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Oil! | Tess Maunder

You are looking into a circular pool of oil; the smooth, thick, sticky substance is slowly bubbling and sloshing against itself; attempting to seep back into the muddy earth from which it has recently departed. The slick lulling action matches that of the timber oil-derrick that is rhythmically pumping the substance from the ground, driving various pulleys and crude mechanical devices along a coarse rope. The puddle mirrors the white clouds that dot the American sky, the reflection occasionally shows glimpses of the men lifting, hauling, pounding and working in the muck and adhesive slime.

This strangely seductive, if not slightly disturbing imagery is iconic to director Paul Thomas Anderson. In 2007 he released There Will Be Blood, a film based upon the life and events surrounding fictional oilman Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day Lewis. In the film we follow thirty years of his life and the parallel years of his antagonist Eli Sunday, local priest for the Church of the Third Revelation. The incredible tension of the ever- shifting power struggle between the two men is loosely adapted from the 1920’s novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair, the apt title of Cranstoun’s exhibition.

Oil! explores the conceptual folding, editing and amalgamation of particular fragments of iconic American historical research. In this exhibition, Cranstoun presents a discursive series of historical imagery, based upon both cinematic and literature re- interpretations surrounding the search for oil in early 20th century America. Hershey’s syrup, an American icon, is slapped on top of Daniel Plainview’s sweaty oil drenched face. A bizarre scenario transpires in which it seems the character himself is forced to drink the can of liquid chocolate. In another image, the same Hershey’s cutout is nearly identically positioned within a different scene from the movie, again looking inexplicably, yet purposefully out of place. By juxtaposing these seemingly unrelated images and symbols, Cranstoun appears to be deliberately assigning absurd metaphors to represent higher power ideologies from There Will Be Blood.

Oil! serves as further evidence of Cranstoun’s tendency towards curious and sporadic archival practices. He consciously engages with systems of historical representation as a method of investigating various possibilities of historical understanding. From his research he investigates the choice of inclusion or exclusion within historical references and history’s blockbuster cultural by-products, such as Oil! and There Will Be Blood. The process of historical research has long informed his practice; with his most recent show The Divine Right of Hands at Metro Arts this year, exploring key figures of World War I. He has constructed works surrounding the 2006 film The Queen depicting the series of events leading up to Lady Diana’s death and has also investigated the events surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, (which notably included research by the artist at the dedicated JFK library and museum in Boston).

Oil! expands upon Cranstoun’s interest in the re- presentation of history as research-based practice. When used collectively within one exhibition, the conjunctions of fact and fiction, and the addition of both literary and cinematic fragmentations, create a dense and complex cluster of historical re-formation. As cinema increasingly borrows content from history, a sense of historical truth is more difficult to recognise, causing a de-sensitivity in audience’s abilities to differentiate between the ‘real’ factual elements of the past and cinematic representations and reproductions of history.1 Through this crossover of fact and fiction, Oil! demonstrates the impossibility of knowing the way it ‘really was’ in the past, thus demonstrating how the construction of history is so often dependent on inherently subjective forms of representation; such as narrative, and the subliminal pairing of image and text. By continuously confusing the dialogue between history and its re-enactment, Cranstoun uses wry humour to expose our tendencies as viewers to relate to idealised, iconographic and nostalgic representations of the past.

At first Cranstoun’s outlook may seem encumbered by the historical factors his work draws from. However the figures of Cranstoun’s allegorical rendering assist in engaging with grander narratives around the re- appropriation of specific religious and capitalist icons within greater American history, and the binaries that are presented in the act of their amalgamation. Through his practice, he forces us to reconsider the authoritative nature of historical voice and question the canon of historical authenticity.

by Tess Maunder

1 Black, J. 2002. The Reality Effect: Film Culture and the Graphic Imperative. New York: Routledge.

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