directly, over the course of the past decades.”

Art, as a mechanism of human understanding, has turned to the car crash repeatedly, and more or less directly, over the course of the past decades. Jonathan Schipper choreographs slow-motion car crashes that take place over the course of several weeks. Staged in galleries worldwide to crash into walls, or in the Marfa desert to crash into one another at the harmless pace of seven miles per hour, Schipper seeks to express “a dramatic inevitability that reflects our own mortality”. The art of John Chamberlain balances the violence inherent in crushed auto parts with a lightness of forms in assemblage-like sculptures reminiscent of mangled wrecks on a speedway. The artist himself soon became weary of the car connotations, but they proved hard to be overcome. “It seems no one can get free of the Car Crash Syndrome,” he is reported to have once told a curator. In an obituary published upon Chamberlain’s death in 2011, the New York Times described his work “as a bridge between the raw expressiveness of the New York School painters and the assemblyline deadpan of Warhol.” Warhol too extensively dealt with car crashes in his popular “Death and Disaster” paintings, criticising the media culture’s morbid sensationalism. Howalt’s “Car Crash Studies” do not criticise, but encourage us to take pleasure in the sight of the crash. Unlike Warhol, Howalt does not revisit accidents that have received particular public attention, but turns to ones that have gone largely unnoticed. Unlike Schipper, he does not create inhabitable events, but portrays chosen objects (“ready-mades” if you will, albeit carefully staged ones) that evoke contemplation. Unlike Chamberlain, he does not manipulate crushed metal, but alters our perspective on it.

“Beautifying is one classic operation of the camera,” writes Susan Sontag in her famous essay on the photographic documentation of war, “Regarding the Pain of Others”. Photography has oftentimes been accused of downplaying personal tragedy by turning it into aesthetic material. Howalt’s work, in this respect, doesn’t regard the pain of others, but rather the otherness of pain. Like the silence of an accident’s aftermath. Or a crushed wreck. And in making us aware of their allure, it regards one of the big – and most puzzling – issues of art.