by Megan Wallace
Beginning his career as a political cartoonist, Damián Ortega’s work is known for bringing to light the complexities and intricacies of how humans behave and interact with one another, with their surroundings and with themselves. This urge to dissect, in its most literal manifestation, is what made him world-famous in 2002 when he took apart the iconic Volkswagen beetle and displayed its miscellaneous parts, dangling in mid-air, as Cosmic Thing. He redresses this tendency in the current exhibition ‘States of Time’ at the Fruitmarket, which sets the destructive inclinations of the human ego at odds with the fluctuating cycles of growth and decay seen in nature.
‘States of Time’ is an international exhibition in which the well-known sculptor takes an almost anthropological interest in how societies express themselves and dialogue with the natural world around them. Rather than become entangled in local narratives, it seems as if Ortega is trying to pinpoint universal tendencies which connect civilizations across the ages. Indeed, when looking at these compact sculptures exhibited within the white walls of the gallery, there emerges a profound sense of placelessness – one becomes aware that this work functions as an emblem of a contemporary art culture that reaches beyond the viewer, which, driven by capital, spans continents. And yet, on second inspection, the work displayed actually does seem specific to a particular place and time. Firstly, the clay from which the sculptures are almost exclusively fashioned comes from Oaxaca, Mexico, clearly linking the work to the artist’s home country. The artist pays homage to his Mexican background on a smaller scale with Tripas de gato/ Isobaric map, a series of lines in pencil, directly applied to the gallery wall. The work whose name simultaneously references ‘cat’s guts’ and a means of annotating pressure on weather maps, seems to be toying with the Mexican mural art tradition with more than a hint of joyful irreverence. It also engages directly with the gallery in which the exhibition is housed, altering and dialoguing with the physical space. Indeed, this is not the only work that is intrinsically tied to the gallery’s physical confines: it is customary that the Fruitmarket Gallery exhibits works that respond to the space.
It is evident that Ortega is keen to reinforce that contemporary art can still resonate on a more personal level, and can function as an emblem of the micro as well as the macro. In fact, the clay used throughout the exhibition is sure to rekindle different childhood memories of the art classroom, of experimentation and of play, for each visitor. The choice of medium is interesting on another level given that Oaxaca is integral to Mexican pottery traditions — however, the region is typically known for its black clay, and not the red clay seen throughout ‘States of Time’. It is worth noting that the black clay of Oaxaca generally takes the form of utilitarian jars and pots used in everyday life, rather than ornaments used solely for decorative purposes. Ortega harnesses these connotations to produce sculpture that extends beyond the aesthetic to experiment with ideas of the functionality of the object, particularly in the piece Abrasive Objects. This work comprises a range of familiar objects crafted in clay, ranging from simple hand tools to the modern smartphone, lay assembled on tables in the upper gallery. Rather than staging a teleological evolution of the object, the clinical manner in which each object is displayed invites the viewer to examine more closely the objects’ similarities and what they each say about the needs of the society that made them.
Sculpture, in all of its different guises, is distinctly preoccupied with materiality. This is certainly true of the work included in this exhibition. By working almost exclusively with the same medium but in different stages — ranging from unfired clay to that which as fired, glazed and painted — Ortega shows how base materials can be manipulated by the conditions they are subjected to. He strongly beckons the viewer to consider the ways in which they have been molded by their surroundings, as well as the mark they make on the environment. Indeed, works such as Eroded Valley, which mimics the process of change inflicted by a river upon its surroundings, shows that two forces cannot coexist completely harmoniously, so that one will always impact the other.
Eroded Valley is symptomatic of the exhibition more generally: sculpture prioritizes action over object, interrogates the how and why, and thematizes process rather than presenting the object as totality. This is indeed a constant current in Ortega’s work and it is a pleasure to see it once again, especially in his experiments with scale and media.
Exhibition: Damián Ortega
The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
On until 23rd October 2016
Copyright © Megan Wallace & art plus thought. All Rights Reserved