A gift of the fuel gods: Nari Ward’s “Ultra”

I have been reading the Ralph Lemon and Triple Canopy volume On Value, which contains this brief piece by Nari Ward on his work Ultra. I was intrigued by the way that Ward invokes the curious case of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1959 work Canyon (which was gifted to MoMA on account of the fact that it couldn’t be sold because it incorporated a stuffed bald eagle in its composition). Ward’s reference to this work and his repeated invocation of what he dubs the ‘fuel gods’ of Ultra seemed to me to connect his work with the myth of Ganymede at the centre of Rauschenberg’s assemblage. Here is Ward’s text (click on it to go to the Triple Canopy website to see Ward’s short film about Ultra):

I am intrigued by things that affect us on a daily basis but over which we have little control, such as rigid and at times irrational bureaucratic systems. Glenn Lowry spoke about the predicament Ileana Sonnabend’s heirs faced regarding Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon, which they owned but could not legally sell because the stuffed bald eagle affixed to the canvas was under federal protection; nevertheless, the IRS estimated the artwork’s value—on which Sonnabend’s heirs had to pay taxes—at sixty-five million dollars. I never had any great interest in this work of Rauschenberg’s. However, I liked that the piece was both unsellable and extremely valuable, and when looking at it I felt a strange regard for its special stature.

Around the same time that Ralph Lemon invited me to attend this talk, I was working in Louisiana and found a service-station sign for gas prices. The metal flip system with its large black numbers on a bright yellow background stirred in me an odd sense of power. I felt as if I had captured the messenger—as though this object could give me a line to the fuel gods; as though the “fuel gods” exist and possess reassuring powers of insight and control over invisible flows of capital. But this sensation was brief, soon replaced with the ever present sense of anxiety and frustration about the price of oil and paranoia about the manner of its acquisition and consumption. I wanted to retain that sweet fiction of power, even if it would only soothe these uneasy feelings temporarily, leaving their deeper cause untreated.

I spray-painted the flip sign and accented its numbers with petroleum. Adorning the fuel gods’ messenger with gold and anointing its surface with gasoline and tar allowed me see the sign as a thing of this world, even as the action of rearticulating its numbers took on the repetitive quality of a sacred ritual. With its alterable numbers, the sign conjures a sense of motion and of time passing and, like Canyon, does not claim to be anything more than special.

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