Beauty and Horror in the Petrol Age

September 4, 2021 – January 9, 2022



No other substance has shaped societies in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as much as petroleum. Airplanes, tanks, and space­craft, motorways, shopping malls and suburban settle­ments, nylon stockings, mountains of plastic, and vinyl – key materials and techno­lo­gies, lifestyles and visions of our time owe their existence to the energy density and trans­forma­bi­lity of oil. Now, however, the dusk of the “petrol age” is looming, whereby neither can its end be precisely dated, nor its conse­quences adequa­tely assessed. The exhibi­tion Oil. Beauty and Horror in the Petrol Age therefore takes a specu­la­tive, poetic look back at the presence of the modern age of petroleum, which has lasted for roughly one hundred years. From the distance of a hypothe­tical future, we ask what was typical of our time, what was great and beautiful, what was ugly and terrible, and how all this is reflected in art and culture.

Funda­mental here is the obser­va­tion of a deep conflict: In the oil boom of the 1950s and 1960s, gasoline and kerosene, plastic, asphalt, and synthetic fibers stood for the futuristic promises of boundless mobility, indivi­dual freedom, and unrestricted trans­forma­bi­lity. Today, they are associated with global battles over resources, mountains of waste, and global warming, as well as sea and air pollution.

The exhibi­tion focuses on all this from a ficti­tious archaeo­lo­gical distance and at the same time seeks a thematic and emotional proximity: Beyond entren­ched ideology, it confronts works of art with natural science and techno­logy, politics and everyday life, with knowledge, practices, and apparatus from chemistry, drilling, and geology, from daily working life and pop culture, from industry and cultural theory. Well-known and lesser-known works of art from the canon of Western modernism, as well as from oil-producing regions around the globe, are reapp­raised in the black mirror of oil and placed in relation to current artistic positions.

The exhibi­tion focuses on the decades between the end of the Second World War and today. The cultural, technical, and geolo­gical constel­la­tions presented range, however, from the Middle Ages and antiquity to the early history of culture and life, while at the same time antici­pa­ting develo­p­ments that may extend hundreds or even thousands of years into the future. 

In this way, the exhibi­tion presents the world’s first retro­spec­tive of the global modern age of petroleum.

Parti­ci­pa­ting artist (selection):

Monira Al Qadiri, Ana Alenso, Yuri Ancarani, Qiu Anxiong, Atelier Van Lieshout, Kader Attia, Uwe Belz, Serge Attukwei Clottey, Klaus Auderer, Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck & Media Farzin, Lothar Baumgarten, Jennifer-Jane Bayliss, Wes Bell, Claus Bergen, Bernardo Berto­lucci, Ursula Biemann, Vanessa Billy, Brett Bloom, Mark Boulos, Margaret Bourke-White, Bureau d’Études, Edward Burtynsky, Warren Cariou, Christo, Tony Cragg, Walter De Maria, Mark Dion, Gerardo Dottori, Sokari Douglas Camp, Rena Effendi, William Eggleston, Hans Fischer­koesen, Sylvie Fleury, John Gerrard, Christoph Girardet, Claus Goedicke, Tue Greenfort, Carl Grossberg, Monika Grzymala, Robert Gschwantner, Hans Haacke, Ernst Haeckel, Eberhard Havekost, Romuald Hazoumè, John Heart­field, Armin Herrmann, Michael Hirsch­bichler, Bernhard Hopfen­gärtner, Murad Ibragim­bekov, Aaditi Joshi, Peter  Keetman, Matt Kenyon, Tetsumi Kudo, Ernst Logar, Mark Lombardi, Ellen Karin Mæhlum, Rémy Marko­witsch, Ralf Marschalleck, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Paul Michaelis, Kay Michalak & Sven Völker, Richard Misrach, Michael Najjar, Hugo Niebeling, Franz Nolde, Kate Orff, George Osodi, Alex Prager, Alain Resnais,  Oliver Ressler, Martha Rosler, Miguel Rothschild, Ed Ruscha, Shirin Sabahi, Santiago Sierra, Taryn Simon, Andreas Slominski, Robert Smithson, Gerda Steiner & Jörg Lenzlinger, Thomas Struth, The Center for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Wolfgang Tillmans, Gunhild Vatn, Wolf Vostell, Entang Wiharso, Erwin Wurm, Yuts.

The exhibi­tion will be accom­pa­nied by a compre­hen­sive, trans­di­sci­pli­nary publi­ca­tion in German and English, published by Verlag der Buchhand­lung Walther und Franz König, Cologne, edited by Andreas Beitin, Alexander Klose and Benjamin Steininger, designed by Jan Kiess­wetter. The book will be a compre­hen­sive compen­dium of art in the inter­na­tional modern age of petroleum and also include works that cannot be shown in the exhibi­tion itself. Reflected in the artworks, social, economic, political, and cultural condi­tions shall become visible in various time periods and in different regional manifes­ta­tions of the age of petroleum around the globe.

A number of inter­na­tio­nally renowned authors will be invited to address artistic positions in the modern age of petroleum from their respec­tive points of view, including Akintunde Akinleye (Lagos), Leila Alieva (Oxford), Jan von Brevern (Berlin), Heather Davis (New York), Elena Engelbrechter (Hanover), Christoph Engemann (Berlin), Timothy Furstnau (Windham/New York), Eckhard Gillen (Berlin), Rüdiger Graf (Berlin), Helmut Höge (Berlin), Isabel Piniella (Lucerne), Karen Pinkus (New York), Christian Schwarke (Dresden), Suwarno Wisetro­tomo (Yogyakarta/Java) and Susanne Witzgall (Munich).

With generous support from Stiftung Niedersachsen.

Alexander Klose (Berlin), Benjamin Steininger (Berlin/Wien) and Andreas Beitin

Junior Curator
Elena Engelbrechter

Curato­rial Assistant
Regine Epp

With generous support from
Media partner