Ant Farm 1968–1978, Berkely Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

by Clark Buckner

Ant Farm (Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, and Doug Michaels), Cadillac Ranch, 1974, site-specific installation, Amarillo, TX. Courtesy of the University of California Press.

In 1972, the art collective known as Ant Farm constructed a time capsule by filling a refrigerator, which they described as the “open door to the American dream,” with such everyday cultural artifacts as candy bars, magazines, fake eyelashes, and a television. When they opened the fridge in 1984, its contents were rotten and corroded. Fascinated by both the power of mass-produced images and the transience of modern life, Ant Farm created models for nomadic living (most of its members were trained as architects) and staged confrontations with the junk culture of late capitalism that reflected the seductions of the modern world while deconstructing their pretenses to lasting value.

Apart from the inflatable dwelling Ice-9, which sat like a landed blimp in the center of its Berkeley presentation, this touring exhibition appropriately contains very few objects recognizable as art. The notebooks, plans for projects, magazine articles, news clippings, video reels, record albums, posters, and photographs here provide traces of works rather than constitute works themselves. Using a range of media (including video, installation, and environmental activism), the collective directed their preoccupations primarily to performative or conceptual projects.

Ant Farm was particularly fascinated by the American automobile as the embodiment of a utopian ideal of nomadism. If we all climbed into our cars with a couple of friends, they note, “Every American would be accommodated and there would be room to spare in the back seat.” This love of cars found its highest expression in the well-known installation Cadillac Ranch, comprising 10 Cadillac sedans half-buried hood-first in a row in the Texas desert. The piece presents a history of the tailfin from 1949 to 1964 and constitutes a tribute to the Cadillac as a symbol of luxury and accomplishment while also staging the forced obsolescence implicit in modern design by driving the cars literally into their graves.

The collective also repeatedly returned to the utopian promises of television, both exploring its potential for the construction of novel social environments and critically dissecting the mythical power of its objective gaze. Their experiments in future-living put them in close contact and critical dialogue with the American dream.

Clark Buckner

American Dream
american culture
Fall 2004
The cover of BOMB 89