An exploration of oil as the devil’s excrement

The title of David Jacques’ exhibition was inspired by an Opec minister, writes Ellie O’Byrne

An exploration of oil as the devil’s excrement

IN THE 1970s, the University of Caracas formed a choral ensemble to tour the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) member states, performing a selection of folk music from each country.

A double vinyl album of the Opec choir’s music still exists. The countries listed on the sleeve are a chilling reminder of the trials and violent tribulations that oil is a harbinger of: Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Kuwait, Venezuela... countries whose mineral wealth has brought political instability, social inequity and all-out war. The voices of the very indigenous peoples the recording hoped to celebrate have been dimmed, by the unslakeable global thirst for petrochemicals, in the decades since the album was pressed.

This irony isn’t lost on Liverpudlian artist David Jacques as he unpicks the complex strands of thought behind his latest exhibition, Oil is the Devil’s Excrement, which explores mankind’s fraught relationship with oil. Anthropology, weird fiction, medieval daemonology: Jacques has drawn on filaments that span centuries and traverse continents to weave a body of work as rich in narrative as it is steeped in crude.

The extent of his research is so broad that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but the Opec album, extracts of which have made their way in to the sound design for a 10-minute animated film which forms a part of his exhibition, is as good a place to start as any, as it lies next to Jacques’ laptop.

“The songs emanated from those countries that were going to get it the worst,” he says. “These were the people that wouldn’t escape; peasant people who were being inducted into waged labour.”

“I was aware that I was gravitating towards making a work that was about the omnipotence of petrochemicals,” Jacques says.

He began painting a series in 2014, a chorus of daemons clad in hazchem suits cavorting with 3d renditions of sections of the human genome, rendered in oil-derived gloss paint and enamels. Their silhouettes were borrowed from 16th century prints produced for a Lenten festival in Nuremberg.

This impartial delving into history has become a hallmark of Jacques’ work, into which he weaves what he calls “temporal registers.” In his essay film The Dionysians of West Lancs, the painter and video artist juxtaposed footage of 1990s Lancashire raves with passages from an 18th century act of parliament and gramophone recordings from 1920s Casablanca to explore notions of freedom of assembly.

For Oil is the Devil’s Excrement, his paintings are accompanied by a series of collages, but it is a film installation that forms the focal point of the exhibition, and where the story of the exhibition’s title unfolds.

Searching for a protagonist for the animation, Jacques happened upon one of Opec’s founders, a Venezuelan energy minister named Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo. In 1976, Alfonzo had uttered a prophetic warning: “Ten years from now, 20 years from now, you will see; oil will bring us ruin. Oil is the Devil’s excrement.”

Alfonso was invoking a pre- Columbian proverb in his memorable phrase. “He gives us the warning, but he’s invoked something from centuries ago,” Jacques says. “He taps into the past and looks towards the future with this warning.”

“It’s a parable; there’s untold wealth if your nation-state is minerally rich, but in tapping into that, you’re tapping into a stuff that has potentially really big problems for your ecology. In the rush to get the oil out of the ground and sell it quickly, untold wealth floods into the country and economically destabilises it.”

Jacques’ animation, with Alfonso as the unfortunate protagonist, is a devilishly picaresque morality play; we join Alfonso on his deathbed, as he returns to what Carl Jung termed “the nigredo”.

“In psycho-analysis, Jung describes ‘the nigredo’; the boiling down of matter into this black goo, which is pretty much as close a reference to oil as you can get,” Jacques says. “He equates that with the shadow, and the dark night of the soul. But there’s another aspect to it, which is this trope within weird fiction of objects being sentient: oil itself turns up and starts berating Alfonso on his deathbed; he realises that everything’s a mess, and he’s been a contributing factor to it.”

  • Oil is the Devil’s Excrement opens at Triskel Christchurch on Thursday with an artist tour at 5pm. The exhibition runs until May 27

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