Mexican artist Damien Ortega’s first comprehensive exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, leaves the visitor a little giddy, as art objects are both literally and metaphorically suspended within the galleries. Material presence seems to be in a state of hanging, suspension, and unsteadily balance. Objects, visitors, artistic concepts, theories and ideologies seem to be held in a state of abeyance.
Whether in motion, hanging from the ceiling or temporally projected onto the screen, Ortega’s work demands that you view and experience it first hand. The encounter of a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle car – in Cosmic Thing from 2002 – meticulously taken apart and recomposed piece by piece, suspended from wire in mid-air, is awesome. Almost as if frozen in mid explosion, it is expanding and yet perfectly still, caught simultaneously in two opposing states. This sculpture at once resembles an IKEA catalogue diagram of how to “do it yourself,” while at the same time, the object necessitates that you walk around it and peer into its fascinating constellation from multiple angles. You can see into it, in between and through its usually hidden spaces.
Similarly, in a disconcerting equilibrium, three petrol containers in False Movement (Stability and Economic growth) 1999 are insecurely balanced on top of each other, rotating on a platform – in what appears to be an accident waiting to happen. The visitor’s very presence is also unstable, appearing and fading projected onto a screen in Union-Separation completed in 2000. As the gallery assistant turns a mechanism, the whole contraption spins on itself, with a camera on one side and a transparent cube filled with blue liquid on the other, our very presence is rendered destabilized. Lastly, in a secluded and separated room is Nine Types of Terrain 2007, nine projectors presenting recordings of bricks are arranged in different conformations at once triggered, sequentially colliding in a domino effect. All is held hazardously in balance – suspended – escaping any sense of stability.
Born in Mexico in 1967, Ortega’s choice of materials is unconventionally ‘poor,’ utilizing exclusively objects we encounter on a daily basis – not the stuff of fancy art galleries. With False Movement (Stability and Economic growth) simplicity here is the key in conveying the most powerful message. This is a vernacular language for global readability. Petrol barrels stacked one on top of another rotated by a basic mechanical device. Petrol itself, in today’s economy, is a tendentious material. Our global economy is precariously balanced.
This engagement with humble materials is inherited by the Conceptual artists of the previous generations. However, Ortega is no longer critically engaging with the art idea over the art object per se, but rather to an economy of means. This idea of make do with what one has, subverts artistic grandiose statements, even the conceptual ones.
Just about surviving, the art object is now further layered with humor and intellectual wit – conceit-referencing conceit. Ortega’s wit and incisive sense of humor can be understood by his previous career as a political cartoonist. Currently working in Berlin, he shows a keen critical awareness of our postmodern globalized world. Mexico is currently negotiating its place in our current geopolitics, coming to terms with international market forces.
An art that speaks to the economy of means, the make do and make last, belongs in the streets and ghettoes, and yet here it is suspended, and perhaps bolstered, by an established institution. A myriad of judgments become unnerved, sculpture’ meaning and value today, Mexico’s international foothold, globalization, and postmodernism – we as viewers are left to make sense of it all. Certainly, being destabilized by art is a good thing. Damien Ortega Do It Yourself is on view at the ICA until January 18th 2010