Orozco, Black Kites,1997
Human skull and graphite
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
GABRIEL OROZCO at Tate Modern
19 January through 25 April 2011
In a world of contemporary art that tries at all costs to be uncomfortably edgy, overly sophisticated and deceptively cryptic, the work of Gabriel Orozco appears to be disarmingly simple but poignantly direct. The Mexican artist, considered one of the most influential of the last decade, is currently on show at Tate Modern. The exhibition presents a comprehensive look at the Orozco’s career, showcasing works in different media, all dealing with the tangibility of everyday-life and the inherent transcendental values one may find in the futile and the banal. Sculpture, photography, installation, painting and video are all featured here and are approached by Orozco in personal and challenging ways, suggesting that something much more complicated is at play underneath the surface.
The exhibition opens with a risky number. Not because what is on offer is too arcane, but the opposite, because the show opener dangerously hovers around the romantic, something for which little or no space at all has been left in contemporary art practice. My Hands Are My Heart says it all. The connection between the heart, as the artist’s emotional core, and his hands, the artist’s expressive/creative agents, is imbued with the myth of the artist as “oversensitive creator”. This is where it becomes instantly apparent that Orozco likes to have us wondering on the edge of things. Although this piece could easily be dismissed as sappy, it is the art object at the centre of the work, which holds everything together with such disarming simplicity that dismissal is made suddenly inappropriate. Orozco pulls you in one direction, to swiftly push you in another. In the photograph we see the artist holding a chunk of clay at the height of his chest. The clay, clutched together in his hands is shaped by the pressure of his fingers into something that closely resembles a human heart. However the heart in question is not the red pointy and curvy shape that chocolate boxes and balloons often appear in. This clay-heart bears a strange naturalness which reminds us of the organ-heart, the pump that keeps us alive, rather than the symbol of love - the balance is perfect for a very intriguing beginning.
Orozco, My Hands Are My Heart.1991.
Two-part cibachrome, 9 1/8 x 12 1/2 inches each.Edition of 5.
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
The simplicity of this work is almost instantly counterbalanced by the unbelievable dexterity displayed by the work that Tate has decided to use for the marketing of the exhibition, Black Kites. This is a genuine human skull which the artist has painstakingly drawn on with graphite, creating a perspectively plausible checkered grid covering the entire bony surface. We are initially again led to dismiss this object, since Damien Hirst’s diamonds-encrusted skull has become the nightmare of every gallery goer. However this skull is much older than Hirst’s, it was created in 1997, making Orozco the real pioneer of this still-life revisitation. The artist wanted to work with something, in his words, real and found that something in the human skull. Orozco had at the time been hospitalised because of a collapsed lung and had the opportunity to contemplate death more closely than ever. The skull clearly here references death, but the checkered design is an attempt at rationalising such physically impossible contemplation – it is a way of measuring death in spatial as well as temporal ways. Anyone who has used graphite on a piece of paper knows how easy it is to smudge with ones hand by simply progressing through the work. Imagine doing the same on a surface that is extremely porous, consistently uneven and inhospitable to straight lines. The artist is clearly attempting the impossible, and he succeeds in a rather elegant and understated way – the opposite of Hirst. For as striking as this piece is, using Black Kites to sell the show may have been a miscalculation on Tate’s behalf, for Hirst’s association with the skull in art is consistently planted in audiences’ perceptions. Orozco is inadvertently sold as copycat, whilst he is the original.
Other works in the show are equally iconic and would have also looked good on posters, like for instance the famous LA DS from 1993, an old Citroen DS he recovered from a scrap yard in Paris and of which he particularly liked the aerodynamic design. As part of the range of everyday objects he reconfigures, the car was vertically sliced in tree sections (the ghost of Hirst still hovers…) and its central part was discarded. Orozco then adjoined the two remaining halves in order to create a very narrow, two-seater with an enhanced aerodynamic shape, alluding to a completely different understanding of cars, travelling and the spaces in which we travel.
Nearby, Four Bicycles (1994) vividly echoes memories of Duchamp famous Bicycle Wheel from 1913. In Orozco’s reconfiguring, the knot of bicycle-frames is organised in order to surprisingly balance in an otherworldly gravity-voided space. A massive intervented ready-made, the object exists in the tradition of the surrealist and dada readymade alike. This balancing act of reinterpretation requires again dexterity, something the artist seems to showcase as his main skill, for the bicycles are not welded together, but assembled through the attachments provided by their frames. Welding the bicycles together, according to the artist would have been the equivalent of cheating.
