Oil as Art Material

Confronting the Climate Crisis in its Own Vernacular

Materiality is one of the key components of a work of visual art. It changes the way that we interact with a piece, adds dimension to what the artist is trying to say and how, and can even have a voice of its own. Classic examples include Jackson Pollock’s “drip technique” of painting, which creates a sense of sick and visceral emotion with its swirling, thick, humanly inhuman globs of paint. Diane Arbus’s flat and highly contrasting photography creates a thin portal between the everyday normal and the everyday abnormal. Alexander Calder’s mobiles, made of delicate cuts of sheet metal suspended and attached to mechanically-activated mechanisms, are careful forays into an industrializing modern world in which man and nature were becoming increasingly intertwined.

Contemporary artists engaging with environmental concerns would do well to employ the vernacular of the climate crisis by incorporating petroleum into their repertoire of materials. While there are artist collectives, like Liberate Tate, that have utilized oil as a means of performance art activism, there are, at present, only a very small number of artists using petroleum as an art material beyond an explicitly activist context.

When they do, their approach speaks to more abstract powers than fossil fuel corporations themselves: concepts like colonialism, life and death, family and immigration. It is also worth noting that all of these examples, like the demonstrations of Liberate Tate, were originally shown in London. I have yet to locate pieces featuring petroleum as art material elsewhere, beyond some amateur works being produced by a Russian craftsman.

The first crude oil piece that I encountered, and the only one that I’ve seen in person, is Kader Attia’s Oil and Sugar #2 (2007). It is a four-and-a-half-minute video that details the collapse of a large cube of stacked smaller sugar cubes after black crude oil is poured on. I found it quite emotionally impactful, and it first catalyzed my thinking about petroleum and its unique potential as an art material. The piece, however, does not critique petroleum companies per se. Rather, it is to be read as criticism of two of the main drivers of colonialism – sugar cane and oil – and is a visual representation of a global dance that propels domination and subjugation.

Richard Wilson, 20:50 (1987), Saatchi Gallery. The surface of the oil is so reflective that it appears like a mirror in this image.

Richard Wilson’s 20:50 (1987) is the most art-historically famous petroleum work. In the piece, an entire floor of the Saatchi Gallery in London was flooded with used “sump oil.” The work displays the balance between that which is toxic and that which is beautiful, evoking the failings of the human condition. Visually, the piece is stunning and smooth. It beckons not only the gaze, but also the touch of the viewer. However, sensorially, it emits a terrible stench and the glass-like depths of its darkness, when touched, are sticky and stain.

Shih Hsiung Chou, Oil Paintings, (2012-2013).

Shih Hsiung Chou’s petroleum-plexiglass sculptures fill clear receptacles like domes, frames, coffins, television screens, and pillars with sump oil. Chou’s works were, initially at least, were less a remark on human nature than they were on the state of being human. The pieces seek to emphasize the connectivity between people and the ancient animals and plants whose bodies form the oil that we use to construct and power our society.

Soheila Sokhanvari’s Fall on Our Knees (2016).

Soheila Sokhavari takes inspiration from her family photos of pre-revolutionary Iran, and captures them in petroleum. Her oil works are blurred sepia portraits, with details and faces painfully missing, suggesting that these memories of Sokhavari’s are painfully and incompletely recalled. Her pieces comment, then, on the trauma of a forgotten past and a painful present, a present created by international and domestic disputes over the most valuable commodity of her homeland: oil. 

All of these pieces demonstrate the complexity, the nuance, and, ultimately, the power of petroleum as an art material. It is up to future visual artists, however, to utilize petroleum more boldly and widely. There is a great opportunity for artists in more countries, especially countries in which oil has more profoundly wrecked environments and propelled economies, to utilize this material language. At the same time, there is more opportunity for visual artists to speak more directly and powerfully to the perpetrators of petroleum-based violence – to its safekeepers, to the willfully ignorant, to the blissfully unaware.

(Top image: Kader Attia, Oil and Sugar #2 (still), 2007. Single-channel video (color, sound), 4:30 minutes. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Nagel Draxler, and Lehmann Maupin. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.)


Ariana Akbari is the founder of Climate Justice Texas, an environmental advocacy program based in Southeast Texas, the heart of the oil and gas economy. She studied the History of Art & Architecture and the Comparative Study of Religion at Harvard College, with side jaunts at the University of Houston Hines College of Architecture and the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. She is passionate about corporate transparency, effectively-built spaces and community programs, and regionally-rooted art & design. 

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