PRINT April 1996


“Act so that there is no use in a centre.”
—Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons: Rooms, 1914

RATHER THAN A REASONABLY conceivable variant of the traditional chess game, Gabriel Orozco’s Horses Running Endlessly, 1995, calls to mind something resembling Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie remade by a hallucinating Bobby Fischer. Crowding onto this large four-color chessboard with 256 squares—instead of the usual 64—a throng of knights (also in four colors rather than two) mobilize, the pieces distributed in an order governed only by the principle that the color of the square must correspond to the color of the knight. The configuration of the pieces is rich in potential transformations. On a conventional chessboard, the knight can successively occupy all the squares without ever passing through the same one twice. I do not know whether this possibility exists on Orozco’s oversized version, but I imagine nevertheless the simultaneous setting in motion of the pieces and the quasi-infinite potential configurations. Moreover, each viewer is free to modify the given configuration as he or she wishes (at least according to the allowable moves of the knight). Like a Calder mobile one could activate with a fingertip or merely a breath, Horses Running Endlessly is a machine to produce diversity.

One of the most radical changes introduced by the “post-Minimalist” and “Conceptual” art of the late ’60s and early ’70s, recently placed under the spotlight again by “Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–1975” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, was a new treatment of space, not only within works but also in the movement of artists themselves. Once the notion of the studio as a central locus of production from which art is dispatched toward other centers—galleries, museums, and the appropriately named “art centers”—began to come unraveled, art no longer took its inspiration from geometry but literally from kinematics. In this context, the artist becomes an essentially mobile individual whose peregrinations form the basis of, or at least influence strongly, the work of art: the effect of this mobility is equally registered in an earthwork, the product of the encounter with the singularity of a site, and in more urban interventions, inside or outside places expressly devoted to artistic manifestations, as in the work of Daniel Buren—the mention of “living and working in situ” he places in all his biographical notes best sums up the imbrication (rather than fusion) of art and life implied by an analogous esthetic choice. During the same period, Richard Long was transforming a walk in the country into an artistic genre in itself. Similarly, On Kawara, whose work at first glance appears exclusively concerned with temporality, nevertheless positions himself as a displaced person and carries out a sort of decentering and shattering of space: his series of date paintings begun on January 4, 1966, has been continued to this day in more than eighty cities around the world, with the assistance of a small “portable studio” easily set up in any hotel room. The newspaper clippings that accompany the canvas reflect the city where the work is painted as much as its date of completion. In the context of these practices, many more examples of which could be cited (from Andre Cadere’s “round bar of wood” to Ian Wilson’s “oral communication”), the dialectic of site and nonsite theorized by Robert Smithson continues to contribute to a general sense of mobility and instability.

It is in relation to this tradition, rather than the performances and simulations of the ’80s, accompanied as they were by a return en masse to the studio, that Orozco’s work should be approached. But beyond the family tree of this esthetic sensibility, which favors the light and the transitory over the monumental, and the figure of the freelancer to that of the businessman, the fact that Orozco is of Mexican origin has contributed to his adoption of such a form of artistic nomadism. He inevitably had to displace himself to begin to assimilate contemporary art in its complex and international structural reality, spending a year in Madrid in 1986–87, visiting several countries, and moving to New York before going on to Berlin, where he has lived for about a year. It seems safe to wager that Berlin won’t be his final stop, and from this perspective, Orozco resembles one of the knights in his Horses Running Endlessly. But the corollary to this cosmopolitanism, far from some sort of denial of identity, is the certainty of always carrying along, so to speak, a part of one’s native country, independent of the melancholy one ordinarily associates with uprooting. An indestructible substratum, Orozco’s Mexico is also a mobile and polymorphous entity, which does not require the construction of one image over another. Certain photographs documenting the extremely ephemeral “installations” Orozco produced in New York shops (e.g., Cat in the Jungle, 1992, and Cats and Watermelons, 1992) and Mexican markets (e.g., Crazy Tourist, 1991) evoke this sense of an alterity that could be called ineffable to the degree that it also seems to operate from the inside. If there is one thing the voluntary nomad knows for certain, it is where he comes from, and this awareness implicitly curbs nationalistic temptations as well as predictable gestures representing the homeland. The phenomenon of the nomadic artist thus converges with one of the diagnoses of contemporary ethnology, for which the accelerated diminution, indeed disappearance, of exoticism beneath the effects of increasingly intense globalization, together with the failure of the “culturalist” anthropology that endeavored, after Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, to circumscribe a “total social fact” and define something in fixed terms as “belonging” to a particular culture, forces one to recognize that the social begins fully with the individual, an “other” who, whether “close” or “distant,” comes under the same anthropological gaze.1

Piedra que cede (The yielding stone), 1992, is the perfect self-portrait of the artist as nomad: a ball of gray plasticine, the same weight as Orozco himself, which the artist rolled through the streets of New York and elsewhere. The object, with its lack of ornamentation, is native in the fullest sense of the word, its soft surface preserving traces of the grounds and bodies it comes into contact with. Its domain is the sprawl: it addresses itself to horizontality much more than to history. The allegorical force of the malleable Piedra que cede has to do precisely with the fact that it does not create an image, as well as its denial of anything other than a momentary historical connotation—as a noniconic portrait, what does it recall most in appearance? The sacred stones and meteors that in antiquity were adored like so many divine presences? The shapeless masses of wax that the bourgeois Florentines suspended as votive offerings in their churches (and whose weight was strictly equivalent to theirs)? Or perhaps the few contemporary artistic attempts in the same vein (e.g., Robert Morris’ Self-Portrait [EEG], 1963, an electroencephalogram of the artist that was equal in length to Morris’ height)? Like Horses Running Endlessly, Piedra que cede is a piece perpetually in progress. It has no privileged site or definitive installation: the idea of place unfurls with it in space.

