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No other substance has shaped societies in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as much as petroleum. Airplanes, tanks, and spacecraft, motorways, shopping malls and suburban settlements, nylon stockings, mountains of plastic, and vinyl – key materials and technologies, lifestyles and visions of our time owe their existence to the energy density and transformability of oil. Now, however, the dusk of the “petrol age” is looming, whereby neither can its end be precisely dated, nor its consequences adequately assessed. The exhibition Oil. Beauty and Horror in the Petrol Age therefore takes a speculative, poetic look back at the presence of the modern age of petroleum, which has lasted for roughly one hundred years. From the distance of a hypothetical future, we ask what was typical of our time, what was great and beautiful, what was ugly and terrible, and how all this is reflected in art and culture.

Fundamental here is the observation of a deep conflict: In the oil boom of the 1950s and 1960s, gasoline and kerosene, plastic, asphalt, and synthetic fibers stood for the futuristic promises of boundless mobility, individual freedom, and unrestricted transformability. Today, they are associated with global battles over resources, mountains of waste, and global warming, as well as sea and air pollution.

The exhibition focuses on all this from a fictitious archaeological distance and at the same time seeks a thematic and emotional proximity: Beyond entrenched ideology, it confronts works of art with natural science and technology, politics and everyday life, with knowledge, practices, and apparatus from chemistry, drilling, and geology, from daily working life and pop culture, from industry and cultural theory. Well-known and lesser-known works of art from the canon of Western modernism, as well as from oil-producing regions around the globe, are reappraised in the black mirror of oil and placed in relation to current artistic positions.

The exhibition focuses on the decades between the end of the Second World War and today. The cultural, technical, and geological constellations presented range, however, from the Middle Ages and antiquity to the early history of culture and life, while at the same time anticipating developments that may extend hundreds or even thousands of years into the future. 

In this way, the exhibition presents the world’s first retrospective of the global modern age of petroleum.

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