Piers Secunda went to obsessive lengths to make sure his crude oil silkscreens were authentic.
One artist puts crude oil to creative use to explore the material's history
A whitewashed gallery in an achingly cool part of London might not seem like the most obvious place to be discussing the sweat, grime and struggle that characterised the early oil industry. But as the artist Piers Secunda shows me around his new exhibition, it makes perfect sense. On the Tube one day, the 35-year-old was reading The Prize, the Pulitzer-winning history of oil by Daniel Yergin. Inspiration struck. Secunda wouldn't just attempt to chronicle the discovery of oil - and therefore some of the most important developments in our time - through art. He would actually paint in crude oil itself.
As it sometimes happens, it sounded great in theory.
"Actually getting hold of the crude oil was quite a challenge," he says with a smile. "You can go on to a website and buy 100,000 barrels of the stuff, but of course you never actually see it. It's not delivered to your door. But there are tiny specimen samples and novelty bottles from museums if you look hard enough. I spent a lot of time on eBay. A lot of time. "
It would have been easy enough, having obtained the oil and made it function as paint, to produce abstract artworks. Instead, Secunda found old photographs from the pioneering age of oil exploration, of wells and fields, and transferred them on to a silkscreen printed with crude. They're hugely effective as nostalgic records of a bygone age, reminders of oil's immense importance and, in their fragmented, almost ghostly appearance, as art. And one depicts a significant development in the history of the Middle East.
"This one is called Dammam No.7 Blowing In," he says. "It shows the moment in 1937 when the first oil blew out of this tiny little well head in Saudi Arabia. And this is the point at which global politics, economics and the history of energy shifts in a colossal way. It was the beginning of something completely new in the Middle East."
To Secunda's immense credit, he didn't just search some archives, find important photographs and dash off a silkscreen using any old crude oil. The work had to have an authenticity - which meant Secunda waited until he actually found oil from that exact well, Dammam No.7, before he made the work. He waited a long time.
"Two years," he laughs. "And then I found a corporate paperweight on eBay with the oil on the inside, marked Dammam No.7. You might think that a bit obsessive, but I really wanted the story of that specific well to be portrayed through its medium."
Such attention to detail - all of the work in the room, whether it depicts a Texan, Canadian or Californian oilfield, is painted using the oil from the correct well - is refreshing. As is his refusal to make any political statements about the provenance of oil, even though that might be a fashionable discussion to have among the chattering classes of London.
"It's an inherently political material, I realise that, but I genuinely don't think I'm in a position to say oil is bad," he says. "The incredible thing about crude oil is that it's absolutely and totally inseparable from everything we do. It facilitates everything - if you remove it, you'd have mayhem. At the same time, it's strangely politically incorrect in Europe to say that crude oil is good. I don't take a position because I want this to be a record of an amazingly important time. You have the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, and the petrochemical age will be acknowledged in the same way. I think it can't not be - it's too significant."
Such interest in recording seismic moments continues in the next, unrelated room of his exhibition, where a series of friezes are shattered by bullet holes. And specifically, Taliban bullet holes from suicide bomb-attack sites. Like his work with crude oil, Secunda's attention to detail is miraculous; he actually went to Kabul with a suitcase of silicone putty, got a police chief to take him to a house that had been the scene of an atrocity, and cast the holes.
The results have a solemn majesty, but I wonder why Secunda felt compelled to make the work in the first place.
"Well, to me, the Taliban are the most serious and politically significant people we're contending with right now. So I think it's important to make a physical record of their actions. The crude oil pictures are a record of a moment where something changed, where you went from deserted landscape to oilfield. It's the same here, in that I'm documenting a specific moment.
"You know," he says, as we leave the gallery, "there's a lot of art that simply deals with itself. And I came to a position where I wanted to deal with the real world."
Taliban Relief Paintings And Crude Oil Silk Screens is at Aubin Gallery, London, until December 24. www.pierssecunda.com