BY Miwon Kwon in Frieze | 09 AUG 95
Featured in
Issue 24

The Fullness of Empty Containers

Gabriel Orozco

BY Miwon Kwon in Frieze | 09 AUG 95

Following three high-profile solo exhibitions in 1993, Gabriel Orozco greeted the visitors to his show at New York's Marian Goodman Gallery last autumn with a disarming articulation of emptiness. While a secondary gallery space offered a quasi-retrospective of earlier sculptural works mostly made prior to his move from Mexico to New York City, the primary presentation consisted of four circular plastic caps from Dannon yoghurt containers. Clear on top and rimmed in blue, each was placed centrally and at eye-level on the four walls of the main gallery. The modest punctuation of the white cubical space performed by these Yogurt Caps(1994) - discreet almost to the point of invisibility - produced perplexity and discomfort for most viewers, who were forced to contemplate the startling blankness of the room in the absence of any recognisable art objects on the floor or the walls. The gesture has been received by some as deeply disappointing and by others as extremely courageous - a glib and cynical manoeuvre or a brilliant critique of the commercial gallery system? At any rate, the installation served as a shocking antithesis to his previous exhibition, the spectacular trifurcation and re-assembly of a vintage Citroën D.S. executed in Paris nine months earlier.

Described variously as an arrow mounted on four wheels and a latter-day sarcophagus, La D.S. (1993) saw the division of the iconic automobile into three roughly equal sections. The middle portion was then removed, and the two remaining parts immaculately sutured. The car's reconfiguration into a seamless new model of leaner proportions further exaggerated the signs of speed and mobility already inscribed in the styling of the Citroën. Recalling at once Gordon Matta-Clark's splitting operations of the 70s as well as Marcel Duchamp's readymade experimentations and linguistic playfulness ('La D.S.' in French reads la déesse, the goddess), this strange new vehicle, still recognisable but no longer functional, registered as a critical meditation on modernism's utopian dream of technological progress and the failures of the accompanying culture of rapidity.

La D.S. was not an example of hybridity (that is, it was not a melding of several differences to create a unique third type), nor a cyborgian fantasy of a fusion between man and machine, nor a morphing of one object into another - the three most prevalent models for contemporary discourse around identity. Instead, with its awesome precision and friendly distortions, La D.S., which from the front looked like a deformed reflection in a funhouse mirror, offered a fresh vision based on excision and compression. Orozco's bold operation seemed to signal a radical departure from his previous works, which tended to be ephemeral interventions of modest scale and materials, often barely visible. But as critic and curator Laura J. Hoptman has perceptively noted, 'La D.S. is not only about the car itself, or for that matter the virtuoso gesture of the artist, but also about the space that has been removed. Unavoidably present even in its absence, it is precisely this area that Orozco's D.S. was created to explore.' 1 Which is to say, even as Orozco offered a clever visual abbreviation of a familiar symbol, it was not so much the intriguing presence of the reconfigured object but the space defined through its very deletion, that was key to the work. In common with his altered elevator project made later in 1994, in which a portion of an elevator's mid-section was removed to create a cabin size much shorter than the norm, the viewers were awakened to an absence not only visually but physically as they entered the constricted interior space of the car to sit behind the wheel. Thus the missing space of La D.S. was not only offered up for visual inspection, but was allowed to be experienced in a kind of sensorial totality, making possible a peculiarly unfamiliar recognition of space as well as heightening our sense of containment, interiority, and (im)mobility.

In both projects the subtraction of a calculated amount of space simultaneously negated the objects' utilitarian functions. Rendered defunct as machines of transport, they became hallucination-like corpses of industrial culture. Once made immobile, Orozco's car and elevator activated the memory and expectation of mobility that we commonly associate with these objects - horizontal for one and vertical for the other - granting us a strange kind of motion, especially when inside their cabins. The compression of space in the objects' new configurations was felt forcefully within the viewers' bodies as an altogether different form of movement or dynamism - an echo of the real thing - as we seemed to grow bigger or taller. As the artist has described the experience, 'the car and the elevator were no longer "working," but they were still working.' 2 One could say that Orozco returns us to a phenomenological search for meaning. A return, however, with a difference.

As much as La D.S. fulfilled a certain appetite for visual and material pleasure, surrounding the viewers with an excess of sensorial stimulation, the Yogurt Caps spectacularly sabotaged this desire. Consistent with Orozco's previous experimentations, the Yogurt Caps provided a serious study of that which is missing. With a precise eye for scale and proportion, the artist laid open the cultural conditions of the gallery's existence, linking the market of art exhibitions to the supermarket, while simultaneously stripping the gallery space down to its physical essence - an empty white box that holds various objects on a temporary basis. It is this double dimension of Orozco's work, directing our attention to primary material conditions as well as to the social framework of our cultural experiences, that eloquently extends his projects beyond a flat-footed institutional critique.

