At the 2003 Venice Biennale, Damián Ortega presented what has become his signature sculpture, Cosmic Thing. He dissected a 1989 Volkswagen Beetle and suspended the individual parts in mid air so that they resemble a 3-D assembly diagram.
VIDEO: A preview of Damián Ortega's "Do It Yourself" at the ICA. Video courtesy ICA/Boston.
It was an eye-catching floating monument to the end of manufacture of the Bug (not to be confused with the "New Beetle," which has been produced since 1994). It spoke of Ortega's native Mexico City, where the car was ubiquitous, kept on the road with parts cannibalized from other VWs. Ortega, who now splits his time between Mexico and Berlin, also saw it as representing the legacy of the Nazis. Adolf Hitler commissioned the Volkswagen as an affordable, durable "people's car" — exactly why the Beetle thrived in Mexico. Dividing the car into its component parts was Ortega's metaphor for atoms that make up molecules, for rocks and gases that combine to form galaxies, for the relationship between individuals and their societies. But mostly, it's a catchy cool showcase for a famously cute car.
Included in "Do It Yourself," a 13-year survey of Ortega's art at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Cosmic Thing exemplifies both the strengths and the weaknesses of his style of conceptually based sculpture — and much conceptual art today. He hopes we'll read a lot into that Beetle, but he offers little to lead you to Mexico or Nazis or the cosmos. You're just supposed to recognize these associations and know that they are the intended ones.
In practice, it works like a Rorschach test. You might find yourself making lots of associations; you might find yourself thinking it's just a car. The more I stare, the more I walk among its parts hovering in the air, the more the associations slide off and even the neato display begins to feel like a gimmick.
Ortega began his artistic career drawing political cartoons for Mexican newspapers and magazines. But he grew frustrated by the short shelf life of his topical cartoons. "The next day the caricature maybe is less important," he tells me at the ICA's press opening. "And after three years, the cartoons have lost the life. It's a quality. It's like a fruit. But I would like to have a second reading of the same piece." So, in the mid 1990s, he transitioned to fine art. Still, the sculptures seen here in his first museum retrospective offer evidence of a lasting desire to analyze and critique society.
False Movement (Stability and Economic Growth) (1999) is a stack of three oil drums rotating atop a wooden platform so that they seem to spin on their rims. It's a magnetic optical illusion rooted in a one-liner: our oil-based economy is precariously balanced. For Skin (2007), Ortega hired a saddle maker to render in leather the floor plans of apartments in three utopian Modernist housing complexes. Instead of rigidly defining the home layouts, the leather straps hang limply from the ceiling like racks of beef — metaphors for the collapse of well-meaning dreams.
Now 42, Ortega is often associated with a group of Mexican artists centered on Gabriel Orozco that includes Abraham Cruzvillegas, Gabriel Kuri, and Dr. Lakra (who's scheduled to be featured at the ICA next year). In the late 1980s, the gang regularly got together on Friday nights in Mexico City. Lakra is a tattoo artist whose fine art involves sketching tattoos on printed pictures of women. But the rest of the men are linked by their conceptual sculpture (though they also sometimes paint, photograph, and make videos). The sculptures are usually happenstance combos of made and found materials, with a surreal flavor.
In the exhibition catalogue, Jessica Morgan — a curator at London's Tate Modern who organized this show for the ICA — and Ortega enumerate his art's theoretical underpinnings. Cosmic Thing, Ortega writes, "is about the creation of a balanced system in which all the elements are reciprocally related. . . . It is, at the same time, a system where each object . . . keeps a relationship with the rest of the elements. Such a relationship is political and equivalent to a social system." Read too much of this stuff and you begin to feel as if you were stuck in conversation with a tedious drunk at a party who has read a bit of philosophy and watched a video about Einstein and insists on telling you all about it.
So if you've only read about Ortega's art, you might be surprised by its physical charisma. The sculptures rework 1960s Minimalism with a contemporary Mexican accent and a lived-in hominess. In 1997, he tied his household chairs and tables together to form an arch and tower. In 1998, he notched rigid toasted tortillas together to assemble a sort of molecule model that also served as a joke on Modernist architecture.