Gabriel Orozco
Tate Modern

Published in Apollo Magazine

Art Criticism

While Europe and America have been suffering the trauma of recession and the euro has become as unreliable as the weather, Latin American art is on a role. Recently the Pompidou Centre created a Latin American acquisitions committee, while the Lyon Biennale appointed an Argentinean curator, Victoria Noorthoorn, for 2011. The Istanbul Biennale is to be co-curated by a Brazilian, Adriano Pedrosa and the Arco art fair in Madrid has a three-year focus on Latin America. Even, here, in London, where we do not have obvious Latin American links, seven Latin American galleries took part in this year’s Frieze and Latin American artists were visible at every turn. Marian Goodman heavily promoted Gabriel Orozco and the Deutsche Bank lounge had a dedicated display of his work.

Gabriel Orozco
Mobile Matrix, 2006

More democratic politics have helped, of course. Latin America has always had a tradition of producing art, but political turmoil did not encourage it to flourish. Now more established governments and a degree of economic security are changing that. Brazil is one of the most thriving economies, predicted to grow 7% this year. With a more globalised art community, Latin American curators and critics are being appointed to key positions in museums, biennials and galleries in global art capitals.

The term ‘Latin American Art’ is, though, somewhat contentious. It seems to refer to pre-Colonial, Colonial, and Independence period art along with twentieth-century muralists, as well as emerging new talent. The label has been spurned by a number of contemporary artists keen to emphasize more local developments within their own countries. The term is, therefore, complex and covers many different regions so that it is not really possible to speak of a homogenous style. But an interest in South American art in this country is not without historical precedent. There was a surge in the 1960s when many artists were forced into political exile and, as a result, opened up new dialogues and debates.

Gabriel Orozco Four Bicycles
Four Bicycles (There is Always One Direction). 1994

The Tate has proved to be one of the biggest catalysts of this renewed interest. A quarter of all works in the Tate collection made by artists born after 1985 are from Latin America. Now in its eighth year, the Tate’s Latin American acquisitions committee is one of the world’s largest, numbering over 40 members. In 2008 the Tate staged a show by Cildo Meireles and their Gabriel Orozco exhibition, on tour from MoMA, opens this January.

Gabriel Orozco was born in 1962 in Jalapa, the state of Veracruz, Mexico, to Cristina Félix Romandía, a student of classical piano, and Mario Orozco Rivera, a mural painter and art professor at the Universidad Veracruzana. When Gabriel was six, the family relocated to the San Ángel neighbourhood of Mexican City so that his father could work with the artist David Alfaro Siqueiros. This included assisting on his final and largest mural The March of Humanity on Earth toward the Cosmos, 1964-71. A third generation muralist Orozco elder belonged to the grand tradition that spawned Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera. Art and the breaking of received shibboleths, therefore, formed the backdrop to Gabriel’s childhood in his intellectual left-wing family, where he was encouraged to eschew all forms of Americanism, including the English language. As a teenager his summers were spent in the Soviet Union and Cuba and, as a student in the late 1980s, he led a group of radical young artists in rejecting the predominance of Neo-Mexicanismo, art that dealt in gaudy commercial neo-expressionism and cultural stereotypes of a nationalistic sub Kalho-esque nature.

Gabriel Orozco Empty Shoebox 1993
Empty Shoebox, 1993

Since 1991 he has lived a largely peripatetic life, eschewing the studio as his primary work place, for the street, the beach, even his apartment. This has meant much less separation between his everyday life and art. Orozco positions his art on the boundaries where the two arenas haphazardly meet. Robert Rauschenberg is, arguably, one of his most important precursors. It is in Rauschenberg’s early photographs that striking parallels can be seen. Orozco’s abandonment of the studio grew not just out of financial necessity but also from an ideological position. Rejecting the vision of the studio as, variously, a laboratory, office or factory, he preferred to make work from ‘a common place’, which was wherever he happened to be living. What he produced emphasised his nomadic existence: the drawings made on train tickets and the, now, extinct carbon-paper of airline tickets, traced the artist’s journeys employing the bricolage and ephemera beloved by Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Beuys and the arte povera movement, for whom such materials emphasised a democratisation of art. The implication was not, simply, as Joseph Beuys claimed that ‘everyone is an artist’ but that all materials, however base, or incidental, could be used to make art that mirrored a rich heterogeneity of object and material. The provisional unmonumental, unheroic nature of the works, many of which may or may not have been finished, perfectly fitted with Orozco’s emotional, political and aesthetic predilections.

