I went to see Cabot Institute Artist in Residence Neville Gabie’s Archiving Oil installation in the Basement Stores of Geology last night (16 May 2013). It’s pretty cool to be down in the depths of the Wills Memorial Building at the University of Bristol and I can safely assure you I saw no ghosts. I started off by going into a lift and as the doors opened into the basement, there was an eerie darkness with a bright light emanating from a creepy corner. A man dressed in white was in front of me and he was pouring a sticky black substance into buckets. A distinctly thick, gloopy and dirty sound filled my ears. I promise you it wasn’t a ghost but the image in front of me was quite harrowing.
We use oil in everything we do and here was oil in its bare nakedness – black, shiny, thick, dirty. I stopped and stared for a while, mesmerised by the horribleness of the clean white background being splatted with this dirty substance. When you see oil like this, you know deep down that there is something quite sinister about it. I moved on to the next area, walking past rows of wooden drawers filled with items including fossils, meteorites, and geological rock formations. These things had been dug out of the ground and were possibly millions of years old...just like oil.
Around the corner was a group of people on hand to tell you about the exhibition including the organisers Neville Gabie (Cabot Institute Artist in Residence), Merle Patchett (Cultural Geographer at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol) and Claudia Hildebrandt (Curator of the Geology Basement Stores). I was given a torch and ushered into a dark storage area with wooden shelves towering above me. In every nook and cranny was an interesting oily artefact with a story to tell. The accompanying brochure put a personal touch to these stories especially when you find out each artefact and story comes from a Cabot Institute researcher whose goal is to do research to tackle the challenges of uncertain environmental change. Uncertain environmental change has in large part been caused by oil. Cities have grown, populations have risen, people want and need ‘stuff’ made from oil like cars, mobile phones, medicine, beauty products, clothing, toys, packaging etc etc...Oil was once embedded in bedrock and it is now deeply embedded in our lives.
My favourite bit of this dark storage area was a row of bottles of oil from different places in the world. All different colours and interestingly all different smells, some potent, some sweet. The smell of the Arabian oil – a strong diesel type smell - brought back memories of my childhood when I would greet my dad at the door when he came home from work. He would smell of this oil as he worked as a mechanic and it was the thick gloopy Arabian stuff that could have been used for car and lorry engines that my dad would work on day in and day out. However much I dislike oil and what it has done to the planet, I cannot deny the fact that I came from someone who had his hands covered in oil and therefore oil is as much a part of my history as it is anyone elses.
And this I realised is what the exhibition aims to do. It aims to show us that our lives are all affected by oil and in so many different ways. We may like to think we are ‘green’ and doing the right thing but actually we have a deeply embedded dirty relationship with oil that is unlikely to go away anytime soon...
If you missed out on this experience and you want to understand your connection with oil, Neville will be holding the exhibition again as the ‘Oil Common Room’ with a few new art pieces added. This will be held during BIG Green Week over two evenings in June.
This article was written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Cabot Institute
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