From exuberant sculptures to melodramatic videos, sentimental films and discursive performances Damián Ortega disrupts forms even as he creates them
Item 1: Cosmic Thing (2002), a grey VW Beetle hanging from the ceiling, each of its parts disconnected from the next. It’s a sculptural idea of such clarity it’s difficult to believe it hasn’t been done before, especially because its precedents are so obvious. Damián Ortega has not only used a ready-made (the Beetle) but has displayed it in a way that recalls the hang of Marcel Duchamp’s Hatrack (1917) and, by asking the viewer to wander around and gaze up and through it, Helio Oiticica’s Penetrables (1969). It also, of course, refers to and reverses Gabriel Orozco’s La DS (1993) – here, however, the car has not been compacted but deconstructed. Ortega’s sculpture also invokes cartoons in which characters’ eyes pop out of their faces (not a surprising allusion, given the artist’s beginnings as a cartoonist), and presents a 20th-century design icon like a dinosaur skeleton arranged in a natural history museum. Finally – and this is what is so clever about the work – Cosmic Thing achieves its surprise and power simply by executing in three dimensions a diagrammatic idea that is so utterly familiar (from car manuals, for instance) in two.
Item 2: Moby Dick (2005), a two part performance recorded on video.1 In a parking-lot, Ortega replaced the new tyres of a white VW Beetle with worn ones while a drummer played John Bonham’s solo from Led Zeppelin’s song ‘Moby Dick’ (1969). Then he poured grease onto the floor, attached a rope to the car, grabbed the other end, and pulled it as someone else tried to drive the car away. The action was then repeated with five ropes tied to the vehicle and five people tugging the car in all directions. Moby Dick might read as an allegory of the relationship of man and machine, but the rather pathetic car is nothing like Herman Melville’s whale, and so the work doesn’t really say much about a contemporary relationship to technology. The piece pays homage to the time Chris Burden crucified himself on a Beetle (Trans-Fixed, 1974). While the solo part by Ortega could be read as a comedic deflation of the machismo and spectacle of so much early performance art, the group involvement, by contrast, is a throwback to Lygia Clark’s works with participants, in which industrial materials were put to ritual use: for instance, Elastic Net (1973).
Item 3: Escarabajo (Beetle), (2005), a Super 8 road movie of a car driving to its own funeral. Ortega chugs his old Beetle through the streets of Mexico City, passing lots where broken-up cars are stacked in rusting piles and shops sell stolen spare parts. He heads out of the city into the lush green hills until almost arriving at the VW plant in Puebla, where his car was made. Here it is winched over to ‘expire’ like an insect on its back, lowered into a grave, and covered with earth, until its wheels poke out of the turf like squishy stones. The film re-enacts the myth of the hero coming home to die, and for all its absurdity is no less touching (an effect enhanced by the Super 8 film). Escarabajo is a reminder of the affection we have for commodities, while its pathos derives from the fact that consumer culture actually has no time for such attachments. The Puebla plant does not notice the funeral outside its gate: it simply replaces the old with the gleaming brand new.
These three works made up Ortega’s ‘Beetle Trilogy’ recently shown in Los Angeles at MoCA and the Redcat gallery. By presenting the works as a trilogy, the artist pushed his audience to ponder the nature of their connection. With Latin American culture in mind, the MoCA curator Alma Ruiz interprets the works filtered through the biblical story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, a reading that imposes a sequence where there is none. Radically disconnected in their media and moods (the sculpture is exuberant, the video melodramatic, the film sentimental), the works, when seen together, don’t create a coherent representation of the way the Nazi-designed car arrived in Mexico, nor articulate how it became so popular, nor whether it indeed was associated with a particular class.
