The Arts

Concrete car sparks dialogue on public art

Three new exhibitions examine meaning of Wolf Vostell’s iconic sculpture

It was summer 2011, and Prof. Christine Mehring had just laid out her priorities as chair of the Provost’s faculty advisory committee on campus planning. At the top of her list: public art.

Mehring felt it deserved more attention. While the University campus featured a number of public artworks, from Henry Moore’s well-known 1967 bronze sculpture Nuclear Energto Ruth Duckworth’s hardly known ceramic lobby in the Henry Hinds Lab, their conservation had long been considered more a landscaping issue than an art historical one.

And there was even more artwork off campus.

“There’s all this stuff in storage we should probably take a look at too,” a staff member chimed in.

“What’s in storage?” Mehring asked.

“Well, there’s this concrete car, for example,” her colleague responded.

Mehring took a breath. Five years later, following a massive research and conservation effort to resurrect Concrete Traffic—a 1957 Cadillac DeVille that German artist Wolf Vostell encased in concrete—Mehring could finally exhale.

On Sept. 30, 2016, the sculpture processed through the city via flatbed truck, traveling from storage to the Museum of Contemporary Art to its new home, inside the Campus North parking garage at 5525 S. Ellis Ave.

“It’s where a real car can be, the last in a row of parked cars, nearby moving cars and passing pedestrians,” Mehring says of the sculpture’s new site. “That’s what makes for the moment of surprise and shock, of trying to figure out what the heck you are encountering, that is so crucial to this artwork.”

The vehicle’s return also kicked off Concrete Happenings—eight months of free campus exhibitions, performances, film screenings, and symposia that entered a new phase in January 2017, as the University joined the city of Chicago in kicking off the Year of Public Art.

Inserting art into everyday life

A postwar German art specialist, Mehring had often visited an art bookstore near a related sculpture by Wolf Vostell in Cologne. In 1969 the artist had cast concrete around his own Opel Kapitän on a downtown street as a “happening” and then left it parked there. The happening was quintessential Fluxus, an avant-garde art movement that sought to disrupt the ordinary through provocative and participatory performances. “It’s this sense of inserting art into everyday life,” Mehring says, “and having people go, ‘What?’”

Vostell reprised his performance the following year in Chicago, this time encasing a 1957 Cadillac DeVille in concrete on a parking lot near the Museum of Contemporary Art, which had commissioned the “event-sculpture.” Six months later, the museum and the artist gave Concrete Traffic to the University. It lived outside Midway Studios until 2009, when renovation of the studios and construction of the new Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts began.

Weighing more than 16 tons, it is the world’s largest existing Fluxus object.

And it was hidden in a Humboldt Park warehouse.

“It was instantly clear to me,” Mehring recalls, “that we had a really important sculpture that was just sitting in storage because no one knew what to do with it.”

Concrete discussions and happenings

Following a faculty research project at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society and a massive four-year conservation effort that enlisted faculty and students as well as conservators, structural engineers, archivists, art historians, and vintage car specialists, Concrete Traffic returned to campus. The utilitarian parking garage is the ideal place for it: Imagine parking your car, walking past a row of other parked cars, then running into this massive concrete one.

But Mehring also saw the sculpture’s return as an opportunity to investigate Vostell’s little-known experiments with concrete and the multi-media Fluxus movement through more traditional film and exhibition programming, and, eventually, a scholarly book. 

Three exhibitions opening in January 2017—hosted by the Smart Museum of Art, Neubauer Collegium, and Special Collections Research Center—revisit the creation of Concrete Traffic and situate it within the context of the international Fluxus movement and Vostell’s own practice.

The exhibitions feature multiple editions of an unreadable concrete book, a Bofinger chair encased in concrete, preparatory sketches of Concrete Traffic, large-scale concrete collages, rare artists’ books, avant-garde films, and even a concrete “cloud” flying over Chicago that was recently added to the Smart Museum’s collection.

Says Mehring: “Having Concrete Traffic back, and staging these three exhibitions simultaneously, makes for an extraordinary moment for visual art on campus, an example of what can happen when scholarly research, pedagogical training, and public engagement come together.” 

Originally published on January 26, 2017
Story by Brooke O’Neill, adapted from the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Jean Lachat

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