After oil

New art show exploring what the wrold will be like when we've drained it of oil


It’s not hard to conjure some quite colourful ideas about what the world will look like once oil has run out. Will it be a world thrown suddenly into peace, with clean air? Sail boats replacing tankers, motorways hacked away at to provide more space for farmland, bicycles ruling the roads? Or will life as we know it change in far more disturbing ways?

‘We were discussing this issue during A Green Vision, the residency project and exhibition during Summer Surprises,’ says Elizabeth Monoian, a professor at American University in Dubai (AUD). ‘A professor from the US mentioned that her students back in the States really see a bleak future after oil. But that’s not what I’m seeing from any of my students in Dubai, they see it as a liberation, that oil is somehow a shackle.’ Monoian has initiated an international dialogue on the matter. ‘Hot Spots is a collaboration between Dubai, Pittsburgh and Munich. We want to create installations in abandoned gas stations. But this summer we decided to initiate things with a poster exchange project between the three cities.’

Art and design students from Dubai’s Zayed University and AUD, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and The Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany were each set a brief to create a poster reflecting on the world, post-oil. ‘The Pittsburgh students, we found, were pragmatic in their approach,’ says Monoian. ‘Their ideas dealt with what you could use a gas station for after oil.’ Ultimately, Hot Spots provides an interesting collision of perspectives. ‘With some of the students of AUD there is fantasy involved, then in Zayed, there’s actual religious imagery – the gesture of someone praying, for example. In the posters from students in the US, there’s nothing close, no religious references. I think that the local response might seem obvious for us in Dubai but for the US students it’s interesting for them to be involved in a conversation like that. Perhaps shocking, even.’

The Munich students’ contribution will be included when Hot Spots forms part of an exhibition in Pittsburgh to coincide with the G20 Summit to be held there in September. This week, the Pittsburgh and Dubai students’ work goes on display at thejamjar.

‘I’m very happy with the results visually. It clarifies to me that students here are looking for direction to give their work cultural relevance,’ comments Monoian. Hot Spots, as a concept, aims to convert abandoned petrol stations into installations and spaces for art to be displayed. While the US abounds in these era-defining relics, finding them in the UAE is proving difficult. ‘There was one on Sheikh Zayed Road that was very beautiful, but abandoned things just don’t last long in this region.’ Beautiful is an unusual epithet for a concreted forecourt dotted with dry pumps, but Monoian explains that the petrol station is so epochal that its aesthetic significance can’t be overlooked: ‘The petrol station is such a charged notion. For it to be abandoned also brings another aesthetic level. That, we all understand, is the future and it’s not far away – 50 years or so.’

Monoian refers to the historical reality of Pittsburgh, a town described by a 19th century writer as ‘Hell with the lid off’, to illustrate why we need to preserve these sites. ‘Pittsburgh was once the heart of the steel industry, so I’ve been surrounded by these monuments to the industrial revolution. But those buildings are being torn down; people want to forget that time because of the havoc that the industry wreaked on the environment and their health. In Pittsburgh the sky was completely black during the day because of the smoke. Businessmen would take multiple shirts to work so that they could change throughout the day. I think we want to forget this past. The factories couldn’t be torn down faster and I think petrol stations have a similar sense about them.’

It remains to ask Monoian what her vision is, how will the world fair once we’ve finally wrung it of oil? ‘I like to think it’s going to be a bright future. But I also think it is way more complicated than that. It’s a dramatic, complicated conversation that needs to be had.’ She’s under no illusions about what Hot Spots, right now, represents: ‘Getting students to make posters is a nice way to start a conversation but it doesn’t even start to touch the depths of the reality.’

Hot Spots is showing at thejamjar (04 341 7303) from September 1-23.

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