From Orozco’s interest in mobility has come the recurring motif of the vehicle as an emblem of the place (country, city) where the pieces are first shown (the artist displaces himself each time in the very act of making a particular work in a particular place). The best known of Orozco’s vehicle pieces is La DS, 1993 (when pronounced phonetically, “DS” produces the sound equivalent to the French word for “goddess,” déesse), in which the artist conducted a series of operations (including repair, fragmentation, subtraction, and reconstruction) in a Parisian body shop on what was originally a junked car destined for the scrap heap. Splitting the car lengthwise in three fairly equal parts, Orozco reconstructed it while omitting the middle section (along with the motor), and topped off this severe weight-loss program with a “face-lift” that spruced up the exterior. Surgery, cosmetics, patching up, and anamorphic deformation are but some of the associations suggested by this object, which has literally been decentered (and whose viewers, it should be pointed out, are free to open the doors and climb in).

Elevator, 1994, conceived for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and later shown at the 1995 Whitney Biennial (on the ground floor, just in front of the “real” elevators), produces a similar effect as La DS, the vehicle again reduced in size, in this case to Orozco’s measurements. Since the piece was left open, more people entered it than La DS (although, even for those who had to crouch, the effect was not as disorienting or strange). La DS and Elevator are both instruments of conversion: by occupying them, we also instantaneously become objects on exhibit, we exhibit ourselves (hence, the possible reluctance on the part of the viewer, linked to the taboo of physical contact with art and the sort of virtual nudity in which any new public situation places one). Nothing of the sort is possible, on the other hand, with Four Bicycles (There Is Always One Direction), made in 1994 for the “Watt” group show at the Witte de With in Rotterdam. Stripped of their handlebars and seats, the bikes compose a figure inscribed in a sphere and find themselves removed from all use. Though completely immobilized, they nevertheless serve a variable, “directional” purpose—as is implied in the title. In another vehicle piece, the title, Habemus Vespam, 1995, is a play on words mixing the traditional Latin expression used during the election of a new pope (Habemus Papam, “We have a pope”) and the evocation of the quintessential Italian two-wheeled scooter, the Vespa (Italian for “wasp” and containing in itself the idea of a rapid and swirling motion). As in La DS, the vehicle is already slightly anachronistic, more associated with the ’60s (and the childhood of someone of Orozco’s generation) than the ’90s. Habemas Vespam does not so much involve the direct use of an object in terms of material but more classically proposes an image of it, through a technique—the cutting of stone—which Orozco took up for the occasion and one he obviously also selected because of its geographical specificity (the piece was executed in Milan for a show at the Monica De Cardenas gallery).

Orozco has continued his variations on the theme of the vehicle in other works as well: for example, a series of photographs, entitled Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe, 1995, is an amusing meditation on the links between identity and alterity. The German equivalent of the Vespa, the Schwalbe (German for “swallow”) is Orozco’s principal means of transportation in Berlin. The series is based on the conjugation of displacement and strokes of inspiration: to ride around until another, identical scooter offers itself up to form a pair, documented once again by a photograph. But even in the context of his vehicle themes, if there is an art that Orozco has mastered, it is that of conforming as little as possible to any expectation, not really allowing himself to be grasped. For a fall 1995 show of his drawings at Micheline Szwajcer in Antwerp, Orozco invited visitors to park their cars in one of the rooms of the gallery, which he had opened onto the street. In 1994, in response to the high, even overdetermined stakes that a first show in a very visible New York gallery represents (and not long after La DS had made something of a splash), Orozco confounded perhaps everyone’s expectations and conceived one of his subtlest pieces, Yogurt Caps, 1994, occupying the principal space of the Marian Goodman Gallery with the lids of four yogurt containers, each arranged at eye level in the center of the four walls. Orozco’s penchant for unpredictability and studied nonchalance was perhaps never greater, however, than when he put up a hammock between two trees in the sculpture garden at MoMA in New York (in Hammock at MoMA Garden, 1993).

A flaneur of the planet, the nomad artist ultimately has at his disposal and as sole recourse only himself. Hence, Orozco’s use of his own hand, which often serves him as both a tool and a motif. A beautiful 1991 floor piece, My Hand Is the Memory of Space (Mi mano es la memoria del espacio), is based on the enlargement of the contours of a hand in negative. A number of Orozco’s drawings consist of a sort of self-representation of the hand, and in certain cellulose-paste sculptures (e.g., Marine Hands [Mani marine] and Hands of a Mollusk [Mani mollusco], both from 1995) he uses the hand as a module or matrix. Far from raising a traditionalist claim for artisanal virtuosity, this demonstration is symbolic above all else. A gesture of the hand, in all senses: traces of a body, the suggestion of contact, the gesture of someone passing to those looking on.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is editor of Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne. He lives in Paris and contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.

1. This is one of the conclusions Marc Augé reaches in a recent book, Le sens des autres. Actualitè de l’anthropologie, Paris: Fayard, 1994. See also “Home Made Strange: Jean-Pierre Criqui Talks with Marc Auge,” Artforum 32, no. 10 (Summer 1994): 84-88, 114, 117.