If you are keen on cryptic crosswords, playing chess or the oriental game of Go, or are a fan of Borges’ labyrinthine short stories, you will enjoy his work. Orozco is a conceptualist, what one might call a ‘visual philosopher’ who employs whatever medium seems appropriate to a particular work – paint, photography, sculpture, collage – to explore his obsessions. As with Arte Povera skill is not the point. Rather Orozco conducts a Duchampian investigation into the nature of the physical universe – its oddness, randomness and idiosyncrasies – with whatever materials happen to be at hand and take his fancy. Though he seems less interested in searching for ‘the meaning of life’ than trying to establish a series of self-constructed systems to impose on the random chaos of the material world, incidentally highlighting its synchronicities and discrepancies, its small beauties and banalities.

Gabriel Orozco Yielding Stone 1992
Yielding Stone, 1992

The work in his 2004 Serpentine show appeared rather arbitrary, inchoate even; a bit of painting here, a collage or sculpture there, until one realised that there was a conceptual and intellectual thread running through all his work. Grids and formal structures were obviously important and if one paid attention – for Orozco is an intellectual artist who demands the involvement of his viewer – it became apparent that there was an interplay between the rational and organic, the structured and the intuitive, between the Cartesian mind and the sentient body; though it seems that in Orozco’s universe the mind usually wins. His is not so much a world of poetics but a laboratory of optical and phenomenological experimentation.

His Yielding Stone, 1992, a plasticine sphere embedded with dirt, grit and other detritus acquired from rolling it through New York Streets demonstrated the importance of the process, not only of making, but of time. This surrogate body, standing in for the artist’s own, was continually subjected to change, wear and tear. Thus every speck of dirt that adhered to it became a part of the work. He has made drawings of dried spit and toothpaste, and in the Venice Biennale showed Empty Shoe Box, 1993 – an object that has gained something of the iconic authority of Duchamp’s urinal. The emptiness, of course, was the point. Both as metaphor and physical object it forced the viewer to ask questions not only about the gallery space and what it does or does not contain and why, but about absence, about what it is that is missing from art and culture and what we would want to place in that vacuum.

Gabriel Orozco Black Kites 1997
Black Kites, 1997

Black Kites, 1997, has also become iconic. Over a period of six months he worked out how to create a seamless graphite grid across the surface of a human skull. Here the organic object – the skull – is overlaid with a geometric pattern which metaphorically suggests the structures of logical thought. The mark-making also implies the rituals of body decoration and tattooing that for many ‘primitive’ peoples have a spiritual and religious significance. Orozco’s skull looks as if it might have been dug up from some ancient Aztec site. This would be appropriate, for the found object or ‘ready made’ is a dominant motif in his work. The skull is, also, a very Mexican symbol in a society where death carries so much cultural weight and is, therefore, embedded within ritual and custom in a way that Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted version could never be. The ideas explored in Black Kites were extended in his Mobile Matrix, 2006. Extracting a grey whale skeleton from the Isla Arena in Baja California Sur the bones were fitted to a metal armature on which it was to be suspended. Orozco then drew a series of concentric rings on the bones that collide and overlap each other. Six thousand mechanical pencils leads were used in the drawing and the finished piece was displayed in the Bibliotheca Vasconcelos, Mexico City. Later that year he created Dark Wave, which was shown at White Cube. Here the drawing was much darker implying not only the element of water, but evoking sailors’ tattoos and map making – elements in the infamous whaling industry, particularly in the 19th century.