Rather, the trilogy reflected Ortega’s interests in disconnection and connectivity per se, something evidenced in the diversity of each work’s references and in their form. (For instance in Cosmic Thing, the parts of the car are disconnected but hung in rigorous order.) Ortega’s decision to put the three works together indicated not so much any narrative links between them as a working process in which one piece sparks off another. ‘If I made a diagram of the pieces,’ he said, ‘it would be similar perhaps to Cosmic Thing, a work that branches out into another, and so on until it creates a network, a three-dimensional figure … When it seems as if one piece were the main one, it leads to other ones, so that the one piece which was the origin is displaced, and another one becomes the new centre or we find several simultaneous centres. I like the notion of a rhizome, a figure without a centre of gravity.’ If it was not immediately apparent that Ortega’s thinking was rhizomatic, he nudged us in the right direction by including in the LA show sculptures alongside the three works that linked to them in various ways. A drum kit like the one used in Moby Dick was displayed spanning out in all directions like Cosmic Thing, while on the floor there were concrete casts of various motor parts. And so on.
While noting the connections and disconnections in Ortega’s works across various media, it should be remembered that putting things together and taking them apart is a sculptural activity. The photographic triptych Matter/Energy (Solid, Liquid, Gaseous) (2003) depicts three arrangements of firebricks in a white cube that have variously been pushed together into a giant block, randomly spread over the floor, and suspended at equal distances to each other from the ceiling. The piece is an obvious – and rather comedic – demonstration of how differently the same amount of matter can occupy a given space. Ortega has used firebricks in other projects, such as Iglesia en Rotacion, Ciudad Catedral (Church in Rotation, City Cathedral) installed at the Kunsthalle Basel in 2004. Here the artist worked from an architectural plan of a church, which he represented three times, using three sets of bricks – the first plan three bricks high, the second two bricks high, and so on. Each plan was rotated at about 10 degrees from the next, and while the nave of each church stretched away independently, their transepts crossed over into each other. It is no surprise that Ortega included architect Peter Eisenman’s drawings in the accompanying publication: if by disconnecting bricks in Matter/Energy, Ortega let the material fill a space, here the same sculptural principle invoked architectural deconstruction, and suggested a subversion of traditional ecclesiastical powers.
Elsewhere, Ortega’s exploration of sculptural disconnection reflects the genre’s changing historical function. One of his earliest works was Obelisco con rueditas (Obelisk on wheels) (prototype 1996, realised in 2005). Historically, as Rosalind Krauss has suggested, the logic of sculpture was ‘inseparable from the logic of the monument’; sculptures sat ‘in a particular place and spoke in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place’.2 But in the Modernist period, the erosion of this relationship to place implied sculpture’s incapacity to deal with mnemonic experience – this was the condition of abstract Modernist sculpture but not its subject. By placing an obelisk (traditionally used as a memorial) on wheels, Ortega reflected on this condition but also suggested that a contemporary world requires a re-forged relationship between sculpture and the monument: sculptors can fashion perpetually mobile monuments for perpetually occurring calamities.
Another contemporary condition of sculpture that helps account for Ortega’s explorations of connection and disconnection is what Benjamin Buchloh, writing on Isa Genzken, has called ‘the universal equivalence and exchangeability of all objects and materials’3 Buchloh suggests that all that a sculptor can do now is to recognise and articulate the calamity of this situation. In some of his strangest works, Ortega does just this. Muladar de Simbolos (Dunghill of Symbols, 2003) is a thin pyramidal structure formed by a stack of random objects – a plastic Buddha, some firebricks, various bottles, a cake, and (on the top) an inverted replica of the World Cup. These objects are utterly disconnected from their original functions and cultural meanings: by combining them in the sculpture, Ortega acknowledges how such differences are flattened by capital. The remarkable photo-series ‘Homos’ (1996) also seems to stage random accumulations, but in fact each of the 20 images feature objects that are paired by different systems – all of which have names starting with the prefix ‘homo’. For example, a knife-handle (in Spanish, mango) sticks out of a mango (also mango): the handle and fruit are homonyms. Two photographs depict red and white onions each with its skin grafted onto the other – Ortega has performed homoplasty on the vegetables. Then there are photographs of ping-pong balls dripping with yellow glue, a gold pendant in a can of fuel, a baseball with two earplugs sticking out of it, and a candle stuck with a fishhook. These recall Joan Miró’s collaged sculptures and André Breton’s interest in the Comte de Lautréamont’s phrase ‘the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’. However, although Ortega’s photographs might evoke Surrealism, his approach is more pragmatic: he brought the ping-pong ball together with glue because they (like the candle and the fishhook, and the pendant and the fuel) shared the same market price. Concise examinations of ‘universal equivalence’, these photographs illustrated the Spanish term ‘homotipia’ – we might say that reduced to their prices, the imaged objects were homogeneous.
