Artist's Statement

Johnna Arnold

Millions of years ago plant matter full of sunshine was buried underground, where it slowly transformed into a rich but toxic substance, hiding quietly beneath our feet. A hundred and fifty years ago this substance was transformed into a product. Long considered useless, it has proven foundational to a sea-change of invention and economic growth. Today, once processed, it is used to fuel our cars, to heat our homes, it is a base material for plastics, and it performs as an essential lubricant for internal combustion engines. This quiet substrate empowers and impairs—toxic yet instrumental—it is the silent life-blood of our Capitalocene.

From Inside This Earth is a body of unique photographic C-prints made by enlarging individual samples of used motor oil. Remarkably parallel in their timelines, I utilize one of the most pivotal inventions of our time (photography) to investigate a similarly pivotal substrate (oil). In shining light through a substance that is in effect captured, refined light, I revel in the nonsensical combination of these two medias. By investigating this material that supports our contemporary lifestyle, a substance that has become a growing source of environmental disdain can instead be considered, even celebrated.

To gather each specimen I find mechanics willing to individually label small containers of this smelly liquid. The story is the same for each sample: dredged up, refined, bought and sold, then utilized as an essential lubricant in one of the one-billion motor vehicles currently at use on this planet. To create an image, I pour the oil onto a glass plate and place it inside a photographic enlarger, where a negative would usually go. The enlarger sends light through the plate and lens, onto the light-sensitive paper below—chronicling details within this semi-viscous liquid at that moment, never to be replicated again. A repugnant substance is transformed into landscapes, moonscapes, seascapes, for our imaginations.