Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) by John Gerrard

John Gerrard

Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), 2017, Installation, Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court at Somerset House, London, 21–7 April 2017, © John Gerrard, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London; Image courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Simon Preston Gallery, New York / Artimage 2020; Photo: Will Pryce

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Smoke Signal

Raise a standard toward Zion,
flee for safety, stay not,
for I bring evil from the north,
and great destruction. (Jeremiah 4:6)

Spindletop, Texas: in 1901 this now-desolate landscape was the site of the most significant oil-strike in history. In the wake of the discovery it was feasible for the first time in the world’s history to burn petroleum on a massive scale. Just over a century later, and the chain of events which began at Spindletop has changed the world utterly: we are still perpetuating, and dealing with, its effects.

In this real-time simulation, Irish artist John Gerrard has digitally reconstructed the twenty-first-century landscape of Spindletop. He made a photographic survey of the site which was then translated into code and is now reinterpreted by computer. In the centre of the virtual reconstruction Gerrard has placed a slender 'flagpole’ which is also a chimney, from which seven nozzles blow black smoke in the shape of a fluttering flag. The virtual smoke makes visible the most destructive, but usually invisible, environmental legacy of Spindletop: carbon dioxide gas. With the form of the flag Gerrard also alludes to the geopolitical tensions for which oil has also been responsible over the course of the last century.

The landscape of Gerrard’s Spindletop corresponds eerily with Jeremiah’s description of the land after God’s judgement: ‘I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void’ (4:23). Like the cities Jeremiah describes, Spindletop has been abandoned, used up and discarded, a ruin ‘without inhabitant’. The smoke of the virtual flag turns the heavens ‘black’ (v.28), but also recalls the ‘hot wind’ which brings destruction (v.11). Humanity’s own activities are responsible for this desolation: ‘Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you’ (v.18).

On World Earth Day, 2017, the UK television station Channel 4 broadcast Gerrard’s artwork in abrupt bursts, interrupting its usual programming without caption or explanation. Like a visual translation of Jeremiah’s own apocalyptic predictions, the artwork forces the viewer to confront a vision of our own future, if we don’t swiftly amend our ways.



Eastham, Ben. 2017. ‘One Take: John Gerrard’s Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), 1 June 2017’, www.frieze.com, [accessed 13 February 2020]

‘Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas)’, http://westernflag.johngerrard.net/ [accessed 13 February 2020]

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