PRINT November 2006


SCATTERED AROUND THE GARDEN of Gabriel Orozco’s house in Mexico City are a number of soccer balls in various states of dereliction. Dirty, worn, frayed, and more or less deflated, they lie about the place as if they had grown there. Left in the open air, they slowly weather and decay, deflating imperceptibly over time. Occasionally Orozco picks one out and changes its ecology by cutting into it, say, or peeling away precise circular patterns from its outer skin to reveal a fabric lining. Then he may draw over its surface with small constellations of points and lines. Despite their look of material degradation and abandonment, then, the soccer balls are in fact in the process of being reclaimed. A simple cut can reverse the logic of their decomposition, giving them an uncanny life. Photographing them is part of this recycling process. After all, the balls have for all intents and purposes been returned to nature like cultural compost, and then retrieved and put back into circulation in a world of images and things. So, we are invited to ask, are they organic or inorganic? Living or dying? If Orozco is growing soccer balls in his garden, what happens when they circulate in the world and in potentially endless combinations with his other work? Here we might draw connections to his consistent preoccupation with games (billiards, Ping-Pong), or, for that matter, to any number of spherical objects, whether mechanical or natural, that he has made or used. The way Orozco’s soccer balls are peeled like fruit, for example, connects right back to works like Crazy Tourist, 1991, for which he placed oranges on trestle tables in a Brazilian market, or to Orange Without Space, 1993, a ball made of orange peel and plasticine. It is clear that nature becomes culture and culture becomes nature in such interventions. But the scope of the dynamic is larger than that formulation allows. A soccer ball in the undergrowth with a schematic chart or cluster of points drawn on its surface invokes not just natural processes of decay but also the movements of the stars and the planets—and, even more to the point, that soccer ball is like one small planet in a larger constellation. In short, the scope we are talking about here is literally astronomical—that of the universe as a whole. It seems pressing to ask what exactly is at stake in these transpositions, and what we are to make of the direction taken by Orozco in his most recent projects, which would seem to exacerbate rather than tidy up his always insistent preoccupation with nature from its micro to its macro registers.

These kinds of movements, from the small to the vast and back again, are materialized in the constellations or collections of objects that are the artist’s “working tables,” as he calls them. Two of these tables were shown last winter in Orozco’s solo exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, each displaying a hoard of disparate items produced between 2000 and 2005: terra-cotta balls, tessellated cartons, ceramics whose shapes suggested stones or other natural forms and whose surfaces were adorned with colored geometric patterns, shells the artist had drawn on, a small black-and-white painting. . . . It would take a long time to list the complete inventory and even longer to enumerate the relations that proliferate among the things both on and beyond the tables. The objects themselves are small, but the span of the connections among them suggests an immensity of scale; their juxtapositions of handmade and commodity forms, natural and synthetic materials set up what Orozco once emphatically called an “organic world.” As viewers, we are asked to shuttle from one order of magnitude to another.

This movement between scales, the lurching from the stuff of urban detritus to the stuff of celestial spheres, has been characteristic of Orozco’s work from the outset. The material of everyday life is for him a container of the universe—but there is something in these sudden and hyperbolic escalations that has become increasingly difficult to articulate. In fact, when the shifts are as vertiginous as this, a critical problem presents itself: How does one move from the level of everyday life to that of “the universe” without lapsing into a rhetoric of absolutes and essences? There is no ready vocabulary to describe the alarming elasticity of this micro-macro axis, or the apparent ease by which matter slips into dark matter—or at least none that does not bring about a reversion to an idealist or transcendentalist discourse. To call the macro dimension “universal,” though apt in a literal sense, is misleading because it suggests universalism in the ideological sense, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Orozco’s project. It is tempting to use the word cosmic, but this, too, would be wrong, given the huge resistance of the work to pretty much everything that typically attaches to the term, including connotations of ahistoricism, sci-fi romanticism, and utopianism.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, in his essay on Orozco’s photography for the artist’s 2004 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, showed that the contradictions in play in what Buchloh calls a “dialectic of total reification and cosmic longing” had a long history in twentieth-century art. The critical capacity to say something about, rather than simply be subject to, such longing is also historicized in his wonderfully apt epigraph, a quote from Marcel Duchamp: “One day in the near future, the whole galaxy of objects will become readymades.” This reference today only emphasizes the point that to invoke ideas of the “universal” and the “cosmic” at all seems at present a high-risk strategy, given the apparent ease with which an aesthetic sublime has been assimilated into, and in fact used to shore up, a culture of spectacle—to a degree Duchamp could never have anticipated. And the same kinds of problems pre­sent themselves at the micro level: Even a “poetics of the everyday” easily becomes a vehicle for aesthetic complacency. The task at hand in Orozco’s work, then, is to find out how not to revert either to a language of metaphysics, on the one hand, or, if we cannot believe in that anymore, to a postmodern language of pastiche or parody on the other. Each, by distancing us from what the work simply is, fails at some level to engage adequately with the sheer material affect of the object.