Gabriel Orozco Mixiotes 1999
Mixiotes, 1999

Mixiotes, 1999 (the term refers to a traditional Mexican dish in which rabbit is cooked wrapped in cactus leaves) are at the other end of his creative spectrum from Black Kites. Small coloured rubber balls, clear plastic bags and dried transparent cactus leaves – suspended from the ceiling float like sea birds or fish, the flimsy ephemera of leaf and plastic held in place by the weight of the rubber balls. Among his oddest objects are Lintels. Swaths of fluffy grey lint collected from New York laundromats were strung on wires across the gallery, like lines of surreal washing. Joseph Beuys comes to mind, but Orozco’s lint was not imbued with magical or mystical properties. Rather with this human detritus – the skin and hair that form the lint – Orozco invited us to see its possibilities as sculptural material, and to note, what we might very well not otherwise see, its varying textures and subtle vestigial colour. The verbal word play around something as insubstantial as washing machine effluvia is typical of his games playing inclinations. The soft ground etchings made from pressing the lint onto printing plates in Polvo Impreso (Lint Book), 2002 were surprisingly beautiful; with their subtle grey-black tones they might have been describing the surface of the moon or the bark of a tree, whilst demonstrating Orozco’s predisposition for non-art materials.

Since 1994 he has been dividing circles and ovals into two and four quadrants with perpendicular lines, and then filling in the sections with primary colours. The placing of the colour and their relationships is based on the moves made by the knight on the chess board. The results look like molecular structures – 3D models of DNA or proteins – depicted on a flat surface. He has used this same intersecting devise with collected ephemera – from airline tickets to paper currency – to create works influenced by that master of detritus, Kurt Schwitters.

Gabriel Orozco Penske Project
Penske Project

Games are at the heart of much of Orozco’s work. Often they are displayed on ‘working tables’, a field of action that functions rather like a blank sheet of paper on which new scenarios can occur. His Game Boxes, 1998, are constructed of plasticine ‘pieces’ – balls and ‘submarine-like’ shapes – fitted into ‘found’ boxes that once contained educational film material and, therefore, dictate the shape and size of the plasticine objects placed in them. The games invite the viewer to pick up the pieces and engage in a match without any apparent rules, where the system and methodology can be constructed by the players and either brought to an abrupt end or continued indefinitely. These were made around the same time as the Penske Work Project when Orozco drove round SoHo and the West Village in New York collecting whatever detritus turned up, arranging and photographing it on the street, and then transporting it to the next site in a removal truck rented from the Penske company. The vehicle thus became a sort of mobile studio, allowing serendipity to play its part within the tightly constructed framework that defined the ‘rules’ of the project.

Orozco might be described as something of a ‘postmodern surrealist’ – for in his work chance, beloved by the surrealists, meets the mood of eclecticism that is so much a feature of postmodernism. He is an artist who not only lets happenstance have a free rein, but one who knowingly sets up well-defined systems only to allow them to be subverted by accident and chance. For him art can be anything – a photograph of a mosque made from sacking and timber poles set up in the scrubland of Timbuktu, Mali, which seems to have attracted his attention because of the pattern of circles cut into the fabric to let in light, or a series of found yoghurt carton lids pinned to the gallery wall, or the endless lines drawn on a scroll of paper with a ruler, where an ‘accidental’ bulge has developed because his projecting finger disrupted the flow.

It is almost impossible to think of Orozco’s works as single units, for what he has created is an idiosyncratic schema of the world, one which poses questions about the nature of art, about how we see the everyday and the marginalised, and the differing values we place on what is ‘found’, compared to what is manufactured or simply discovered. But he is not some neo-Romantic making a new organic whole out of the detritus of postmodernism; rather he is an artist who simply re-arranges that detritus in order to see and experience it from a different and new perspective.

Gabriel Orozco at Tate Modern from 19 January to 25 April 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Gabriel Orozco 1993-2006. Courtesy the Tate

Published in Apollo Magazine


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