Orozco, Breath on Piano. 1993.
Chromogenic color print, 16 x 20" (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Edition of 5
Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
The sense of wonder triggered by the encounter of the familiar made unfamiliar is key in Orozco’s work, so it is legitimate to wonder how many times can one marvel at the immediacy and uncanny qualities of these objects? Elevator from 1994 poses exactly this question. Upon approach one does not instantly understand what the object is. It initially looks like a self-contained small room of some description, one with a door and no windows - possibly a mechanised garden shed? Further inspection reveals we are in front of an elevator that has been ripped out of a block in Chicago and placed in the gallery space. This is an elevator presented in a way that we have never before experienced: elevators are all inside and no outside: something as simple as showing us the outside of the elevator puzzles our expectations long enough to invite us to look at it with new eyes. The encounter with the everyday staged in unprecedented ways is key of Orozco’s work and plays large part in the sense of wonder one experiences. Everything, even the most banal objects, like a shoebox left on the floor seem in this exhibition charged with a special aura. Empty Shoe Box is one of the most singularly simple works of art created over the past thirty years and carries a whiff of Piero Manzoni’s irreverent sculptural forms along with a hint of Martin Creed’s paper balls. The shoe is a genuine shoebox seemingly abandoned in the middle of the gallery. It sits on the floor with no barriers around it and it therefore challenges our response to the encounter with the everyday object in the gallery space. In a sense it is a rough ready-made, one that unlike its more dignified equivalents has not entirely left the everyday world and does not sit on a plinth or in a case. What are we meant to make of this box? Is it a work of art, or has someone dropped it there by mistake? Is it part of the artist’s work or is it simply trash? The paradoxical encounter with a genuine everyday object in a gallery space filled with everyday objects, which have clearly acquired an artistic aura, is simultaneously hilarious and disconcerting. The box has previously appeared at the Venice Biennale and at New York’s Museum of Modern Art where it has been kicked and used as a rubbish bin. What will London make of the box?
Other remarkable pieces are Carambole With Pendulum (1996), a work based on relational aesthetics where visitors are invited to grab a pool stick to strike two white balls sitting on the green felt of a round billiards table with no pockets. From the ceiling a red ball is suspended to a wire and swings like a pendulum becoming an unpredictable element in a game that has neither winners nor losers. The piece is inspired by Foucault’s Pendulum, the nineteenth century apparatus used to demonstrate the earth’s rotation.
All around the table are a series of photographs capturing the poetic essence of Orozco’s most striking found objects. Most notably, in Extension of Reflection (1992) we are presented with wet bicycle’s tire tracks. The ephemeral is indeed one of the artist’s main concerns and photography surely allows him to preserve the otherwise fleeting nature of these objects. Possibly the most famous in this series of works is Breath on a Piano (1993) where the artist’s breath, one of the most visually immaterial subjects, is photographically captured as a fine mist on the glossy surface of the black piano. Aside from suggesting ideas of ephemerality and impalpability, the photographs also question the extremities of the two defining elements at play, the breath and the quasi-silent, monotone sound typical of its emission and the piano with its loud ability and wide sound spectrum. The visual juxtaposition of breath and piano departs from the visual in order to suggest the acoustic qualities of mutual exclusivity.
The exhibition ends with a predictable but perhaps apt and silent note: Lintels (2001) where gray looking cloths of felt-like fabric hang from washing lines. These pieces of cloth were made from lint gathered from the filters of tumble dryers in New York. A close inspection reveals everything we would expect to find in them, hair, fluff, fibres, and possibly a lot of dead cells (which we cannot however see). The piece was first exhibited in New York in November 2001 where the gray colouration of the lint uncomfortably resounded of the events of 9/11. The display of this waste material, a hybrid of fabrics and human organic matter merged by the heath of the tumble dryers becomes an embodiment of our interconnectedness with machines that make our everyday life what it is, according to Orozco, made of simple things that are deceivingly and poetically complex.
Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.view all articles from this author