The large-scale works that Orozco has made this year only intensify the need for some kind of critical vocabulary to describe the stakes here. These include: Matrix Móvil (Mobile Matrix), a complete skeleton of a gray whale suspended in the enormous atrium of the Biblioteca de México José Vasconcelos in Mexico City, its bones inscribed with graphite in a delicate circular pattern; its huge “negative,” Dark Wave, a resin-and-calcium-carbonate cast of a second whale skeleton (this one a fin whale), entirely covered in a dense graphite pattern of concentric circles and looping latticework; and the beach house “observatory” that Orozco is in the process of building on the Pacific coast in Oaxaca, Mexico. All three are immense and ambitious projects, but they arguably explore the same interests as the small-scale objects strewn across the working tables. The crucial question has to do not with their actual physical scale, but with their role in finding a critical place of resistance that, for an artist today, is difficult enough to locate, let alone occupy. In her essay for the catalogue accompanying Orozco’s 2000 retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Molly Nesbit vividly discusses Orozco’s work in relation to the radical operation of the infrathin proposed by Duchamp. Recalling a conversation with Orozco in which he likened what he called the “floating impasse” of his work to Duchamp’s concept, Nesbit suggests the possibility that the infrathin might be thought of as a mode of resistance not least to what she terms the “high tidal pull” of the ’90s art market. It is perhaps not readily apparent how aspects of the artist’s recent practice, which include his (on the face of it rather anomalous) move to painting in 2002, could intervene in that social margin of action. It is important to note, however, that Orozco’s turn to painting was not really about identifying with painting as a medium, just as his recent concern with architecture—evidenced in projects like Shade Between Rings of Air, 2002, his replication of Carlo Scarpa’s 1952 Italian Pavilion at the 2002 Venice Biennale—is not a move to architecture per se. Rather, both Orozco’s paintings and his architectural works are part of a larger set of interests that always seeks to puncture such professional investments and specialisms. You could see this activation of the marginal spaces between disciplines and categories as precisely the same kind of operation that is triggered in the slightest—or perhaps better, thinnest—of spaces between the layers of a star chart drawn over the scored and partly peeled surface of a soccer ball.

But there is another dimension to all this too, namely, the temporal, complementing the spatial and emphasized by a word Orozco has often used in reference to his work: erosion. You can see, in the peeled and decayed skin of a soccer ball, the way the natural action of weather comes to intersect, almost imperceptibly, with the cultural process whereby things get worn out and become obsolete. This might sound a bit like Robert Smithson’s metaphorics of entropy, but there are important differences. Orozco is interested more in dispersal than in “sites” as such, and in the disintegration not only of structures but also of networks and systems of distribution. The idea of erosion, from this point of view, applies to discrete works that look as if they have yielded to the pressure of elements like wind or water, but also, more broadly, to everything he makes. Specific meanings and associations are worn away as works move around in the world and are exhibited, viewed, documented, interpreted. It is not only natural materials that “erode,” in these expanded terms, but also works made of synthetic materials that dramatize the same kind of undoing of form or shape. Neither casts nor molds, precisely, Orozco’s oversize, fishlike, suspended spume sculptures of 2003 were made by pouring polyurethane foam into latex sheets (or, in the case of Spume Drop, 2003, through wire mesh), and just barely containing the flow, like some kind of lava, before it set. As if to deliberately scramble the seemingly irresistible modernist conflation of technology and a geometric formal vocabulary, here organic forms are a function of synthetic, industrially produced materials.

