Bennett to examine visual elements of oil

Guest lecturer Elizabeth Bennett will be speaking about the visual culture surrounding oil and its byproducts in a speech entitled “To Throttle and Gag the Monster: Petroleum Theaters in Photography and Film.” The lecture will begin tonight in the Art and Art History Building. Photo Courtesy College of Fine Arts
Guest lecturer Elizabeth Bennett will be speaking about the visual culture surrounding oil and its byproducts in a speech entitled “To Throttle and Gag the Monster: Petroleum Theaters in Photography and Film.” The lecture will begin tonight in the Art and Art History Building.
Photo Courtesy College of Fine Arts

Tonight in the Art and Art History Building, guest lecturer Elizabeth Bennett will be giving a fascinating talk on the visual culture surrounding oil and its byproducts titled “To Throttle and Gag the Monster: Petroleum Theaters in Photography and Film.” The lecture is part of the continuing Visiting Art Historian Lecture Series the Art and Art History Student Association promotes and will take place at 4:30 p.m.
Elizabeth Bennett is currently an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. Having recently completed her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, this lecture represents the first work Bennett has done since her dissertation. The work is a dramatic change of pace from her previous research on the first consensual images taken of Old Order Amish.
Recalling how she made the transition from photographs of the Amish, who will not even use oil, to creating a body of research based solely on this material, Bennett remembered the “strange hypnotic quality” images of the BP Oil Spill held over her and the general public in 2010. Thinking of how those clouds of oil emerged into the sea, Bennett could not help but wonder how their visual representation had shaped the Western visual landscape.
Using the failure of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling station as a jumping-off point, Bennett began to investigate how the visual understanding of oil’s physical and chemical properties has affected the visual culture of the West. She used a decidedly art historical method of interpretation to intentionally avoid bringing political and environmental concerns into her analysis.
While Bennett acknowledges the effects of oil are pressing issues, she wants her research to focus on the ways the visualization of oil has changed the visual landscape of the West without “outlining political implications.”
In a society supported by oil and its byproducts being used in things like cars, ships and even paints, Bennett sees it as essential to acknowledge how one’s visual understanding of oil has shaped the general knowledge of its uses. How can sludge from beneath the ocean create sublime billowing clouds of pressurized awe, shimmering reflections on the floor of a mechanics shop and the Mona Lisa all at the same time?
These are the types of questions Bennett hopes to address in her lecture. By focusing on how the visual elements of oil have been articulated throughout history, she intends to shed light on the implications this substance has had in the visual landscape of Western thought and iconography.
Bennett’s lecture represents a unique opportunity for U students to see fresh and enlightening research from a contemporary scholar. The work Bennett is presenting was created specifically for her talk and no other audience has seen it yet, although she hopes to get it published shortly. In an environment where the most recent research usually covered in school is from the 1980s and ‘90s, it is encouraging to see that new research is still possible and actively being pursued.
Going to school within eyeshot of Kennecott Copper Mine and several refineries, it is important for U students to understand how visualization of natural resources affects how their use is interpreted. Besides the typical concerns of ecology and geopolitical power structures, analyzing how oil has been visually represented and interpreted over time is crucial to students’ continued use of it within Western civilization.
Bennett’s talk should prove to be not only entertaining, but also informative to anyone attending. With or without a background or interest in art history, any audience member should get something from the lecture, especially given the U’s location and the general intrigue this topic brings up both economically and socially.