Last Ride in a Toyota

In a series of works riffing on car culture and conspicuous consumption in the auto industry, Christchurch artist Robert Hood puts his foot down.

Though Christchurch artist Rob Hood’s works include trashed and stacked car windscreens, photographs of burnouts and donuts on country roads, and serried rows of smashed and discarded plastic road markers, his message seems less about anarchic hordes of boy racers terrorising Amberley or Temuka, and more about pricking our collective environmental hide—or is that too simple? In talking to the artist, the conversation swerves from his frustration at the way the planet is heading, to channelling the social philosophy and conceptual gestures of such art visionaries as Joseph Beuys and Walter De Maria. He explains, “I don’t make environmental work. My art is more about an algorithmic conversation with materials—‘living dead’ readymades on a formal art-making level on the one hand, but I’m also conceptually dealing with the open-source salvaging of the wreckage.”

His work definitely avoids a leaden, save-the-planet rhetoric, though as his Christchurch dealer Jonathan Smart observes, “Recycling is the new mantra, and Hood is good”. Everything gets re-used, from supermarket plastic bags, old LP covers, receipts for his Olivia Spencer Bower Fellowship expenses (all $30,000 of them) to his 1992 Toyota DX wagon, which is currently shredded and laid out on the floor of Auckland’s New Gallery, as part of The 4th Auckland Triennial, Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon.

So who is this rather self-effacing artist, usually photographed hidden under a baseball cap and shades? Hood graduated from Canterbury School of Fine Arts in 1999, where he studied sculpture under Andrew Drummond, and then ran the university’s SOFA Gallery for several years. His early exhibitions were mainly in southern artist-run spaces (High Street Project, Blue Oyster Art Project Space and The Physics Room).

In 2006 he took part in two group shows that raised his profile—Headway at Auckland’s Artspace, where he exhibited with Andrew Barber, Martin Basher, Fiona Connor, Clare Noonan and Tessa Laird, and later that year, Out of Erewhon at Christchurch Art Gallery, with Aaron Beehre, Joanna Langford, Miranda Parkes, Cat Simpson and others. In the Artspace exhibition his work examined surface—a table made of Michelangelo tiles that mirrored the gallery’s ceiling tiles, and video footage of a domestic stucco/plastered wall.

In the Christchurch show he again coupled video with installation—this time a video of Samuel Butler’s high country locale overlaid with a schmaltzy country and western soundtrack—and the installation Sentinel Post—a sniper station built atop the gallery carpark entrance, which gave a clear ‘line of fire’ across the gallery courtyard and environs.

Robert Hood, Big Bull Market, automobile windscreens, dimensions variable. Installation view, Jonathan Smart Gallery, 2008

In 2007 he was awarded the Olivia Spencer Bower Fellowship and in April 2008 made his spectacular Big Bull Market at Jonathan Smart Gallery. In a head-on collision of creative exuberance, Hood took on all comers. In the gallery’s entrance a stack of smashed and disintegrating car windscreens were dumped in the middle of the floor, and on the walls were photographs of burnout tyre-marks. Inside, the gallery seethed with action—a barrier-arm rose and fell; videos (one of a boy racer’s smoking tyres being warmed up pre-burnout, the other of the rear end and wagging tail of a kune kune pig); old album covers with the faces of Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder and Elvis Presley spewed plastic bags in some kind of ectoplasmic excrescence. Add to that a wall covered with all the records (and detritus) of his previous year’s fellowship—receipts, dockets, Lotto tickets, get-rich-quick letters, junk-mail flyers—as well as neon signs and old street lamps.

“What’s going on?” you may well ask. As Jonathan Smart comments, “What is really illuminated here, by deft placement and a lightness of touch, is Hood’s overarching sense of humour … this is the big bull market after all, with consumerism characterised as the never-ending search for life improvement.”

Hood says the fellowship was a welcome staging point. “It gave me the opportunity to tighten up the reins, define the cultural territory, cultural ecology and capitalist ‘machinery’ I’d been grappling with—and the automotive metaphor I’d been using became more focussed.”