In histories of modernism, the organic and the geometric have almost always been regarded as oppositional terms, especially as part of a loosely conceived dialectic of abstraction (for example, Jean Arp versus Piet Mondrian). Artists drawn to the “pure,” originary forms of stones or rocks or trees, such as Henry Moore, have tended to be seen as locked into a retardataire and universalizing landscape tradition. Aside from the convulsive mineral forms beloved of the Surrealists, or photographer Karl Blossfeldt’s strange erotics of plants, nature’s utopia has always been harder to redeem than its urban counterpart as conceived by visionary artist-engineers. This has begun to shift, and Orozco’s use of natural forms and materials (like bone or shell) has been one of the most striking articulations of the radical reworking of this paradigm. As such, we might think of him alongside, for instance, Tacita Dean, whose new overpaintings of gnarled oaks and ancient arboreal forms invoke, with a certain poignancy, Paul Nash’s remarkable photographic archive of rocks and trees. Dean’s approach, however, is far more literary than Orozco’s (and indeed until recently might have been dismissed as a legacy of the landscape tradition at its most romantic). Orozco, conversely, is at pains to eliminate narrative, to edit out of the work the stories that went into and grew out of its making. Seen as the quintessential “nomadic” artist of the ’90s, he has always been peripatetic, moving within and between cities as well as continents, and yet his journeys are only minimally documented, often through remaindered ephemera like tickets, or through photographs. There is a photo, for example, of Matrix Móvil’s whale skeleton as it was found beyond the salt flats in Baja California, footprints fresh in the sand, but the image (Ballena en la arena [Whale in the Sand], 2006) is deliberately extracted from the story of its discovery. The wearing away of narrative itself is necessary to the work and coincides with the undoing of sculpture as a category: What once seemed, in the language of sculpture, to be a regeneration of “nature’s carving” comes to signal a degeneration or undoing of form, not only in the natural landscape but in the thingscape of commodity packaging and common debris.

It is perhaps Orozco’s paintings that most succinctly map the logic of his “organic world” in which differences coexist and connections, even apparently contradictory ones, work together, but not cohesively. The paintings are part of the “organic world” that is the work but they are also, according to Orozco, “diagrams” of it. Their systematic arrangements of circular forms function, collectively, as a spine or hinge, its rotational axes schematizing the mobility of all the other things the artist makes that are not painting. This was made vivid when the canvases were first shown, at the Serpentine in 2004, together with the suspended poly­urethane spumes, as if the paintings were asking to be read as notations of the rotational, bodily movements of the sculptures. The paintings also play on a historical axis that recalls the geometric vocabulary of the Constructivist avant-garde, particularly Aleksandr Rodchenko’s circle paintings. The fact that Orozco turns back to the historical avant-garde, implicitly keeping it as a reference point, could even be understood in the same circular terms as the rotations played out in the paintings—except now the cyclical strategy is temporal rather than spatial. This Constructivist “loop” is particularly telling because it dramatizes not only a pivotal point in the history of the avant-garde, but the paradoxical crux of so many apparently materialist practices. What is it about intensely felt materialism that seems to almost irresistibly tip over into space fantasy? Rodchenko’s orbiting spatial constructions come to mind, as do Kazimir Malevich’s metaphorics of space travel, Vladimir Tatlin’s utopian visions of flight, and, in a different context, the constellation drawings that Pablo Picasso made at the very moment he was closest to the dissident Surrealism of Georges Bataille and Documents. It is almost as if the more material and bodily the engagement with the social sphere, the more historically powerful the reflex to expand its scope, preferably to infinity.

Significantly, this dynamic has been neither historically nor critically resolved. Nature in the sense articulated by the landscape tradition might be exhausted as a subject for art, but the kind of fantasy-fueled techno-organicism that could never be constrained by such a prosaic thing as a rational mind continues to exert a powerful fascination. It is probably symptomatic, then, that the moment of ruction within Constructivism itself has been all but erased from history: Tatlin’s great bird-glider, Letatlin, 1931–32, is one of the few remnants from that moment to have remained visible in the art-historical imagination. While often seen as a one-off eccentricity, Letatlin in fact exemplifies a moment in Constructivism that fairly dramatically deviated into an organicist fantasy (we might point, for example, to Mikhail Matyushin’s awkwardly knotted wooden forms). Rather than an idealist regression, maybe this now looks, through the lens of Orozco’s work, more like a materialist and bodily regression erupting on the very site of a mechanistic geometric vocabulary. That is, it looks as if what is pressing in this kind of organicism is the sheer material resistance it poses to utopian fantasies, whether of nature or of machine. Orozco’s hanging whales might remind us of Tatlin’s glider, but the looming Dark Wave, in particular, hovering suspended just above our heads, activates that thin space of limbo between the inanimate and the animate. A cast-resin skeleton of dead bones (or fake bones, perhaps, but fake bones made, like real ones, largely of calcium carbonate) only heightens our awareness of our own living bodies moving beneath and around its breathtaking and intricate structure.

