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November 2010, Gabriel Orozco @ Centre Pompidou


Gabriel Orozco, exposition au Centre Pompidou
15 septembre 2010 – 3 janvier 2011
© Centre Pompidou, P. Migeat

 

Gabriel Orozco: Terra Cognita
Centre Pompidou
Place George Pompidou
75004 Paris, Frances
September 15, 2010 through January 3, 2011

Born in Jalapa, Mexico but living and working between Mexico, New York, and Paris, Gabriel Orozco is without a fixed home base, existing within the borderlands of imagined communities, circulating freely with objects and ideas and never aligning himself to a single narrative. Given his nomadic nature, it is fitting that Terra Cognita, an inversion of a term used in cartography to describe uncharted territory, is the title of his current solo exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. A mid-career retrospective though not billed as such, Terra Cognita is a twenty year testament to Orozco’s project of rousing people to confront the reality of their lived environments in renewed ways. As an artist who gives shape to unarticulated or suppressed cultural codes (no matter how seemingly pedestrian), Orozco can be said to operate as an artist- ethnographer of a modern day, global society.

This notion of the artist-ethnographer was originally fleshed-out by the anthropologist Hal Foster in his 1996 essay “The Artist as Ethnographer,” a conspicuous play on Walter Benjamin’s Marxian manifesto of 1934, “The Artist as Producer.” Foster maintains that while the “object of contestation remains bourgeois institutions of autonomous art” and bourgeois culture in general, he posits that the postmodern turn of the 1980s brought about a shift in the “subject of association.” 1 Supplanting Benjamin’s proletarian cause, Foster identifies the ethnographic other as the modern day focus of the artist’s solidarity in the face of dominant culture. Although Foster goes on to problematize the self-fashioning of artists as ethnographers, he concedes that a looser application of this paradigm has allowed for some extraordinarily rich projects of social significance. In Orozco’s case, the project involves disabusing the viewer of her artificial social constructs and ingrained sense of the blasé.

Like any good social researcher, Orozco demonstrates measured impartiality and refrains from privileging any one mode of representation – including materials used and symbols employed – above another. Defying art world hierarchies, many of his art objects are heavily reminiscent of and informed by an array of artifacts from everyday life. As with Empty Shoe Box (1993), Orozco’s work is sometimes even culled directly from reality. But rather than succumbing to a set of precarious conditions in which art collapses into life, thereby negating the mediating properties of art and thus art itself, Orozco’s expanded field of engagement is deployed in a very controlled, very conscientious manner. While culture might be anthropology’s proper object of inquiry (aesthetic exploits being included in the larger umbrella that is culture), the proximity of the anthropologist’s own culture can often render it impenetrable and opaque. It is within this theatre of self-inquiry that Orozco’s art functions as a methodological aid for ethnographic exercises. Like subtly perverted doppelgängers, his art assumes the established properties of specific cultural artifacts while also exhibiting unexpected characteristics or occupying surprising contexts (as in the case of Empty Shoe Box) as a means of challenging easy recognition. By creating cognitive distance between the anthropologist/viewer and the real, Orozco allows for renewed confrontations with reality.
 


Gabriel Orozco, exposition au Centre Pompidou
15 septembre 2010 – 3 janvier 2011
© Centre Pompidou, P. Migeat

For this exhibition, Orozco uses the trope of the marketplace to structure an examination of the internal workings and repercussions of globalization, a phenomenon that has profoundly shaped modern day life. Occupying the Pompidou’s sprawling, south-facing gallery, three long “market tables” are arranged like open stalls lengthwise along the room’s Western side. On display is an assortment of objects both mundane and exotic, trifling and yet loaded. Larger objects have been carefully positioned on the floor within a demarcated corridor of space while photographs, drawings, collages and paintings have been methodically hung on the gallery’s North wall. With the gallery floor level with the adjoining exterior promenade and only a series of floor- to-ceiling windows separating visitors and the art objects from the outside world, a palpable sense of permeability is elicited between inside and outside, market and street, the white cube of the gallery and the social world. Bringing the trope to its apogee is Imported Guards (2010), a performative piece in which two people dressed as Mexican police officers are installed to detract against shoplifting (in actuality, they acerbically screech ne touchez pas). The entire space invites eager meandering, as if treasure hunting at a bazaar, and conjures up larger notions of exchange and circulation, for even the smallest, most regional of markets is involved in a complex network of trade connecting people and goods across vast distances.

