A procession that includes a fleet of classic Cadillacs and a concrete truck will be on hand to celebrate the return to the University of Chicago campus of “the largest and most ambitious Fluxus object in existence”, says Christine Mehring, the chair of the university’s art history department. Concrete Traffic (1970), a public art piece by the German Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell (1932-98) that is comprised of a 1957 Cadillac encased in 14 tonnes of concrete, returned to campus on 30 September after a four-year project to conserve it. Its return and related programming is a teaser for the 2017 city-wide initiative 50X50: Celebrating 50 Years of Public Art in Chicago.
Mehring is behind the push to bring Concrete Traffic back into public view. She first became aware of the piece in 2011, when a university staff member mentioned that a car covered in concrete was in storage. She knew of its twin, Ruhender Verkehr, which Vostell created in Cologne in 1969. “I instantly knew I had stumbled on another,” she says. “When I went to visit it with facilities staff, I was both thrilled—the discovery of a lifetime as no one had known just what we had—and devastated; the sculpture was in terrible condition.”
It was suffering from several maladies, the most concerning being that its support structure had corroded. This was putting severe stress on the concrete, resulting in a large vertical crack. Also, a different type of concrete was used for three areas, and these “patches” had developed cracks and had aged differently from the rest of the car, changing its visual aesthetic. Mehring drafted in a team of conservators, including Christian Scheidemann—an expert on non-traditional materials—from the firm Contemporary Conservation. The team was able to create a support structure that maintains the illusion of a freestanding sculpture while ensuring the structural integrity of the concrete shell, which Mehring describes as an enormous challenge.
Mehring says that Concrete Traffic and Vostell’s other concrete works, which he began making in 1969, represent an “important transitional period from his happenings in the 1960s to monumental sculptures and environments in the 1970s”. He liked the material and thematic associations with concrete. Mehring sees Concrete Traffic as an “ambivalent monument” that both reflects Vostell’s “attraction to America’s postwar dynamism, ‘preserving’ the Cadillac as a symbol of the country’s prosperity, mobility and optimism”, and as a critique of “the destructive tendencies of contemporary American politics and society—riven by racism, violence and the Vietnam War—by rendering the car non-functional, virtually unmovable and more visually akin to a tank or machine of war”.
An exhibition of Vostell’s concrete sculptures from 1969 to 1973 is due to open at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art on 17 January (until 11 June 2017).