No other substance will have shaped societies in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as much as oil—countless materials and key techno­lo­gies, cultural products, ways of life, knowledge, visions, values and emotions, as well as conflicts, injus­tices, and abysses of our time owe their existence to the energy density and trans­forma­bi­lity of the ambiva­lently shimme­ring “black gold.” Concerns about oil wells running dry are as old as the Petrol Age itself. It is, however, not the finite nature of the resource, but rather the fight against global warming and mountains of plastic waste that is now heralding the dusk of the “Petrol Age.” From a fictional future, the exhibi­tion Oil. Beauty and Horror in the Petrol Age takes a look back at the petro­mo­der­nism that has lasted roughly 100 years: What is typical of this time, what is great and beautiful, what is ugly and terrible, and how is all this reflected in art and culture?

John Gerrard’s Western Flag (Spind­letop, Texas) marks the beginning and end of the petro­mo­dern era. His digitally generated black flag poses urgent questions about the reorde­ring of the world while reminding us of the greatest petro­mo­dern excesses. Petroleum was the basis of the most important weapons systems of the twentieth century and both world wars. The Byzan­tines had already directed their Greek fire, a petroleum-based incen­diary weapon, at their enemies. With gasoline-based napalm, a combat agent used in the Vietnam War, oil was in turn used as a weapon against human bodies but also against the environ­ment. Wolf Vostell and Martha Rosler refer to this expansion of the combat zone.

The extrac­tion and utiliz­a­tion of oil leaves traces globally: in ecosys­tems and societies, but also in bodies and souls. The encounter with local cultures and the resulting possi­bi­li­ties and imposi­tions are referred to as “oil encoun­ters.” Ursula Biemann thus sheds light on life along a newly built pipeline. Entang Wiharso addresses the tense relati­onship between extrac­tion, proces­sing, and consump­tion in Indonesia. The clash of regional and capita­list interests is revealed by Taryn Simon and Ana Alenso, while Hans Haacke criti­cally questions the patronage of oil companies. Fluctua­ting oil prices and stock market movements are tracked by Mark Lombardi and Mark Boulos. Romuald Hazoumè refers to preca­rious trade practices that have estab­lished themselves in the local market parallel to the global market.

The euphoria of the Futurists at the beginning of the twentieth century already drew on the new technical achie­ve­ments of the Petrol Age. Speed and flight became leitmo­tifs for the repre­sen­ta­tives of so-called Aeropit­tura, among whom was Gerado Dottori. Flying thus became the greatest petro­mo­dern promise, as William Eggleston demons­trates, while utopias of leaving the planet echo in the works of Michael Najjar. Sylvie Fleury comments ironi­cally on the aeronau­tical project with a collapsed rocket as a symbol of failed potency and hope. 

The smallest but central form of mobiliz­a­tion takes place covertly at the molecular level. It was only in chemical refine­ries, such as those painted by Carl Grossberg, that fossil natural substances become accele­ra­tors of modern culture: fuels, plastics, artifi­cial ferti­li­zers, pharmaceu­ti­cals. This modern form of alchemy is the theme of Atelier Van Lieshout’s Naphta Cracker, for example. The techno­lo­gical achie­ve­ments of petro­che­mi­stry have literally made people’s everyday lives more colorful. Claus Goedicke puts the bright colors and organic mallea­bi­lity at the center of his photo­graphs. Tony Cragg’s Menschen­menge (Crowd) refers to a new human species brought about by the Petrol Age, Homo plasticus.

Edward Burtynsky’s photos of the sites of oil produc­tion have long been etched into the collec­tive visual memory. An idea of the vertical penetra­tion of the earth’s body is conveyed by Walter de Maria’s Earth Kilometer and Monira al Qadiri’s relent­lessly rotating drill head. The use of naturally occurring asphalt goes back to ancient times when it served as mortar in the construc­tion of the Babylo­nian Proces­sional Way. The ichthyosaur—excavated between Wolfsburg and Braunschweig—places petroleum in the context of a larger natural history.

The exhibi­tion archi­tec­ture is reminis­cent of an archaeo­lo­gical excava­tion site, allowing a temporal distance to our petroleum-based culture. However, the combi­na­tion of exhibi­tion walls running diago­nally through the hall also repres­ents abstracted layers of earth. Concep­tually, the exhibi­tion takes the perspec­tive of a fictional archaeo­lo­gical distance that simul­ta­ne­ously seeks thematic and emotional proximity. It confronts artistic works from the canon of Western modernism, as well as from oil regions around the globe, with objects from natural science and techno­logy, pop culture and everyday life.

The exhibi­tion will be accom­pa­nied by a compre­hen­sive publication:

Oil. Beauty and Horror in the Petrol Age edited by Andreas Beitin, Alexander Klose, and Benjamin Steininger, Verlag der Buchhand­lung Walther und Franz König, design by Jan Kiess­wetter, separate German and English editions, each approx. 400 pages, approx. 450 illus­tra­tions, with a foreword by Andreas Beitin, an intro­duc­tion by Alexander Klose and Benjamin Steininger, and texts by Akintunde Akinleye, Leila Alieva, Dominic Boyer, Jan von Brevern, Heather Davis, Elena Engelbrechter, Christoph Engemann, Timothy Furstnau, Eckhart Gillen, Rüdiger Graf, Helmut Höge, Bernd Hopfen­gärtner, Isabel Piniella, Karen Pinkus, Christian Schwarke, Suwarno Wisetro­tomo, and Susanne Witzgall.

Available for € 39 in the museum shop or at

Curators: Alexander Klose and Benjamin Steininger from the collec­tive Beauty of Oil, Ralf Beil (2016–2018), and Andreas Beitin (2019–2021)

Curato­rial Assistants: Elena Engelbrechter and Regine Epp

The exhibi­tion and publi­ca­tion project is generously sponsored by: