An artist explores the demise of an American car company.
Ideally, Jesse Sugarmann would own five cars.
“It just makes sense to me,” he says. His automotive needs include: a pick-up truck, a car with four-wheel drive, a car that’s inexpensive to fill up, a commuter car, and a luxury car. “You can get up in the morning and decide which car makes the most sense for that day.”
He drives a Pontiac Aztek to and from work at California State University in Bakersfield, where he teaches in the art department. He’s a professor in new genres, which means he works with anything that has to do with a lens or exists outside of a gallery, including video, photography, animation, and art installations.
Sugarmann graduated from the University of Oregon in 2010 with a master’s of fine arts degree. In 2012, he received a $50,000 grant from the Creative Capital Foundation, which bankrolled his project We Build Excitement, an art installation focused on the death of Pontiac Motors.
The name We Build Excitement is derived from the slogan of Pontiac commercials in the ’80s. Sugarmann says that the reason Pontiac is worth the attention is its uniquely American brand.
“Pontiacs had this adolescent flair to them and the design was so ambitiously macho-American that it never really translated too well to foreign buyers,” he says. “I think we gave it up very rapidly and without much thought. We gave up something very specifically American and really disowned a part of our heritage and part of our design identity. It’s just expired.”
We Build Excitement was inspired by the dissolution of Pontiac in 2009, after General Motors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “No one really cared but me,” Sugarmann said at the 2013 Creative Capital Artist Retreat presentation, where all grant recipients showcased their work. “And that’s why I’m here.”
Sugarmann created a requiem for Pontiac Motors in this installation. The project he proposed was taking the idea of a car accident and magnifying it to a corporate scale.
“So thinking of a car accident on the highway as a traumatic event that makes two cars disappear,” he says, “and then treating the end of the car corporation—the dissolution of Pontiac—as a giant conceptual car accident that makes hundreds of thousands of cars disappear.”
He rented an empty car lot in Pontiac, Michigan, and opened the only Pontiac dealership in existence in 2013. Its name: “Pontiac Pontiac.”
From there, Sugarmann went antique shopping: he purchased used, inexpensive Pontiacs and towed them to the dealership. He wedged metal poles beneath the tires and propped the vehicles up so they would stand askew in the air, the headlights facing skyward.
Sometimes these would be temporary monuments that stood like tombstones for deceased Pontiacs. Other times, Sugarmann created more kinetic sculptures and orchestrated car accidents which he captured on video. In one instance, a van with a Pontiac on its roof reverses into another Pontiac braced up in the lot. The two collide. Vehicles topple over one another and the van drives away in a comical hit-and-run.
For another component of the installation, Sugarmann hired laid-off factory workers who had previously worked on GM assembly. They were asked to pantomime their exact roles on the production line. A man pretends to steam leather onto seats; a woman installs wheel well interiors on an imaginary axle. Their movements are precise and accurate; their faces are blank and emotionally vacant.
“I was really struck by how well they could remember these motions exactly and repeat them so perfectly,” Sugarmann says. “I never asked them to play it dead, they were all just instantly at work.”
This poignant visual, he says, represents the emotionless birth of the automobile. On the other end of the timeline is the emotional and imprecise end of the automobile. Sugarmann recruited people via Craigslist and asked them to reenact their car accident for the camera. A man stands in a vacant lot and his hands swivel around the wheel. His neck rocks back and forth.
Sugarmann’s first serious car accident directly informed this element of We Build Excitement. It was a few days after New Year’s Day 1999 in Brooklyn. There had been a storm and the roads were iced over. He was driving a 30-year-old Ford van, which he describes as a piece of garbage that he drove around.
He can’t remember if it had any windows left; they might have all been broken. After a taxi rear-ended the van, ”I had just gotten out and I was standing by the side of the road trying to explain to this cabby that it was perfectly okay to hit my car,” Sugarmann recalls.
The cab driver wanted to pay for the damage inflicted. There was another four-wheel-drive car coming down the icy road; the driver was recklessly confident and driving much faster than anyone else. The driver lost control, swerved, and hit both Jesse and the cabby as they stood there. Jesse made out with a broken arm and a minor concussion. The cab driver broke his wrist.
“It made me become more interested in the time signature of car accidents,” he says. “If you look at people reenacting their car accidents [in We Build Excitement], time is inaccurate. When I’m asking people to reenact these car accidents, I’m asking them to take advantage of that incorrect understanding of time.”
The final product of We Build Excitement is a three-screen experience. All the videos—the preordained car accidents, the assembly line pantomiming, and the car accident reenactments—are streamed in tandem in an art gallery.
In Sugarmann’s application for graduate school, the margins of the standard artist’s statement were lists of his failed artistic endeavors. “It was really brilliant,” says UO art professor Colin Ives. “It really told you a lot about how he works as an artist. He’s someone who’s really taking risks and is willing to talk about those things that failed. I’ll never forget that. Who would include that list of all their failures in their application to graduate school?”
Ives worked with Sugarmann during his time as a graduate student. He has a piece of Sugarmann’s work pinned to the wall in his office in the Millrace Studios: a floor mat from a Ford Explorer that’s been run through a computerized loom and patterned with textile. “Jesse finds real, powerful, meaningful work within that space that might otherwise run the risk of being glib or clever,” Ives says. “He finds real depth there. He sucks you into his logic and his space of work.”
UO art professor Michael Salter, who served as Sugarmann’s committee and thesis advisor, says that his work always was branded with absurd humor.
“The job of an artist is to be a barometer of the culture,” he says. “That’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s taking production evidence from a culture, looking at it, and saying ‘What does this say about us?’”
This story was published in the autumn 2015 issue of Oregon Quarterly and can be read here: http://oregonquarterly.com/requiem-for-a-muscle-car.