The strategy used in the Yogurt Caps is apparent in several of Orozco's previous works, and holds a special affinity to his 1991 project, Crazy Tourist (Turista Maluco). For this work Orozco made his way into a Brazilian street market after-hours, and discriminately placed a number of oranges, one on top of each table. Seen from an appropriate distance in time and space (an opportunity allowed us by his photographs of the performance), the seeming randomness of the individual oranges organises itself into a pattern as the viewer mentally connects the dots. But the pattern turns out not to be a visually recognisable symbol, but rather the revelation of a fantasy trajectory, a ramble through the space of the market (travelled by the artist, but also by many others, unknown and unknowable to us). The repetition of oranges, in other words, marks a trace, recording a passage through space in order to record its absence in time. What becomes highlighted in a gesture that seems at first to be random and nonsensical, turns out to be a precise articulation of what has been, that which is no longer, a residue of what is missing, and evidence of what we miss. The chaotic arrangement of the dilapidated wooden tables, now standing forlorn and empty, reinforces the absence of the merchants, customers, tourists, and the wares that would normally have filled the scene with lively noise and colour. The memory of such abundance is now concentrated in the presence of these oranges which mark an impossible distance.

That such a recognition of emptiness and absence is communicated to the viewers via a photographic image and not given to them as an empirically-grounded real experience is the key difference between a project like Crazy Tourist and the Yogurt Caps. In the latter, the audience is forced to share this recognition, not as an observer at a comfortable distance but as an active participant - that is, as an actor in the same scene. The difficulty of Yogurt Caps is indeed this demand to see oneself in relation to nothingness, to feel oneself reduced to a zero degree of presence.

One of the works included in Orozco's 'Projects 41' exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art was the installation of a cotton hammock in the fabulously modern sculpture garden. Hung between two trees in front of the north wall, the hammock was hardly noticeable, its droopy contour resting elegantly and demurely amongst the famous icons of modern sculpture as if it had always been there. But the logic of its placement was uncanny - into the semi-naturalistic setting devoted to the leisurely contemplation of surrogate bodies (modern sculpture), Orozco introduced an ordinary object that seemed both to embody and exaggerate the elemental functions of this vaunted space while demanding a contemplation of real bodies, especially one's own. Just as a garden delineates a spatial containment that invites visitors to find respite and repose, Orozco offered Hammock at MoMA Garden (1993) as a material condensation of such a space in a singular form, hinting at an enclosure for its potential inhabitant, a containment that is a comforting embrace somewhere between the rationality of architecture and the unstructured shelter of a tree branch. This correlation between the garden and the hammock may be why Orozco's installation seemed so perfectly natural, commonplace even, in MoMA's backyard. Almost a non-intervention.

Yet, because the location for the hanging of the work was specifically the Sculpture Garden at MoMA, Orozco's Hammock was not an altogether benign insertion. Instead, its presence quietly threw into relief all that is normally expected and allowed in such a space. For example, the suggestion of reorienting the body from a vertical position to a horizontal one, implied by the cupping parabolic shape of the hammock, set up a strong contrast to the soldier-like erectness and stiffness of the bronze figures that dominate the Sculpture Garden - their resolute poses functioning like models for proper and appropriate behaviour. As if commenting on the traditional aesthetic biases in sculptural practice as well as the cultural demands for alertness in a product-oriented society, Orozco's Hammock insisted on a prostrate body. Furthermore, in simply offering the possibility of sleep (and by extension the possibility of dreaming), Hammock highlighted the extent to which such non-activity, that is, real rest, is strictly forbidden in such a space devoted to aesthetic contemplation.

Hammock was initially titled Hammock Hanging Between Two Skyscrapers, describing the form in which it was first conceived. According to the artist, the original plan was to hang the hammock in the MoMA Sculpture Garden with its two endpoints attached not to the trees but to the tops of two adjacent buildings. Although logistical problems prevented the realisation of this version, leading to what Orozco describes as 'an interesting failure', I still imagine and remember the installation as a small space suspended between towering skyscrapers, awaiting the intimacy of my body. 3 Every time I envisage myself in Orozco's hammock, I become overwhelmed with a sensation of immensity and boundlessness that doesn't so much envelop me as it emanates and extends from me. I hover inches off the ground, encapsulated in the hammock's white cocoon, my face big and open to the sky. Like a strange metaphysical marriage, the minuscule whisper of my breath grows louder as the buildings grow taller. I feel the weight of the air, my enclosure catapulted up to the sky.

Perhaps these observations are banal, but the delicacy with which Orozco makes them available is not. Part of the pleasure and reward of engaging with Orozco's works is that the incongruities and contradictions of an object or a situation seem to be secretly encoded in the work, rather than resolved. And when the clues are recognised, or partially deciphered, the object or the situation, no matter how ordinary and familiar, gathers a whole new peculiarity that is eye-opening, even beautiful. The fact that our initial impression of Orozco's interventions is most often of peaceful congruity or familiarity is probably due to his restrained working method: he receives his cues from either materials found on the site or conditions inherent to it. Hammock, for example, in form and material is a languid version of the curving scoop of the metal chairs already found in the garden, which also await an occupant. Through a startlingly exact economy of gestures (of visually echoing, accentuating, exaggerating, editing, erasing, reshaping, inserting, etc.), Orozco fluidly negotiates the conceptual, material, and cultural dimensions of a situation, often allowing his objects and sites to be seen as if for the first time in their full complexity.

1. Laura J. Hoptman, 'Options 47: Gabriel Orozco', exhibition brochure, MoCA, Chicago, 1994

2. Gabriel Orozco, in conversation with the author, New York, June 1995

3. ibid.