In many of Ortega’s sculptures this dynamic of connection and disconnection is played out for the mobile viewer. Spirit and Matter (2004) was an installation in London’s Hoxton Square of six structures made from cast-off building materials. Moving through them, it was difficult to sense the logic of their construction, but from the first-floor space of the White Cube gallery (which overlooked the square and which funded the piece), you could see that the work spelled out ‘SPIRIT’. Another (less literary) example of this tendency was Spiral of Violence, shown at Tate Modern in 2005. Ortega made the sculpture from 16 identically-sized glass panes taken from a single frame. He split each pane an increasing number of times with horizontal, vertical, and diagonal cuts, and then produced random fractures by hammering the glass while it was kept in place by plastic sleeves. They were then hung in a spiral formation, moving out from the hanging frame at increments of 40cm, but level with their original position within the grid. Ortega placed the work in such a way that, if viewed from the side, it was impossible to intuit any order. However, standing at the end, both the spiral formation and the serial order of the main cracks became obvious: what had seemed a series of disconnected panes now emerged as an immaculately formed sculpture. The viewer’s perception created order from disorder, but stepping to the side, the piece would fragment once more.
Spiral of Violence was another work in which Ortega nodded to Duchamp (the Large Glass, 1915–23), but it also alluded to Jasper Johns’s Flag (1954–55). Ortega fixed a Union Jack sticker on one pane that was split into eight sections. The flag echoed both the form of the panel and the ordering system of the work as a whole, but by interrupting the homogeneity of the piece, it prevented it from functioning simply as a formal investigation of ‘order and disorder’. The flag allowed associations to spiral off into other realms. Suddenly the title ‘spiral of violence’ seemed to refer not so much to the arrangement and shattering of the panes as to the proliferation of conflicts that the British are involved in.
As the Union Jack indicated, Ortega has a tendency to disrupt form even as he creates it. On the floor at the Tate besides Spiral of Violence was Fortuitous Rotation (Rotación fortuita) (2005), a serpentine line of spheres tied together with wire and increasing in size from one end to the other. Most of the spheres were globes that Ortega had collected – some found on key-rings, others parts of children’s toys. When he could not find an appropriately sized globe to fit into the sequence, the artist fabricated balls from polyurethane foam. These pockmarked and misshapen units maintained the progression of spherical sizes but dramatically spoilt the neatness of the work.
Georges Bataille defined what he called informe as a ‘term that serves to bring things down in the world’. In many of his projects Ortega, attracted as he is to waste, weeds, mud, and dereliction, has explored the informe. At the Casa Luis Barragán in Mexico City, and next to Oscar Niemeyer’s white buildings in Brasilia, instead of cleanly recording the geometries and colours of these icons of Latin American architectural Modernism, Ortega focused his camera on tatty floors and muddy pathways. The architectural settings are still recognisable, but the photographs acknowledge that Modernism could never quite dispel the dirt it attempted to clean away. Brotes (Weeds, 1999), another group of photographs, shows weeds poking through paving slabs, and Jardineras (Tree Planters, 2002) depicts spaces dedicated to urban decoration filled not with saplings but with concrete and fag-butts.
