Fotograf Magazine

Ruin Porn in the Rear-view Mirror

Bound in an ample whole joining the impulsiveness of zines with the ambitions of a book, the collected notebooks of Václav Jirásek’s Cars are a record of thou-sands of driven kilometers, as well as, more importantly, those undriven. Since 2005, this conceptually-oriented photographer and member of the Bratrstvo Art Group1 has—with a collector’s precision, snapshot instinct, and sense of land-scape painting—assembled hundreds of photographs of car wrecks: sometimes merging with nature, others serving as sheds, or rising up like sad stumps in the wasteland. These images, mostly from travels across the Greek islands, are cate-gorized into more than twenty intertwined categories like Torsos, Acrobats, Clogs, Romances, Installations, Florists, Animals or Ruin – but explaining what they mean straightaway would be an unwanted spoiler. Jirásek is not driven by a fascination for the invincible machine like Theodor Pištěk, nor by the strictly modernist “need for speed” that determined the pulse of the previous century, so much as an obscurely romantic passion for carcasses with rear-view mirrors.

For Roland Barthes, cars were gothic cathedrals; Jean Baudrillard wrote in his “travelogue” America about statistical energy, the ritual of automobile traffic, and the softness of automatic transmissions, which only illustrates the kind of faith with which cars are associated. It is religious or purely utilitarian. The image of cars in our culture is still defined by product photos of shiny bonnets and advertisments for cars that never disappoint or in which you can win (whatever that means). But it is precisely disappointment, failure, and defeat that interest Jirásek in this collection. He is not the only photographer in the past decade to catalog automotive elements; but unlike the series of German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who paid special attention to the details of headlights, bumpers, or mirrors in The Cars (2015), Jirásek puts the wrecks into the “bigger picture” and concentrates on the composition of their blending with the surrounding landscape. In the words of John Berger, Jirásek does not wait for wild animals nor shoot snapshots from the hip – the objects of his photographs are measured by eternity (or at least the time we have left on the planet) and the backdrops are not parking lots or crossroads, but the burial ground beneath the pergola on the village green, by seaside paths or on dusty plains. “Absorbed by nature, they become part of a place hidden under the mimicry of the landscape,” writes Jirásek in the category tellingly called Ingrowers. On the other hand, some of the categories and subcategories arranged in separate workbooks naturally blend together until they merge and appear to be created almost too clearly “for effect.” This raises the question of whether the book would seem more consistent as one piece, rather than scattered through “zine notebooks.”

In an era when the planetary clock is ticking, the wrecks—whether Jirásek intended it or not—are gravestones for the culture of invincible engines and human superiority over nature. The cards are turning and every insertion of the keys into the ignition becomes a moral decision. At first glance it appears to be individual, but multiplied by hundreds of millions it represents the continuous degradation of the environment. This is also suggested by Michal Nanoru in an introductory essay that functions as a reliable interpretation of car mythology – from the perspective of pop culture and photography: “Just as gardens and parks in the 19th century began to imitate rural scenery, lonely cars inadvertently became pastoral constructions of the idealized industrial past, serving as would-be romantic rest areas in today’s “fragmented,” ever-accelerating landscape – aquarium decorations for a coming posthuman world.” Tensions between the living and the inanimate or be-tween nature and technology are key to Cars, as is the knowledge that they will never be fully reconciled. “An ontological insight is engraved onto the passenger side wing mirrors of every american car: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear,” claims philosopher Timothy Morton, one of today’s most influential thinkers and prophets of the Anthropocene. Morton turns his attention to the objects, and in his presentation the stone, or perhaps the wreck of a car, speaks for itself, without human intervention. This is like what happens in Jirásek’s unique book Cars, whose aesthetic power lies in its systematic burial of established understandings of wealth, freedom, autonomy, sex-appeal, and coolness; already if only because we have to be interested in the classes of these meanings in their material form. What remains of them is only ruin porn, which no longer excites anyone – and remarkably Jirásek documented not just the decomposition of bodies, corrod-ing gearboxes or wheel hubs, but mainly the deconstruction of the myths of carefree driving and constant progress.

JIRÁSEK, Václav. Cars. Prague: Eastern Front, ArtMap, Eastern Front, 2019. ISBN 978-80-906599-6-4.


Miloš Hroch