Globalization, working primarily through major advances in technology, has profoundly affected the marketplace by allowing goods, money, ideas and information to circulate widely and at breakneck speeds. Such hyper-connectivity has created conditions of what the geographer David Harvey calls time-space compression2, whereby the acceleration of time annihilates space. Enter Orozco’s infamous La DS (1993), a modified Citroën first exhibited in Paris in 1994. By splicing this iconic vehicle – a model once renowned for its aerodynamic qualities and futurist aesthetics – into three sections and then surgically reassembling its two flanks, the vehicle becomes a sleeker, ostensibly faster version of itself and a palpable symbol of time- space compression. Elevator (1994), a sculpture installed within the same runway of space as La DS, is subjected to a similar fate. In this piece, a segment of an elevator’s mid-section was removed so that the vertical dimension of the cabin’s interior was commensurate with Orozco’s height. While the visual abbreviation of La DS augments already inscribed notions of speed and mobility, the compression of space associated with Elevator gains its force by literally working on the body of the viewer. In a down-the-rabbit-hole moment, the shrunken space produces a feeling of bodily growth, an effect compounded by one’s memory of the pressure and heaviness experienced when quickly ascending in a vertical trajectory. Through these two pieces, Orozco engages the shifting relationships between time and space by very visibly revealing the ways in which associated phenomena of mobility not only manifest within advanced technologies, but how they also affect the body and manipulate cognitive schemata.

Notions of stability and permanence are also affected by accelerated timed and elided space. Two Socks (1995) boldly defies the throwaway mentality of modern-day consumerism, not to mention the landfill’s masticating powers. For this piece, which has been displayed on the central market table, Orozco packed damp papier-mâché into two mismatched socks that he cut away once the inside material had hardened. Orozco then eternalized these stockinged facsimiles by entombing them in a Victorian bell jar. Pinched Star (1998) also employs material transference in order to transform the mundane and mutable into that which is monumental and permanent. An aluminum cast of hand-molded wax, Pinch Star resembles a chunk of metallic driftwood that has fallen from some unmapped corner of deep space, its inherent dislocation heightened by its mislabeling in the gallery guide. By re-presenting disposable objects under vastly different conditions, Orozco contradicts our impulse for disposability, thereby drawing our attention to it.
 


Gabriel Orozco, exposition au Centre Pompidou
15 septembre 2010 – 3 janvier 2011
© Centre Pompidou, P. Migeat

This practice of tying down the ephemeral is echoed by a series of photographs on the back wall, including Cats and Watermelons (1992) and Crazy Tourist (1991), that endure as Orozco’s attempt to document his temporary interventions in public, albeit empty, spaces. Nearby photographs seem to be less about documentation and containment and more about activating hidden dynamics. In The Atomists, for example, Orozco superimposes an arrangement of minced circles over photojournalistic images of sporting events, such as rowing and cricket. Coded in the dominate colors of the underlying image, the abstractions echo the movements of the athletes and energize the picture plane’s static axis. The circular forms also draw our attention down to the image’s underlying screen of circular pixels and, conceptually speaking, down to the basic material building blocks of the pixels themselves. With kinesthetic activity the subject of the original photographs, the larger theme expands to encompass not only the concept of matter, but also that of energy conversion and larger processes of exchange, one of Orozco’s favored topics. Such a conclusion is reinforced by the fact that The Atomists get their name from Atomism, the ancient Greek study of matter and motion. On commensurate level, The Atomists also touch upon processes of deterritorialization in an increasingly global world: although the above mentioned sports were originally developed in Britain, they have since been appropriated as official sports by groups of people across the world, even by former colonies. Culture, Orozco seems to point out, is not fixed to particular bounded space but rather a processual phenomenon of overlapping and shifting influences replete with ruptures and disjunctions.

Using art to structure inquires into the phenomenon that is modern-day, global society, Orozco’s interventions render more visible those inner dynamics that impart society with its recognizable forms. For Orozco, the ethnographic other is global society itself (admittedly, one still very much Western-controlled). More specifically, it is how an ignorance of these veiled substructures potentially endangers our critical consciousness in the face of an increasingly monolithic social structure (monolithic not in the homogenizing sense, but as related to an escalating density of global interconnectivity). Recognizing this, the curators of Terra Cognita have brought together an extraordinary collection of some of Orozco’s more iconic and illuminating works in a way that’s both fresh and exciting. The criticism leveled at Orozco’s 2009 solo show at New York’s MoMA was that, contrary to the spirit of the work, the show felt too planned, too stagnant and even contrived. At that Pompidou, on the other hand, the curators have created a framework that opens the airless gallery up to the flux of the external world, thereby animating important references and relationships Orozco’s objects seek to engage. These issues regarding context, subtext and significance are cleverly synthesized in Working Table (2001), a piece positioned by the gallery’s single access point as the exhibition’s ostensible coda. Pregnant with ten year’s worth of sculptural fragments that offer insight into Orozco’s creative processes, it is easy to identify Working Table as an exercise in self-reflexivity. More importantly, however, the archeological quality of this dusty boneyard reminds us that nothing can ever be read directly, that meaning is not an inherent value, and that acts of interpretation must always be made in order to make sense of our world. Orozco would like us to do so critically.



Gabriel Orozco, exposition au Centre Pompidou
15 septembre 2010 – 3 janvier 2011
© Centre Pompidou, P. Migeat

Frances Malcolm

Frances Malcolm is a freelance writer and art critic based in San Francisco, where she also works as the public relations manager for a contemporary art gallery.  She completed her Master's Degree in Anthropology at the London School of Economics.

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