So he took to the road—literally—combing the highway verges of rural Canterbury for material for his next installation project, The Wrecked Kilometre, at High Street Project in March 2009. Pitching this work as a deliberate homage to Walter De Maria’s installation, The Broken Kilometer in the Dia Art Foundation in New York, Hood laid out his roadside booty on the floor of the gallery. But instead of De Maria’s 500 polished, two-metre-long brass rods laid out in precise, parallel rows, Hood’s ‘kilometre’ comprised 137 bent, broken, split and shattered red and white plastic road markers—many of them undoubtedly collateral damage from late-night boy racer ‘enthusiasm’ on remote country roads.

Robert Hood, High Country Burnouts (Clutha), lamda print, ed of 3
Robert Hood, High Country Burnouts (Ohau), lamda print, ed of 3

In his review of the exhibition for Art in America last Spring, Christchurch-based critic Roger Boyce wrote, “Aside from a sort of delirious correspondence (one that survives obvious visual and physical disparity), the two works are connected in a way that is analogous to the dissimilarity and interrelatedness of interrogative and declarative sentences, De Maria declaring, Hood interrogating.”

The Wrecked Kilometre had another outing at The Physics Room in Christchurch later in the year, this time in a riotous remix with windscreens, video, posters and other ephemera, titled Wrecked Pathological Stimulus Soap Rotational Vacuum Idle Earth Manifold Detergent Runtime Dada Glue. And if the title didn’t tick all the boxes, the exhibition notes added to the mix, “Referencing and processing such disparate bodies of knowledge and agency as Fluxus, capitalism, constructivism, futurism, socialism, astrophysics, environmentalism, conceptualism and atheism … Hood collects and filters a variety of popular cultural tropes and manipulates the skins that cloak them within the mass media.”

When invited to participate in The 4th Auckland Triennial, Hood decided his contribution to Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon would be the ultimate auto-de-fé. But rather than the ritual burning at the stake Spanish Inquisition style, his sacrifice would be his own auto—the trusty 1992 Toyota DX diesel wagon he’d owned for the past nine years.

He drove from Christchurch to Auckland, recording the sounds of the trip, then headed to CMA Recyclers in Penrose, where, after its vital fluids were removed, the car was shredded and its remains sorted into piles of mild steel, aluminium, rubber, plastic and waste material. The work, Making the Useful Useless, greets visitors to Auckland’s New Gallery—laid out on the gallery floor like a rectangular bar chart—a mute witness to yesterday’s form and function. Stacked neatly against the back wall are the few recognisable reminders of the-car-that-was: number plates, rego stickers, butt-filled ashtray, parking tickets and tool-kit—the belongings of the victim, handed back to the next of kin. And a soundtrack plays, capturing the final journey—road noise, passing cars, a melange of the music of the highway.

He explains the work as a comment on the automotive industry, “The whole recycling mantra is flawed and problematic. The manufacturers make the objects purely for function and wash their hands of the disposal dilemma. Designers and engineers take no responsibility during the lifespan and final destruction of the cars. They take the minerals out of the biosphere, construct, use and then dump back into the biosphere. And in an ultimate irony, the most toxic and unusable waste material—foam, soundproofing and plastic—is shredded and used as the impermeable top layer to cover over waste dumps. It’s absolutely disastrous.”

But Hood’s tableau is still a work in progress. After the triennial he may sell the scrap, and what else? Buy another 1992 Toyota DX wagon, or maybe melt the scrap down and create a new artwork—it’s still definitely not a finished work. And if there’s an institutional buyer out there, “I’d have to sell it for the price of a new Toyota DX.”

Hood is back in Christchurch now (currently on his bike), planning his next works. Later this year he will be one of nine artists chosen for Christchurch’s biennial SCAPE 2010. When asked about his plans Hood is circumspect, hinting at a project involving an ‘archaeological dig’—somewhere below the streets of Christchurch.

Of more pressing urgency is his next exhibition with dealer Jonathan Smart in mid May. Though Hood is playing his cards close to his chest, at the moment he’s clearing out his dealer’s cluttered stockrooms and will fit them out with some ‘revisioned’ found images he’s had sitting in his studio, as well as some new works.

Prepare for something different.

Dan Chappell

Robert Hood’s next exhibition, Back Room Sectional Earth Office Pathology runs at Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch, from 11 May to 12 June, 2010. He will also participate in 2010 SCAPE, the Christchurch Biennial of Art in a Public Space, from 24 September to 7 November 2010.

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