Olafur Eliasson's design for BMW's Art Cars gives new meaning to 'cool' motoring, says Arifa Akbar
The chassis has been transformed into a 17ft-long space-age fantasy made from an immense ice block, in which a futuristic driver buckles in to glide across galaxies.
The technology to confound the laws of time and space may not have been invented yet, but Olafur Eliasson has created his own postmodern fantasy for the future of motoring.
Eliasson, best known for his Weather Project at the Tate Modern, is the latest designer to take part in BMW's Art Car project, in which artists ranging from Andy Warhol to David Hockney have been given the body of a BMW to paint.
The new artwork was created on the hydrogen-powered H2R race car, after the artist replaced the body with a combination of steel mesh and reflective panels. The car was then sprayed with 530 gallons of water over the course of several days to create layers of ice.
It was constructed in situ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will remain in a display case with a special cooling unit from 8 September until 13 January next year, as part of the exhibition, Your Tempo: Olafur Eliasson.
According to BMW, the aim of this latest project was to transform an object of advanced industrial design into a work of art that reflects on the relationship between global warming and the car industry.
"Eliasson's transformation of the H2R car is a powerful provocation to design and a reminder of the profound effect design can have on our lives," says Henry Urbach, who organised the show. "He has given us a work that challenges the way we understand cars and helps point us toward a different future.
The car is lit from within and appears to glow in its frozen casing. Accompanying it is a behind-the-scenes film. Viewers enter the space in limited numbers. "You go into a cold space with a small group," says Urbach, "almost like a little expedition. There you encounter something you've never seen before that is completely magical. At the same time, it's a trenchant critique that leaves the beholder with plenty to think about."
For Eliasson, the work reflects his interest in nature and the sense of awe it can inspire. "Movement has consequences for the way we engage with the world," he says. "In driving a car, one also negotiates the way time-space is constructed. What I find so interesting in the research on movement and sustainable energy is the fact that it enhances our sense of responsibility in how we, as individuals, navigate in a world defined by plurality."
The Art Car collection was established in 1975, in which artists set out to make a statement about the appearance and meaning of cars in their time.
The project was inspired Hervé Poulain, the French racecar driver who commissioned his friend, Alexander Calder, to paint his BMW racecar in the early Seventies.
Cars from the collection are permanently displayed at the BMW Museum in Munich, and have been exhibited in museums and galleries across the world.
In 2005, BMW selected Eliasson for its 16th commission to transform a production model from an automobile to a work of art.
Eliasson was born in Denmark in 1967 to Icelandic parents. He is renowned for his large-scale installations, notably Weather Project (2003), where he constructed a gigantic artificial sun inside the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. Made with light, mirrors and mist, the structure was meant to provide the viewer with a truly sensory experience. Other works include indoor rainbows, backward-flowing waterfalls and walk-in kaleidoscopes. Most recently, he designed the summer pavilion for London's Serpentine Gallery.
Andy Warhol – 1979: BMW M1
While other artists painted on a scaled-down model and then had this transferred to the actual car by assistants, Warhol painted the real model himself from start to finish. The founder of Pop Art, whose sweeping brush- and finger-strokes are distinguishable on the car's body, said: "I tried to portray speed pictorially. If a car is moving really quickly, all the lines and colours are blurred." The car's first and only race outing was at the 24-hour race at Le Mans in 1979, when it came sixth.
Ken Done – 1989: BMW M3
The Australian artist, best known for his simple, brightly coloured images of national landmarks, aimed to express his fascination with this high-performance vehicle. Equally, he said, it had to be typically Australian and reflect the vitality of his country. So he covered the car's body with vivid images of parrots and fish, to capture its beauty and speed.
David Hockney – 1995: BMW 850 Csi
Hockney sometimes stares at his subject for hours before putting paint to canvas – and he followed the same method for this project. "BMW gave me the model of the car and I kept looking at it and looking at it. And then, I must admit, I also looked at the other Art Cars. In the end, I thought it would be good to perhaps show the car so you could be looking inside it." The concept took several months to come to fruition and it allowed the silhouette of the driver to be seen on the door.