Visual Arts: Life in the slow lane

Fine art's attempts to keep pace with the car (or the 20th century in general) have produced mixed results. Forget speed: far better to keep still. By Tom Lubbock
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The Independent Culture
At the start of 1903, William Ernest Henley, an English poet, thought he had written his last verse. Then he took his first ride in a car and changed his tune.

A Song of Speed was the result, 250 lines of rhymeless, breathless excitement, prophesying that through speed, man can overcome his own mortality, and rise to the Divine.

Henley was not the last to feel that the new velocities would have big consequences for the modern soul.

The Song ends with a homage to "this Thing This marvellous Mercedes,/ This triumphing contrivance". It is a really awful poem. But in his torrent of praise for the car, Henley raises a good question:

"Look at her. Shapeless?

Unhandsome? Unpaintable?

Yes; but the strength

Of some seventy-five horses."

Hold on, unpaintable? No; but not much painted, a difficult subject apparently. High modern painting has conspicuously neglected the motor car (though commercial art has no trouble). It is not that there are not any depictions - but for such a prominent feature of the world, there are not very many and they are not very major. I mean, can you really imagine Matisse painting a car?

Oddly enough, he did - in The Windshield, On the Villacoublay Road (1917). Matisse pictures the car, a flat-topped, boxy Ford, from inside: the dashboard, the steering wheel, the windscreen's frame, the road ahead viewed through it (a pictorial format used by Edward Hopper and Ben Nicholson too.) It is hardly among his best paintings, and the vehicle seems to be stationary. But for surprise value, it is one of the most striking works in "Speed: Visions of an Accelerated Age".

This is a themed exhibition, showing at both the Whitechapel Gallery and the Photographers' Gallery, and the idea is clear enough: the high velocity of modern life and its manifestation in modern art. Nobody, I guess, would deny that speed - in transport, communication, production - has been a dominant, perhaps a defining feature of our century. It is everywhere. And it is natural to suppose it would make itself felt strongly in the visual arts too.

Has it? The show suggests, rather, that it is the story of the car writ large. Speed's influence on modern art is far from being as obvious or abundant as it should be. You have to search hard and think clever to find much sign of it.

Yes, the Italian Futurists were expressly devoted to speed (and there is a bunch of Futurist manifestos displayed in a vitrine). But beyond that, the case for mainstream fast art seems itself rather a fast one. Duchamp is included here because his ready-mades involved choosing an object, snapping your fingers and saying "that's art"; Pollock because he moved swiftly when doing drip-painting.

And while the century has seen plenty of kinetic sculptures and "time- based" installations, the examples here are not especially speedy, nor even decisively modern. Martin Creed's Thirty-Nine Metronomes Beating Time, One at Every Speed (1997) describes itself.

Some go fast, some go slow, and their tiresome clickety racket fills the whole of the Whitechapel. But the metronome was invented in 1815.

Or there are trifles which only stress the lack of more substantial exhibits. Chris Burden's CBTV to Einstein (1977) is a little balsa wood/rubber-band plane that was once flown inside Concorde, and so could be said to have (briefly) flown faster than Concorde.

It is not the first time a fine historical scheme has been let down by the arts. The arts are notoriously unreliable witnesses to their times. And I fancy that if you had to put together an exhibition called "Slowness: Visions of a Decelerated Age", though the premise would seem perverse, modern art could supply you with equally good evidence. Art can prove anything. In fact, it is odd to think how many works might appear in both a fast and a slow show.

For example, there is Boccioni's Futurist sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) - a human figure striding forward, its limbs made of would-be dynamic thrusts and swirls.

It was only seeing it in this exhibition that made me realise how sluggish it really is. It looks thoroughly bogged and dragged down by its solidified energies, as if it were struggling against a powerful wind, and across a muddy field. (And to go a step further: Giacommetti's figures would be "evidence" for an Age of Total Inertia.)

But I do not deny that the show finds some winning quickies too, like Bertelli's Continuous Profile of Mussolini (1933). This object performs a spectacular illusion. It looks like a big, black, squat chess-piece, until you see that its turning edge, all round, is the Duce's silhouette. At which point it becomes a whizzing, streamlined blur, as if it were a head spinning on a potter's wheel at tremendous speed; or rather, what is stranger still, you see a static, solid representation of a spinning blur.

Streamlining, indeed, is the exhibitions' strongest suit. It is a real case of speed having wide aesthetic consequences, so that even things that do not have to move at all - like furniture - have been modelled on aerodynamic forms.

This would include sculptures by Brancusi and buildings by Le Corbusier, neither represented here, (although there is a model of the Corbusier- designed Automaxina Car, 1928, which actually has a less whooshy shape than some of his houses).

But we have a Breuer chair and an Eames chair, and a couple of recent sculptures by Siobhan Hapaska, fibreglass Formula One forms in weird metamorphoses.

But what is generally proved is that the fine visual arts in the 20th century hold back on speed, offer an oasis of relative stasis - even as the adjacent arts are going mad for it.

Look at them: cinema, from its birth, always rushing and charging and chasing about; and documentary photography, quite hooked on the split- second; and cartoon-strips, ever straining at the leash, going zoom, exploding, bursting to break out of being only still images. And it is not that painting, cannot do speedy motion.

On the contrary, it can do some kinds of velocity with peculiar force. Ed Ruscha's Miracle#12 (1975) is a blurred yellow/white streak of luminosity across a dark ground, suggesting some non-specific night-road phenomenon - an unending line of cats' eyes, maybe, or of headlights.

And the fixity of the image only emphasises the absolute, hypnotic continuousness of the experience, the way high speed sometimes attains a condition of unbodied stillness. Painting can do it. So can sculpture, and installation, and art-photos, and video. They can all do speed.

It is just that they have mostly not - and on the whole, it is to the visual arts' credit to have remained so calm in an accelerated age. This show has its moments (all at the Whitechapel). But if you believe in a big history lesson, it is the big lacks that are the main story.

`Speed - Visions of an Accelerated Age': Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel High St, London El; to 22 Nov, closed Mondays; admission pounds 4, Concs pounds 2.50, free Tuesdays. Photographers' Gallery, Great Newport St, London WC2; till 21 Nov; free.