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September 2012, Damien Ortega at White Cube

Damian Ortega, Fossilised, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and White Cube Gallery

Damien Ortega: Traces of Gravity
White Cube
25-26 Mason's Yard
London SW1Y 6BU
18 July through 8 September

It’s a rare hot day in London and a shaft of sunlight falls on the steps leading back up to the gallery reception, accentuating the melancholic atmosphere. Maybe we’re all wondering what we’re doing in a basement. Damian Ortega’s latest exhibition, titled Hollow/Stuffed, has an elegiac feel. There are notes available at the desk but I only realise later. It is best just to take this in and make the connections which are in any case umbrous, like the gallery space.  Despite the Mexican artist’s background as a political cartoonist, he has always eschewed making direct political statements.

In the first room, there is stuffed sacking shaped like a submarine and suspended from the ceiling. There is a thin line of salt leaking continuously from one end, creating a perfectly pointed white mountain on the floor. Decommissioned submarines have been used historically to transport cocaine between the US and Mexico, according to the exhibition guidance. There’s nothing sinister about this submarine though - it sags and is devoid of grandeur despite its size, like a harpooned whale. Salt is a preservative, stalling decay, but the methods for its mining were later used to discover oil. The two commodities connect distinct periods of Mexican history, from the salt trail to the early 1980s oil boom. The notes also explain that the installations are linked by the theme of ‘human intervention’, but there’s an air of abandonment throughout. It’s easy to forget that a gallery assistant periodically sweeps away the excess salt.

A bike lies on the floor in the next room, a salt negative tracing its outlines underneath. The scene looks interrupted, an impression enhanced by the blinking orange emergency light. On the ledge is a row of clay cameras in order of approaching obsolescence, box camera to iPhone, looking like they’ve been cast from a volcano. Our attempts to freeze time are made poignant by the successively dying technologies. That installation strikes the most moving note, possibly because its significance is not spelled out for us.

‘Hollow/Stuffed: Market Law’, the name of the main exhibit, refers to T.S.Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ which itself refers to Joseph Conrad’s novel on the failures of colonialism Heart of Darkness. The poem ends with the famous lines ‘And this is how the world ends/Not with a bang but with a whimper’. But whimpering sums up the stance of the exhibition. Everything is off-kilter, which is oddly emotionally distancing. The cameras do not take in any light and the submarine is stuffed, designed to sink. Ortega is most famous for his diagrammatic installations featuring the fittings of trucks and other vehicles suspended in perfect mid-air reconstructions. Here the interaction with each work is oddly limited. We look above, down, or note as we exit. The exhibition doesn’t tell us any stories, and it fails to fire our imaginations.

 

Damian Ortega, Hollow/Stuffed Market Law
Courtesy of the artist and White Cube Gallery

Damian Ortega, Preserved, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and White Cube Gallery

Zakia Uddin

Zakia Uddin is an East London-based writer who has previously written for Time Out, Londonist, Dazed & Confused, The Guardian, and The Wire.

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