Ortega’s show at the Kunsthalle Basel was announced with the collage Earthquake in Iran (2004) in which he paired photographs of an Iranian city before and after the massive earthquake of 2003. What initially looks like a reflection of the city in a rippled lake is, you soon realize, an image of its fate: the photograph recalls Robert Smithson’s drawing Entropic landscape (1970). The show included (alongside the church sculpture) a giant pile of mud, the raw material of potential artefacts and sculptures but shown here as a formless lump. Yet Ortega’s most compelling examination of the informe is his three-and-a-half minute video Reading Exercise (2002) which comprises 4,350 clips showing all manner of holes in all manner of buildings and machines. There are drains, letter-boxes and exhaust pipes, but the huge majority are holes in walls: odd-shaped cracks and unintended gaps created by missing bricks, poor fabrication, and subsidence. If architecture attempts to define space, the holes bear witness to its shortcomings. The video pulses on and on, piling the cracks together as so many empty spaces. There is no time to see any image clearly, and you sense the piece could go on forever: after all, everything that has been constructed will ultimately crack.
If the Union Jack signalled Ortega’s resistance to the straightjacket of form, it also typified his facility for subtly alluding to geopolitical subject matter. The same ‘spiral of violence’ I mentioned earlier seems to be the subject of the spinning sculpture Movimento en falso (Estabilidad y crecimiento economico) (False step: Stability and economic growth, 2003) first shown alongside Cosmic Thing at the Venice Biennale. The sculpture is a stack of three tilting petrol barrels, each one angled in the opposite direction to the one below and welded to its rim. A motor underneath keeps the stack in motion. The ceaseless spinning points to the unceasing demand for the commodity while the structure’s appearance suggests the precariousness of a world reliant on oil.
By connecting his interests in order and disorder to contemporary events, Ortega is extremely close to the spirit of Alighiero e Boetti whose works of the 1970s include both the 100-part embroidered work Ordine e Disordine (Order and Disorder) (1971–2) and a series of prints derived from maps of war zones; but unlike Boetti, Ortega has made work that reflects local as well as geopolitical conditions, and fabricated it from materials explicitly associated with Mexico. There is the Beetle trilogy, of course, but also Tortilla Construction Module (1998), a structure built from interlocking tortillas, and Elote Classificado (Classified Sweetcorn, 2005), a dried out corn-on-the-cob whose every kernel Ortega has numbered. Both works are the product of absurd activities – building with tortillas and classifying corn-kernels like archaeological finds, and the structural and numerical systems Ortega creates are always on the verge of breakdown. Tortilla Construction Module exists as a photograph but also as a fragile sculpture, and each time it is shown, parts crumble away – which seems to be the point. Elote classificado is scattered with gaps because the pen that numbered the kernels caused some to disintegrate and drop away.
In an Artforum review of the Kunst-Werke/P.S.1 show ‘Mexico City’, the critic Meghan Dailey lamented the absence of Ortega from the exhibition, stating that his works ‘are specifically about Mexico’4 but even once we recognise the ‘Mexican-ness’ of these materials, the question remains as to what the works have to say about the country. Does Ortega use materials like tortillas and corn-cobs because they are Mexican, or simply because they are close at hand? A more complex question is whether it is possible to consider Ortega’s sculptural pursuits of disconnection, and his Bataillian explorations of the informe, as in any way representative of Mexican experience? Given the complexity and diversity of his work, I would certainly not want to suggest that Ortega is primarily concerned with creating such representations, but there is a work that suggests a partial answer this question. América Letrina (American Latrine, 1997) is a photograph of a toilet whose bowl has been surrounded by a ceramic extension in the shape of Central and South America: Ortega turned the iconic ready-made back into a crafted sculpture. The photograph asks us to imagine North America as an upright reservoir of clean water, and South America as the pit where shit is broken up and washed away. In this work, made near the beginning of his career, Ortega simultaneously explored forces of disconnection and the informe, and not just as (anti-) formal pursuits, but to reflect on the experience of a continent. But Mexico is not quite where the waste collects: it is right there in the middle.
Mark Godfrey teaches at The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London and is writing a book, Abstraction and the Holocaust, for Yale University Press.
1 The video records the version of the performance made in Los Angeles Ortega also performed the piece in Mexico.
2 Rosalind Krauss, ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986, p.279
3 Benjamin Buchloh, ‘All Things Being Equal’, Artforum, November, 2005, p.224
4 Meghan Dailey, ‘Mexico City: an exhibition about the exchange rate of bodies and values’, Artforum, November 2002, p.180
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.