Oil company nationalizes artwork critical of the oil industry


Image courtesy Matt Kenyon/SWAMP

Oil industry and artists with a conscience don’t usually make for happy pairings. Liberate Tate ambitions to free Tate (and other BP-sponsored art museums) from dirty sponsorship. The Yes Men posed as ExxonMobil executives at Canada’s largest oil conference and promised to “keep fuel flowing” by recycling dead human bodies into oil. The security team threw them off stage before the end of their presentation. Sometimes, however, oil companies don’t seem to realize when an artist critique is on them.

Ask Matt Kenyon who is currently showing his work Supermajor at the Petrosains Science Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The piece, which is critical of global oil cartels, has been ‘nationalized’ by Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas.

Supermajor is a rack of small vintage oil barrels bearing the logos of some of the biggest publicly owned oil companies (aka the supermajors): Exxon, Shell, BP, and Mobil. Oil seems to leak from one of the cans, flowing out in a seemingly never-ending trickle and cascading onto a golden-brown pool. However, thanks to a specialized lighting system and a special system of pumps, the oil appears to be flowing upwards, defying gravity.

Although the work is quite clearly a critique of the oil industry and the perception that oil, gas and other resources are infinite, the local gallery staff secretly changed the Exxon, Shell, BP, and Mobil oil labels of the installation to Petronas labels. Overnight and without the artist’s permission or even knowledge.


Supermajor before. Image Matt Kenyon/SWAMP


Supermajor after. Image courtesy Matt Kenyon/SWAMP

They have nationalized the work, then tried to cover it up, says Kenyon reacting to the label swap. This has left me in an awkward spot as far as documenting this new version of Supermajor. I’ve been told that the work was returned to its proper form, but the images from the opening show otherwise!

I’ve thought of this artwork as selectively deploying a cheap illusion to point out the larger most costly ‘necessary’ illusions used everyday by companies like BP, Exon and Shell to maintain their markets and influence. There is a long strange history of national oil companies like Petronas buying influence and spreading corruption.

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Supermajor at the opening of the ILLUSION show in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Supermajor is part of a series of SWAMP works that looks into oil and gas extraction culture. Another fully developed work is Puddle and the artist is also currently working on a piece called TAP which will explore fracking.

The installation is part of a touring show titled Illusion that opened on Sept 10th in the Petrosains Science Centre located in the Petronas Towers. The artist also told me that Science Gallery, who organized the exhibition, has been very supportive and even sent staff from Dublin to Kuala Lumpur in order to sort out the situation.


Image courtesy Matt Kenyon/SWAMP

Interview with Matt Kenyon about Supermajor for the ILLUSION exhibition. Science Gallery Dublin

I asked the artist to help me understand how this could have happened:

Hi Matt! I still can’t wrap my head around what happened to your work. The last thing you wanted to do with this work was validating the oil industry, right?

I grew up in Louisiana, a state rich with deposits oil and gas and all of the corporations and corruption that comes with it.

Immediately following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I was in grade school at the time, each student was given a tray of water, a feather, table spoon of oil and a squirt of dish soap. It was part of a Exxon sponsored science lesson on how effective Dawn â„¢ dish soap was in cleaning oil off of bird feathers. In reality, what Exxon was trying to teach us kids was that the heinous oil spill off of Alaska with its oil covered birds and coastal beaches could simply be cleaned up with something as familiar as dish soap. Such bullshit.

The last thing I want is to validate companies such as Exxon, BP, Shell and Petronas extractionist activities. Perhaps for Petronas the image of the oil flowing into the re-branded oil can is a dream come true. To me, the slow motion impossibility of the oil flowing endlessly against gravity back into the can is a spacial kind of nightmare. Clearly they did not understand the work. Perhaps the logos of their competitors cause a sort of corporate autoimmune response.

The labels on the oil cans reference back to the Seven Sisters, the original oil cartel. The National oil companies (NOCs) account for 75% of the global oil production and controlled 90% of proven oil reserves in comparison to the International Oil Companies (IOCs), such as ExxonMobil, BP, or Royal Dutch Shell. NOCs are also increasingly investing outside their national borders (see the recent situation in Canada).

Matt Kenyon, Supermajor

Also do you feel that your work as an artist has been violated? once you had finished laughing at their action, did you in any way feel angry, uncomfortable or annoyed?

My first reaction to the news that they forced the changes to the work was anger. Who did they think they were? Just because they are a wealthy company (45 % Malaysian GDP) does not give them the right to modify the artwork. Such an action is an injustice and a violation of the exhibition agreement. Being on the other side of the world, I was left with few options. I decided that if they (Petronas) want so much to be part of the work (a work they clearly didn’t understand) I would oblige them.

Thanks Matt!