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Damián Ortega: Casino
In the works by Mexican artist on show at HangarBicocca in Milan, the chaos is disarray but we only see a past record or the potential: frozen in a precise and planned point.
Strangely, Damián Ortega chose a photograph of his face concealed by a mask to promote his solo exhibition at the HangarBicocca when all his art seems conversely to focus on disclosure and unravelling.
The Mexican artist, born in 1967, is a friend, pupil and former neighbour of Gabriel Orozco (when he lived in Mexico City before moving to Berlin). Like his friend, he is fond of readymades and cannot be said to engage in disguise – quite the contrary, he works in the open. Dark shells always seem to be opened out, with nothing hidden deep down, no unspoken mysteries if not mechanical ones.
Ortega is one of those artists who restrict their field of observation to familiar objects, homing in on them and creating an inventory of all their constituent parts. In his Cosmic Thing (2002) – perhaps his best known and certainly the most spectacular work in this exhibition curated by Vicente Todolí – a Volkswagen Beetle of 1989 is dismantled into a floating mass, drawing attention to every part and making it look far more crowded that seems possible. In Cosmic Thing, the helpful understanding that normally welds together engine, hood, bonnet, dashboard, body, seats, doors, windows, indicators, brakes, steering wheel, fans, levers, accessories and sundry bits and pieces – far too many for a car to hold – is relaxed and fades away. So, the automobile thus dissected and as volatile as the coleopter it is named after rediscovers its infancy, when its existence was still in doubt.
Featuring in another two works in the exhibition (the 2004 Moby Dick performance and 2005 Escarabajo video, which form The Beetle Trilogy with Cosmic Thing), what is special about the Volkswagen Beetle is that, far from being simply a saloon car, it is a great period creation, present in the lives and imaginations of an entire population of all classes and social extractions. Over the years, it has driven fashions and propaganda (it was adopted as a police car in West Germany and as a taxi in Mexico City), until it eventually became a treasure, an icon and testimony to civilised life.
In Ortega’s work, the Beetle becomes sublime and superlative (indeed it falls from the sky), no longer expected to perform save to form the bedrock of layered mythology. In the Moby Dick performance a white Beetle shows off its power and its determination, lending itself to assimilation with the legendary albino sperm whale. To the notes of the eponymous Led Zeppelin piece, Captain Ahab-Ortega tries to harpoon it with cables and winches in a primordial hunt. Rebellious and indomitable, it wriggles and twists – headlights flashing like the eyes of an owl, grease-covered wheels sliding and skidding – making all his efforts futile.
The reference to the myth echoes again in the Escarabajo video, an epic narration of a “return to its origins” of a white 1983 Beetle, which travelled from Mexico City to Los Angeles and back to Mexico again (to Puebla, one of the car’s last production locations), where it was buried. The title, which translates as beetle, may conjure up the earthly image of manifest humility (that of the invertebrate), but this serves only to better highlight its triumphal and celestial other face: its scrapping is replaced with a final farewell, complete with ceremony to bury the deified hero (interred with its wheels-legs pointing upwards).
Many see Ortega’s practice as one that disunites, distances and dissipates. Certainly, from the very first, the artist’s work went beyond the “macho” concept of sculpture as a closed and completed form. The centrifugally propelled supernova of hammers, shovels, saws, ice-axes etc. that forms Controller of the Universe (2007) clearly corresponds to the iconography of detonation.The steady leak slowly draining the small-scale acrobatic submarine in Hollow/Stuffed: market law (2012) is equally obvious: a bundle of biodegradable plastic bags hanging askew from the ceiling and filled with salt remind us of a news item (the discovery of a submarine adapted by narco-traffickers to transport cocaine around South America) and exposes a dried-up and exhausted moral linked to commercial maritime traffic, legal and not so legal.
That said, it is evident that, in the end, the staged deconstruction favours the inverse and opposite idea of cohesion and unity (suffice to look at a Futurist sculpture). Although reduced to shreds, Ortega’s props always save face. The assembly manual-like image which they inevitably resemble simply takes them back to a coded language by which all is functional to the connection. The dissociation never bursts free but always hovers in a state of vigilant suspense. This is true of Unión-Separación (2000), an installation that draws on a known scientific experiment to prove the undying relationship of detachment-reconnection generated in an aquarium when it is whirled dizzily on top of a table anchored to the ground by a rock and a ream of concrete (as if for fear it may fly off: all Ortega’s works share this suspended state, levitating, taking off or lying around in shaky poses: chairs and barrels pirouetting around themselves, obelisks on wheels, furniture swaying unsteadily or hanging from the ceiling).
More than by a rising wind that casts seeds and pollen into disarray, the artist’s works appear invested by kind forces that pull them from side to side but never wreak true havoc or a wrench. At most, we see fainting, such as that repeatedly staged in the Nine Types of Terrain films (2007). They show lines of bricks arranged in military-like configurations (described in Sun Tzu’s treatise The Art of War) knocking each other over, capitulating one on top of the other in a chain reaction only, a few seconds later, to stand back up to attention. Nothing really collapses as this is merely suggested, inconvenienced but immediately avoided. He breaks up the everyday picture and the chaos (implied by the Italian title of the exhibition: “Casino”) is not shambolic. It is disarray but we only see a past record or the potential. Frozen in the precise and planned point when an element manifests a principle of connection, of kinship.
Indeed, the cipher of proximity distinguishes a group of small works of great resonance displayed in this exhibition in the manner of archaeological finds. One gathers 26 slightly old tortillas gracefully slotted together in a construction module (Módulo de costrucción con tortillas, 1998); another numbers every kernel on a dried corncob (Elote clasificado, 2005); one dissects the tangled threads of a golf ball to reveal its inner core (Liquid Center, 1997); and yet another (Visceras 1, 2010) assembles 18 cement cylinders to simulate a purplish-pink mass of muscular tissue. Here, Ortega contrives to show the body of adhesive forces (spontaneous, organic, adulterated) and calcified layers (concealed, subdued, mystified) involved in known forms of the universe.
An electric bulb contains a consumed candle (Prometeo, 1992); a multitasking wooden hand seals the “articulated” passage from ape to man (The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (F. Engels), 2013). In Estratigrafia 4 (2012), the flyers of the Berlin music season (collected over a year) are formed into a papier-mâché ball to resemble scraped layers of sedimentary rock. Seemingly residue from a differential geological age, an indigestible concrete broad bean is stripped of its pod (Three Items, 2013), while a commonplace “rubber-band ball” adopts the form of a fossil (Tension Contained (fossil), 2013), its origins dating from pre-Colombian times; and an “antediluvian” Super 8 camera (with no cartridge or bobbin) belonged to the artist’s father (Three Industrial Fossils, 2013). In Damián Ortega’s work, time is also an unusual mechanism, easily dismantled and unmasked in its voracious depths and its stratified exfoliations.