Rodchenko, writing about drawing, once compared the line—and he pared everything down to the line—to a carcass or skeleton that structures the relation between different planes. In these terms, drawing on bones or on shells (which are themselves exoskeletons), as Orozco has done, is an overlaying of one carcass upon another. The title of his show at London’s White Cube Mason’s Yard (on view through November 11) is “Twelve Paintings and a Drawing,” which seems straightforward enough. Visitors may be surprised, then, when they realize that the “drawing” is Dark Wave. During the making of Black Kites, his famous 1997 drawing on a skull, Orozco photographed the eye sockets, tracking the drawing as it progressed over their contours: The word orbit not only refers to the movement of a planet, of course, but also to that ring of hollow bone around the eye; and just as a shell is empty of life, so are those small but labyrinthine craters. In his more amorphous objects of ceramic in which drawings are laid over uneven clay grounds, the blank sockets or orbits created through bodily pressure can’t help but reverberate with echoes of that same corporeal structure. Mapped onto the eroded, convoluted topography of his 2002 ceramic Hand Pressing Five Balls into a Mass After Drawing is a geometric design of radiating circles made of a dense layer of graphite. The pattern, like those on the tessellated skull or the soccer balls, acts not as a containing or structuring grid but as a net that is expandable and malleable and full of holes.

I should stress, however, that this universe is not about stargazing. It has nothing to do with a sublime or even phenomenological experience of a vast night sky. For one thing, Orozco’s point of reference here, at least at the level of representational strategy, is not the universe itself so much as the constellation charts and sky maps—those small graphic diagrams that chart configurations and movements of planets and stars—that have fascinated him since childhood, and which retain, I think, something infantile rather than awe-inspiring. Or to put it another way, one could as easily be awestruck by a soccer ball—or a cactus leaf, or a ball of plasticine, or a polystyrene boat full of dust—as by the version of the heavens in circulation here. And of course such diagrams are always already culturally embedded. You find them in newspapers and on walls, everyday and ready-made. Joining the points to plot a constellation, you might end up with something that looks like a kind of net, or a kind of scaffolding, or, ultimately, the kind of organic scaffolding that is a skeleton. The powerful effect of these slippages is not to invoke some timeless realm exempt from the corrosive psychic conditions of contemporary experience, but to demonstrate instead that nothing is exempt from those conditions, and that nothing is entirely reducible to them, either. Here the cosmos neither offers a refuge from nor further spectacularizes a globalized culture; instead, the cosmos—fairly surprisingly, it has to be said—ends up providing the means to puncture the cosmic.

When Mel Bochner and Robert Smithson wrote “The Domain of the Great Bear,” their famously dystopian 1966 account of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, they described their meandering in terms that record the true weirdness of modern life. For this, they acknowledged their debt to the great Jorge Luis Borges, citing at the very start Pascal’s description of nature as an “infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Drawn from Borges’s story “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal,” this formulation was like a critical arrow piercing the orthodoxy of the moment. The full history of Borges’s importance for artists is yet to be written; here I simply want to register the radically different sensibility at stake in Orozco’s equally passionate engagement with a Borgesian mode of thought. Rather than the absurd artifice of the metropolitan model of the planetarium, Orozco takes the model of an observatory—understood as a giant instrument for seeing. His Galaxy Pot 2, 2002, is almost like a miniobservatory: a pair of nesting plaster bowls in whose surfaces are traced a series of gestures that invoke celestial motion. The domestic associations of the humble bowls bring the galaxies, crashing, to earth, reducing them to an intimate scale. This trajectory in turn loops back again to the current beach house project, for which Orozco is duplicating the structure of the great but long-obsolete Jantar Mantar Observatory in New Delhi. Built in the eighteenth century, the New Delhi complex consists of huge yantras, or instruments, that once measured and calculated the movements of the cosmos; its sunken (bowl-like) hemisphere is the exact reverse of the dome of a planetarium. We wait to see the effects of what is not so much a giant sculpture as a giant temporal and geographical displacement. But the long gestation of this project also brings it into close proximity with the overwhelming logic of the smallest Galaxy Pot.

Briony Fer is a professor of art history at University College London.