Mexican makes waves on the club scene

Elliptical billiards? Pinstriped bowls? What game is Gabriel Orozco playing? By Iain Gale
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The Independent Culture
As you stroll up St James's, why not pop into the club? For 200 years the venerable establishments that line this timelessly fashionable street have been the power-broking centres of the country. The floor of the Commons might be the public face of government, but here is where the real deals are done. Forget Bertie Wooster at the Drones. You won't find many bun fights going on here. Billiards of course are another matter, and it is telling that the fate of the nation should have time and again been decided in places traditionally preoccupied with gambling and gaming. This ironic link has prompted Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco to create a powerful and witty commentary on the institutions, imperialism and social conditioning that once made Britain "Great".

In a huge, empty St James's mansion, until the 1960s the home of the celebrated Devonshire Club, over several floors, Orozco, working with Artangel, has constructed a series of works, each of which offers a very different angle on what the "Summer of Sport" might really mean.

Start with the billiard table. You'll notice a few modifications. It is elliptical. It has no pockets. And, importantly, the red ball is suspended from the ceiling on near-invisible thread. Watch it alternately floating in space or not quite touching its shadow on the baize. It is still possible to play the game, and you are encouraged to do so, but the new sense of ball control imparts a sense of unease. Such control is central to Orozco's theme.

In a room full of blown-up press photographs of popular sports - football, cricket, rowing - the fact is inescapable. Man's competitive urge is everywhere controlled and directed towards a greater goal. The 19th century saw the rise and rise of institutionalised cricket and football. It also saw the rise of the British Empire. This is no coincidence.

Upstairs, on the top floor, the implication of coercion is left in no doubt. To generations of movers and shakers, such clubs as this were hallowed ground and, emerging from the lift, this is precisely what confronts you. Orozco's beautifully made miniature of Lord's cricket ground is not intended to represent a particular era, or occasion. Its monochrome brown and white suggests the sepia of an old photograph or the memory of a dream. It is only at second glance that you notice the unusually large number of fielders. The crowd are are on the pitch and, bizarrely, each of them has a tree growing out of his back.

Perhaps Orozco wants us to pick up on such puns as "field" or "trunk". But the man's a Mexican, isn't he? And punning is so very... English. Then, of course, there's that well-worn Virgilian metaphor of metamorphosis. But do we know whether the artist had the benefits of "a good old-fashioned British classical education"? It's not hard to see that where Orozco's work really hits home is as a thoughtful piece of satire that knocks our tired old, post-imperialist nation for six. The body blow is doubled by the presence of a "bowling green" set beneath artificial trees. It's only when you walk up to retrieve your bowls that you notice that the bowling "alleys" themselves are in fact lengths of pinstripe suiting.

If you're still in any doubt as to what Orozco is saying, take the lift to the basement and the semi-darkened room inhabited only by a leather armchair set some 20 yards from a flickering computer screen. Whatever game is being played here, it's certainly not cricket.

50 St James's St, SW1. To 28 July. Tue-Fri 4-8, Sat-Sun 12-8

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