One of Israel's Most Famous Designers Crushes Cars for Art

On June 19, a solo exhibition by Israeli-British artist, designer and architect Ron Arad will open at the Design Museum Holon.

Last Thursday at the Design Museum Holon: Five days before the opening of the solo exhibition of Israeli-British artist, designer and architect Ron Arad. On the walls were already hanging six old, crushed Fiat 500s. The exhibition, “Ron Arad: In Reverse,” opens June 19 and runs for four months.

From time to time someone from the museum staff passes by, looking for Arad to consult with him on the placement of one of his works. The curator of Arad’s exhibition, Lydia Yee from the Barbican Art Gallery, is also somewhere nearby, but suddenly Arad notices one of the cleaning workers moving around in the hall and staring at the crushed cars with a look of curiosity − even though it is obviously not the first time he has seen them. Arad stops the interview for a moment and asks the young man: “What do you think?”

“Cool,” he answers. “It’s nice to see that picture.”

“Very nice,” responds Arad, pleased with the answer. “Which one do like the most, which would you choose?”

“The white one.”

“Yes, the white is the most macho of all of them. It also has three wheels.”

“Only Fiat?” asks the young man.

“Yes. Only Fiat 500,” confirms Arad, and then turns to me: “This response interests me more than the response of some ‘gallerist.’”

The fact that the young man related to the crushed cars as a picture hanging on the wall is testimony to the success of Arad’s work: The three-dimensional, useful object turns into a “work” or “picture.” This is also the response Arad hopes to receive from the rest of the visitors: The curious look, the amazement, the “cool,” the whole package.

If it was up to him, in order to achieve that surprise, Arad would have preferred you read this article only after you see the exhibition. In an unusual step, the cars were kept a secret from the press, though someone who follows the details could have guessed that the new works would deal with the automotive world. The hints could have been found, for example, in the name of the exhibition, or in the announcement that during the exhibition there will be a panel entitled “The Full Truth About Men and Cars,” with the editor of “Auto” magazine.

‘I don’t control the world’

“When you do something new, you want people to come with an open mind, without prior assumptions,” Arad explains. “A bit like not to know who the murderer is. But everything in proportion. I don’t control the world.”

But Arad too, who controlled every detail in the exhibition − its hanging, lighting, catalog, placement, title and so on − knows that he is not superhuman. Still, the exhibition actually proves the opposite: After all, with who else would a company like Fiat have been willing to cooperate so they could crush its cars and hang them on the wall? When he walks around the museum, which he himself designed and opened in 2010 − and which placed him on the map of international architecture, Arad looks for a moment like a little boy on his own playground.

Arad tries not to make a big deal of it; he is even a bit modest about it. He tries to compare his work process to the actions of every artist, it doesn’t matter in which area. “Everyone who does something knows there is a risk: What if no one comes? Or you come and say ‘Yes, so what?’ That people will say ‘That’s all?’ Every creation is like that. All your life you work and ask what if: What if I do this, or [something] else? It’s all whats and ifs. But then you start to work. You make renderings but you need to guarantee the physical results will be better that the virtual [results], more convincing than the digital rendering, otherwise there is no reason to do it. When you make such an exhibition you believe in what you are doing, but you can be a flop. You breathe a sigh of relief only after the people whose opinion is important to you give you positive reinforcement,” said Arad.

Six crushed cars are hanging in the upper gallery, but as to the obvious question of why crush cars at all, Arad has a hard time − or is not even interested in − answering. First he tells why all those who expect to see a retrospective exhibition of his works will be disappointed − for example, the solo exhibitions he presented over the past five years in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Barbican in London.

“I owed Holon an exhibition for a long time and I really didn’t feel like an another retrospective. I wasn’t interested in investing effort in an exhibition that I have already seen and I know what to do,” said Arad.

The roots of the exhibition can already be found in Arad’s own personal history. On the other side of the wall where the cars are hung, Arad placed objects that relate to the main exhibition. For example, one of his iconic works, the Rover chair, which he created early in his career in 1981, where he made use of the leather seat of a Rover car he found in a scrap yard near his studio.

In addition, there are also copies of his chairs that he found in Italy and which sat in his studio − and that he didn’t know what to do with. “They were heavy and annoying, until I decided to turn them from something fake into something original. ‘Original Ron Arad,’” he says with a wicked smile.

In the exhibition catalog, Arad tells curator and historian of design Hans-Ulrich Obrist of a formative memory from his childhood. His family’s first car was a Fiat Topolino Giardinetta, which was made mostly out of wood. “One day at 7:30 in the morning someone knocked on our door and said that our father, who had already left for work, was involved in a traffic accident with the Fiat.” Arad and his brother took their bicycles and rode there and saw the destruction. “We thought there was no chance that someone could come out of there alive. And then we went to the hospital and met father there.” ‏(By the way, his father still drives − it is impossible to stop him, Arad says − and he’s 95 years old.‏) “The first thing he said to us was ‘If the car was not made out of wood I wouldn’t be here now.’ My father was saved because his car was made out of wood,” said Arad.

Crush it to save it

The idea of crushing cars came years later, when Arad was in Milan, trying to save a statue by crushing it. “It was a statue originally designed for a roof and atrium of a house in France, a project that was canceled in the end. They had already made the statue and it was necessary to make changes because of the scale since it was intended to be part of the building’s structure. So we crushed it at the Milan Polytechnic. From that I got the idea to crush things in reverse. Once I would make manipulations on the metal to create usable objects from it − if not exactly essential − and from there we do the opposite. I decided to take cars. I was in Italy, and I have an ongoing affair with the Fiat 500, the cinquecento. I decided I wanted to turn these beautiful three-dimensional [objects] into pictures, to immortalize them in some fashion,” said Arad.

Later Arad also linked the present exhibition to his history of working with materials. “In the 1980s, when I had just started, I worked with metal in a very physical way, like rough work and welding. I created the closest thing I could to action painting in three dimensions. Recently I entered the digital world and I thought that this world would leave me behind, but in fact it has taken me over completely. On the other hand, I still am in Camden, in the same place where I abused metal. I was sucked into the world of design through metal scrap yards and the first piece of furniture I ever made, before I knew at all I was going in that direction, was the Rover chair,” he said.

Two of the exhibits behind the scenes of the exhibition are a crushed camera and toy police car that Arad found 40 years ago on the street in Tel Aviv, where he was born in 1951, and brought to London, when he left the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and moved to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London.

“’In Reverse’ is an exhibition about the shift from the physical to the digital − except in reverse. Rather than manipulate materials to render them functional or render digital models towards a functional object, here I ‘reverse’ perfectly functional objects and render them useless,” said Arad. The exhibition, according to the catalog, “examines the ongoing dialogue between handmade and digital processes in Arad’s practice.”

“Today,” says Arad, “when I see a can on the street that was run over time after time, I can’t not pick it up. It’s like in nature, a sort of unbelievable beauty that stems from the force on things, and all the interest after that is in the choice.”

He was a never-ending collector of such things and he still has a collection, he said. “So there is on one side the physical crushing of things and on the other side the digital crushing,” says Arad. “The digital one we can do ourselves in the studio and do it really well. But I want more, more something, [I] don’t know what the word here is exactly.”

Daniel Chechik