Los Angeles

Gabriel Orozco

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

ON THE OCCASION OF HIS FIRST MAJOR SURVEY EXHIBITION, at LA MOCA, Gabriel Orozco told Benjamin Buchloh in a public dialogue that, as an artist, he works “in reality.” Identifying reality as his medium—as opposed to conventional practices such as sculpture and photography, both of which Orozco also deploys—is provocative. First, from an art-historical perspective, the equation between art and reality conjures up the tradition of the readymade initiated by Marcel Duchamp and transformed by postwar artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, who in 1959 famously declared: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” The danger in Rauschenberg's declaration—one that has ambushed many artists, including at times himself—is that art will simplistically collapse into life, or life into art. Second, at least for those versed in post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory (which includes a significant subset of the art world), Orozco's remark to Buchloh evokes shades of the Lacanian “real,” giving rise to a vexing contradiction: If, as Lacan argues, the “real” is that which exists outside of representation, thereby establishing its limits, how can “reality” be incorporated as an artwork? From both art-historical and poststructuralist perspectives, therefore, working in reality calls forth “impossible objects.” Such things must simultaneously emerge as representations and fall back into the unmediated condition that is “reality.”

Gabriel Orozco makes such “impossible objects,” in which the stain of reality remains pungent. He does so, I think, by cultivating a dimension of the readymade that is often insufficiently recognized: its nature as an encounter between artist and object—“a kind of rendezvous,” in Duchamp's words—and not simply as a gesture of aesthetic validation conferred on ordinary commodities. For Orozco, objects are either the provocation or the residue of an event. These two aspects of rendezvous are evocatively juxtaposed in the second gallery of his LA exhibition. In the center of this room stands Oval with Pendulum, 1996, an oblong, pocketless billiard table holding two white balls and a red one, which hangs from a cord like a pendulum. Pool cues are available in a nearby rack, inviting visitors' participation. Arrayed around the perimeter of this temporary pool hall is Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe, 1995, a series of forty pictures of the artist's yellow Schwalbe scooter (a brand manufactured in the former GDR), which he photographed alongside identical bikes parked on the streets of Berlin. Like Ping Pond Table, 1998, installed in an adjacent gallery and comprising four “wings,” allowing for four players, and a lily pond where the net would be, Oval with Pendulum is a game without rules but not without a specified playing field. The encounter it facilitates is therefore both restricted and open-ended. Conversely, in Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe, it is the playing field that is fluid (the entire city of Berlin) and the rules that are clear (find another yellow Schwalbe).

These disequilibriums at the heart of Orozco's post-readymade encounters are fundamental to the meaning of his art. When I played Oval with Pendulum, naturally I wanted to see what would happen if one of the white balls were to collide with the hanging red ball at the center of the table. When at last I succeeded in hitting the pendulum and sending it flying off the table in a motion whose axis was dramatically different from the table-bound white balls, I realized that the kind of encounters Orozco orchestrates are not exclusively between things, places, and people, but also between different vectors of movement. Paul Virilio has famously argued that in modernity, politics and collectivity must be understood as the extension and control not of land or commodities but of routes and vectors of circulation, ranging from freeway systems to advanced networks of communication. It seems to me that Orozco's practice has expanded our notion of the readymade by bringing to it precisely such a consciousness of speed and circulation. In a series of 1997 video works, for instance, with titles like From Container to Don't Walk, the artist records his wanderings through urban space by focusing on a sequence of ordinary but arresting things in his path. In these tapes the experience of time is erratic: Sometimes a single object receives sustained attention only to yield to a series of quick cuts from thing to thing or angle to angle. Much of Orozco's work manifests an encounter between dramatically different temporalities: Static geometric patterns are projected onto wildly animated photographs of sports figures in a series of computer-generated prints known as the Atomists, 1996; and in another series of works, Pinched Stars, 1997, the artist made permanent aluminum casts from seemingly ephemeral residual forms by pressing wax between his hands.

In his dialogue with Buchloh, Orozco mentioned that he purposely made no new work for the LA show but rather sought to recombine objects from the past decade in new configurations. And indeed the bulk of the ninety-six piece exhibition at MoCA consists of a very large open gallery in which many threads of Orozco's practice are intertwined. At the center of the space are four large tables—or plateaus—including fascinating arrays of found objects, small artworks, and studies. On either end of the room are long plinths with peaked tops like library tables, where photos and videos are displayed. Overhead are the Toilet Ventilators, 1997/2000, a series of ceiling fans with partially unfurled rolls of toilet paper attached to each blade. These add a festive air of spiraling streamers that never fall to the ground. Also present are some of Orozco's best-known works like La DS, 1993, an automobile (the famous Citroën DS) whose midsection Orozco removed only to reattach the remaining pieces in a tour de force of three-dimensional foreshortening. And on one side of the gallery, in one of many self-referential gestures in the exhibition, Orozco recycled his own works as ready-mades by representing several of them in Photogravity, 1999, an installation of twenty-eight large black-and-white photographic cutouts held up from behind by spidery black legs. If the first two galleries at MoCA invited museum-goers to play games—the Ping Pond Table in the first gallery and Oval with Pendulum in the second—the beautifully installed third gallery proposed another kind of game: hide and seek. Where exactly do we find the art of Gabriel Orozco? In this gallery “reproduction” slid in next to original, study sidled up to art object, and ephemera joined with monumental sculpture. In other words, Orozco took the material conditions of the museum, including its strategies of canonization, and submitted them to the same acts of unraveling and serendipity that inform all of his work “in reality.”

“Gabriel Orozco” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through Sept. 3. The exhibition travels to the Museo Internacional Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City, Sept. 18, 2000–Feb. 4, 2001, and the Museo de Arte Contemporàneo de Monterrey, Mexico, Feb. 22–May 17, 2001.

David Joselit, associate professor in the Department of Art History, University of California, Irvine, is the author of Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910–1941 (MIT Press).