On a fog-shrouded Friday morning, a tow truck pulled up to two twisted, wrecked cars to untangle them and haul them off to a junk yard.
It’s not too strange of a sight — traffic takes its toll from time to time and we just hope everybody walks away — but on this particular morning, the two cars are part of Jonathan Schipper’s “The Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle,” a kinetic sculpture that was installed in front of NuLu’s Garage Bar, a co-venture between 21c and Proof on Main chef Michael Paley, when it opened in 2011.
The sculpture takes two cars, junkers but still relatively whole, and over the course of several weeks, crashes them into each other in slow motion. Schipper has created several iterations of the piece, each one different.
The cars have become a fixture of the popular NuLu eatery and watering hole, and while these cars have reached the end of their lives, two new vehicles, destined for destruction, will replace the old, and the slow-motion destruction derby will start all over.
The changeover is being closely observed by two specialists from 21c — Deanna Taylor, 21c’s registrar, and Brandon Harder, one of 21c’s associate “preporators.”
“It’s a made-up word,” jokes Harder before explaining how he, along with other preporators, are responsible for preparing art to be shipped from a central warehouse that services all of 21c’s hotels. They also transport the art, set it up and often do the reverse as well, taking down art and carefully putting it away.
This piece of art, however, requires special preparations.
“It’s been a little over a month-long process to find cars, get them bought,” says Harder. “They are currently at our storage facility where we basically made them nice so we can crash them into each other. These are basically junk cars to begin with, and you get what you pay for.”
Harder is the project manager for this installation, chosen because he is both a fine artist — he graduated from University of Louisville with a degree in sculpture — and a self-described “car guy.”
Prepping the cars isn’t just fixing the rust spots. Harder also was in charge of giving the cars a little extra of a “DIY hot-rodder look.”
“We’ve done a few things, like the cars that were here, the graphics that were on them, the different paint that was all added just to give it a more muscle car feel,” he explains. “So the new cars, you’ll see when the get here, they’ve been embellished a little bit as well.”
Taylor, the registrar, is normally in charge of taking care of art, an ironic duty on this particular piece, which involves purposeful and controlled destruction.
“It’s a unique challenge, but it’s inherent to the piece,” she says. “Over the next few days when we bring these two new cars in, they’re going to slowly like collide into each other.”
Just to the side of where the cars sit is a dusty-looking mechanism standing about 5 feet tall. It has an intentionally industrial look and fits in perfectly with Garage Bar’s decor. If you didn’t know it was there and what it was, you might look right past it. It’s got an electrical motor, a series of gears and hydraulic fluid that powers the works of the machine that crashes the cars together.
While curious patrons can normally walk around the cars and get a pretty good idea of what’s going on underneath, the mechanism sat naked for a little over an hour while the installation waited for its latest victims, and the few onlookers who passed got an unimpeded look under the hood.
The cars are attached to metal sleds welded onto the underside of their rear ends. That work, as well as several steps in the process preparing the underside for the new cars, is done by a local contractor and fabricator named Mike Mullins. Mullins also did a lot of the work on the rest of Garage Bar’s decor.
The sleds are bolted to big hydraulic arms that do the actually pushing.
While “The Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle” is pretty cool in its own right, there is a point to the punishment dished out to the automobiles.
Taylor explains her view of the artist’s intention.
“The whole point of this is to replicate an automobile collision, but in slow motion, you’re breaking it down, because automobile collisions happen in a matter of seconds,” she says. “The artist is breaking it down so people can view it over a longer period of time.”
In his artist statement about the piece, Schipper talks about our collective fascination with car crashes, which he says we see countless times in films.
“Cars are extensions of our body and our ego,” Schipper writes. “We buy or modify cars that reflect our personalities and egos. When we see an automobile destroyed, in a way we are looking at our own inevitable death.”
He ends by saying, “We are left to contemplate our own mortality.”
You can see “The Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle” any time you visit NuLu, but if you want to catch the cars in motion, better get down to Garage Bar in the next couple of days.
If the existential dilemma of your ultimate decay and death gets you down, have a pizza. The Margherita is our favorite.
Garage Bar is located at 700 E. Market St.