A new sculpture in Midtown is the biggest thing—literally— to hit the Atlanta art scene this year. Autoeater, which is planned for a three-year run, is massive, clocking in at nine tons. Located at 10th Street and Peachtree, it is the creation of German artists Julia Venske and Gregor Spänle, the duo known for their Seussian creations made of marble that are probably familiar to regular visitors to Marcia Wood Gallery, where works of theirs are usually on display in the back room and on the patio.
Autoeater is hard to miss. It’s a towering slab of Carrara marble that seems to be swallowing whole a white Fiat Panda (an “everyman’s” car for continental Europeans). The soft, bulging, and creased form resembles a giant earthworm. It has been likened to a fleshy uncircumcised penis, or a discarded condom. The car’s back end sticks out of the “mouth” that seems to slowly devour it. The outline of the car’s wheels, windows, and other parts seem to press through the “skin” of the marble like a snake that has just swallowed a rodent. It’s an arresting sight, especially at a corner that receives a lot of vehicular traffic—approximately 40,500 vehicles daily. Coincidentally, the Carrara marble used in Autoeater matches the marble of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, which is just across the street.
Despite the fact that Autoeater occupies a public place, it is technically on private property and not funded by tax dollars. The piece was commissioned by Midtown Alliance, a nonprofit organization committed to making its neighborhood more livable and lovable. In late 2016, the Alliance issued a request for proposals for a new piece of temporary art at the corner of 10th and Peachtree Street and Autoeater was selected from 11 proposals. Since 2013, that corner had been occupied by the 22,000-pound Rockspinner, a granite boulder mounted on a rotating base by artist Zachary Coffin.
Rockspinner was an interactive piece, but not exactly hard-hitting. Autoeater, by contrast, seems to taunt drivers that go by. Venske said she hopes the humor of the piece might inspire people to ditch their cars and walk more. Midtown Alliance’s support of this work sends an understated message; the group is committed to making their neighborhood more walkable. The parcel of land where Autoeater sits is owned by John Dewberry, who has kept that property curiously undeveloped. Nearby Autoeater are other Midtown Alliance-backed efforts to engage the public, including a rainbow of Adirondack chairs and a badminton court.
Getting Autoeater in place was a huge undertaking, says Marcia Wood, who was instrumental in getting the work to Atlanta. The piece was shipped from La Spezia, Italy, weeks before it was to be installed. Wood wanted to make sure that Autoeater would be in place in time for the Peachtree Road Race on July 4, so she enlisted the help of customs expediter to avoid delays. Once the artwork made it to the Port of Savannah, it was transported via truck to Atlanta. The work was delivered to the site on June 30, and roads were closed to bring in a crane that lifted it into place.
Initial online responses were quick to criticize Autoeater, or at least to bemoan the loss of their beloved Rockspinner. An article in the real-estate blog Curbed garnered many negative comments. “As unappealing as this sculpture looks in photos, let me assure you, it looks even worse in person,” wrote one person. “Art is about setting, and put a big lump of white marble with an Italian car in it on a vibrant street corner of Atlanta shows no sense of aesthetic sensibility,” commented another. My favorite, “Fiat with a foreskin.” Some speculated that the marble would turn dark and sooty with all the car exhaust pumped out at that corner (unlikely, but Carrara marble may turn a bit yellow with age). Others made the point that it probably would have been more a more successful work had the artists used a car that Americans actually drive — an SUV, for example — which would’ve hammered in a message about our dependence on cars.
Admittedly, Autoeater isn’t like most public art in Atlanta. The piece is a bit confrontational. While the requisite approvals and permits had to be obtained from the city, the work may not have been approved if it were truly “public” art, i.e., funded by a municipal agency, because it’s not yet another bland abstract sculpture carefully calculated to offend no one. A blob eating a car is seriously funny, and humor is a great way to deliver a message. Wood believes that sparking conversation, positive or negative, is central to a good piece of public art. Love it or hate it, Autoeater will be parked at that corner for the next few years.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues.