Good art is .. transfiguring an icon

When Indonesian sculptor Ichwan Noor’s Beetle Spere rolled into the National Gallery of Victoria’s foyer it immediately transfixed and engaged the visiting public.


The Sculptor has seemingly moulded an actual VW Beetle into a perfect ball and the illusion is complete with its upholstered interior.

Noor lightly passes off this technical feat in a few short sentences in his interview with Sarah Bentley.

But the concept and thinking for the work goes far deeper. Linking the form of the car with its cultural associations, even to the extent of its magical powers as an object of transportation, Noor is interested in how the illusion of transformation strikes the beholder and thereby distorts the meaning and even emotion that the car creates – particularly for those in car obsessed societies like ours.

I spent my early years rolling about in a classic white VW Beetle and fondly remember singing ‘Georgie Girl’ with my Dad on the way to kinder, so the car itself and Noor’s work definitely has that peculiar hit of nostalgia.

So it was fascinating to watch the film Bikes vs Cars  just after seeing this work

The film maker / director Fredrik Gertten presents our social love affair with the car and shows how its associations of freedom, status and independence are set up as illusion through the object’s design and the car manufacturer’s powerful marketing efforts.

The new VW car campaign playing at the moment in Australia, certainly hits the nostalgia button with grainy 60s and 70s images of combis on the beach and carefree bohemian folk in their beetles. Never mind the recent appallingly bad press, VW’s ad shows a confidence that its car sales will readily recover if we can just remember the good old days when we were seat belt free and cars could pump any amount of lead and carbon gases into the air.

Gertten’s film highlights how the rapid displacement of cycling based transport in Asia and Latin America, with the growth of an aspiring middle class, has had particularly drastic consequences in a relatively short time span in most of our largest global cities.

The lobbying of the car and fossil fuel industries, coupled with the power of construction companies in many countries, far outweighs community led efforts to fight for any form of basic cycling infrastructure as cities expand their road networks purely as the preserve for a bloated motor vehicle buying populous.

The film logically addresses the reality that cars are objects that are increasingly inefficient, space demanding and polluting. Their substantial contribution to our urban ills globally – including loss of productivity if you consider the time spent in traffic jams – the known impacts on ecosystems and human health cannot, it seems, dampen the overwhelmingly positive associations we have assigned to the car.

In the film, one car marketing exec laments the apparent drop of interest in younger people for car ownership but then brightens up as he talks about ‘The Millennials’ and how ‘they’ – the car marketers – have worked out how to ‘get them’ – the soon to be 18 year olds.

Certainly the high use of children in car advertising sets up the association in the young mind early. The car as prestige and status are particularly embedded. The car as fun and adventurous is often the other tack. The car lobby would waive any suggestion that they are targeting their advertising at children but they are astutely aware that they are setting up the consumers of tomorrow by propagating their brands into heads that will be making car purchasing decisions in the 2020’s.

Perhaps if more of us could take our personal car ownership, roll it into a ball and set it on a plinth as a nod to our hapless nostalgia and then be prepared to leave that in our past, we would all start to be a whole lot better off.



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