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This is BMW's stunning new Art Car: a V8 hybrid artwork that'll race at Le Mans

The 20th instalment in BMW's long-running series of Art Cars is one of the coolest yet

Published: 22 May 2024

“The whole BMW Art Car project is about invention, about imagination, about pushing the limits of what can be possible. I don’t think of this car as something you would exhibit. I am thinking of it as something that will race in Le Mans. It’s a performative painting. And it’s only going to be completed once the race is over.”

The art and automobile worlds rarely overlap, but BMW’s bona fides in this area are beyond doubt. TopGear.com has a front row seat in Paris’s prestigious Centre Pompidou as renowned Ethiopian American painter and artist Julie Mehretu pulls the wraps off the latest entry in a series that genuinely crosses boundaries. Based on the M Hybrid V8, this is number 20 in a run of cars that began in 1975 when French auctioneer and racing driver Hervé Poulain persuaded his friend, the artist Alexander Calder, that it might be fun to do a trick paint-job on a BMW 3.0 CSL.

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The result duly raced in the 1975 Le Mans 24 Hours, Poulain co-driving with American legend Sam Posey and former Ferrari endurance racer (and Le Mans winner) Jean Guichet. That was Year Zero in a series which has since transformed various BMWs into rolling art works by heavyweight visionaries such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Jenny Holzer, and Jeff Koons.

Not all of them have raced, but Mehretu’s car will be campaigned at Le Mans next month in the LMDh category with Sheldon van der Linde, Robin Frijns, and René Rast sharing the driving duties. As anyone who’s ever been will attest, the Le Mans 24 Hours can itself become a decidedly abstract experience, especially if you’ve ever tried to catch a few hours kip at 5am on the floor of the media room. Those carpets are not for the faint-hearted.

Mehretu’s car has a definite street art vibe, and takes her epic painting Everywhen as its jumping-off point. That’s the centrepiece of a retrospective currently being held at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, and a work inspired by the shameful events on Capitol Hill, Washington DC on 6 January 2021. A jury of art world luminaries convenes on an irregular basis to choose an artist for the BMW series, and like her predecessors Mehretu had no idea she was even in contention. Nor did she choose to accept the mission when first approached by BMW’s urbane cultural emissary, Dr Thomas Girst.

But while holed up in the Catskills with her family during the first Covid lockdown, she soon came round to the idea. When Girst confirmed that the new subject would be a racing car, rather than the EV originally mooted, she was persuaded. “My nephew loves motorsport,” Mehretu says. “He said, ‘this is so cool, you’ve got to do it!’”

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The visuals on the M Hybrid V8 are derived from digitally altered photographs, superimposed on the car’s bodywork in layers of abstract dot-matrix grids, ‘neon-coloured veils’ and distinctive black bursts. Working with BMW’s designers and Mehretu’s own team, 3D mapping was used to transfer the art onto what is a highly distinctive automotive canvas.

“I didn’t know how to approach it to begin with,” she admits. “It was a real challenge. It was a question of finding the right approach, and seeing the cars race at Daytona helped unlock it. Watching the racing through the night and into the morning… It stayed with me, all these abstract shapes, the M logo whizzing round the track, it stayed with me and got into my subconscious somehow.”

She continues: “I had a model of the car that we pushed around the studio. I thought, ‘how can I get the painting to drip into the car, become totally enmeshed with it and integral to it?’ That was when I got to the idea of the car travelling through the painting until it became this weird physical space that completely shifts what the car is. You can see that the car has been through something, the painting is part of the experience the car has gone through. It has almost inhaled the painting. It’s a total remix of the painting on the car. But the moment you think you understand it, it unravels.”

Whatever the higher meaning or subtext, be in no doubt – this thing looks very cool indeed in the flesh. Kind of glitchy, vibrant and immersive. There’s an M logo on the car in red, white and blue that looks fragmented but that’ll cohere at high speed. Mehretu also had to respect the car’s aerodynamics, and was gently advised by M’s engineers which areas of the car were particularly aero sensitive. She’s also acutely aware that endurance racing cars take on a whole other life when they begin accumulating the battle scars that help define 24 hour motor racing.

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“The marks that will accumulate through the race, the debris on the track, the boot marks from the drivers getting in and out, the things that will happen during the pit stops… they’ll all contribute to the mission the car is on. Then you’ll have the finished art car. Although I’m not a big fan of insects.”

Hold the bug cleaner.

Mehretu’s collaboration with BMW has a further important dimension. The company has pledged to run a series of PanAfrican Translocal media workshops which will provide a space for artists and film-makers to work together and exchange ideas. Workshops will be held in Dakar, Marrakech, Kigali, Lagos and Cape Town, culminating in an exhibition alongside the 20th BMW Art Car at the Zeitz Museum in Cape Town.

“It’s important to build some form of infrastructure where we can come together and study this environment. Algorithms aren’t going to help us, and media is a source of enormous power as we all know,” Mehretu says. “My father loved cars, growing up in Ethiopia. BMW was important so being able to take that meaning and do something else with it creatively… there’s a whole different way of playing with car culture, it’s exhilarating. Especially in a world that’s so complicated and where dreams can feel like they’re almost impossible.”

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