Where there's waste, there's art

Gabriel Orozco uses a bewildering array of found objects - plastic bags, rubber balls, human hair - in his work. But Sue Hubbard finds reason in the rubble
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The Independent Online

If you enjoy playing chess or the oriental game of go, if you are an enthusiast of cryptic crosswords or a fan of the short stories of Borges, with their labyrinthine narratives and circular tales, or one of those people who have to take apart electrical circuit boards to see how they are constructed, then you will enjoy the work of the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco.

I use the word "artist" advisedly, for Orozco is a conceptualist who employs whatever medium happens to seem appropriate - paint, photography, sculpture, collage - to explore his obsessions. Skill, as such, is not the point as, say, with a painter who may have spent years trying to master how pigments react one with another on canvas. Rather, his is a Duchampian investigation into the nature of the physical universe - its oddness, coincidental similarities and idiosyncrasies - with whatever materials happen to be at hand or capture his imagination. For Orozco seems to be not so much searching for the meaning of life as trying to establish a series of self-constructed systems to impose on the random chaos of the material world.

Born in 1962 in Japalap, Veracruz, into an intellectual, left-wing family, he received early encouragement to eschew all forms of Americanism, including the English language. As a teenager his summers were spent in the Soviet Union and Cuba and as a student in the late 1980s he led a group of radical young artists who rejected the predominance of "neo-mexicanismo", art that dealt in gaudy commercial neo-expressionism and cultural stereotypes of a nationalistic sub Kahlo-esque nature.

At first, the work at the Serpentine Gallery all seems rather arbitrary; a bit of painting here, a collage or sculpture there until one realises that there is a conceptual and intellectual thread which links one work to another. Grids and formal structures are obviously important and slowly, if one concentrates it becomes apparent that there is an interplay between the rational and organic, the structured and the intuitive.

Black Kites, 1997, his most arresting and seminal work graphically embodies these concerns. Over a period of six months he meticulously worked out how to create a seamless graphite grid across the surface of a human skull. Here the organic object - the skull - is overlaid with a geometric pattern which metaphorically suggests the structures of logical thought. Though coincidentally it also seems to display a very Mexican concern with images of death and looks as if it might have been dug up on some ancient Aztec site. But then that, too, would be appropriate to Orozco's thinking, for the found object or "ready made" is a dominant motif in his work.

On entering the gallery one is confronted by his Mixiotes, 1999 (the term refers to a traditional Mexican dish in which rabbit is cooked wrapped in cactus leaves), sculptures at the other end of his creative spectrum from Black Kites but which also use "found" objects - small coloured-rubber balls, clear plastic bags and dried transparent cactus leaves - which float suspended from the ceiling like seabirds or fish, the flimsy ephemera of leaf and plastic held in place by the weight of the rubber balls. This is echoed elsewhere by Delta Tail, Double Cut and Spume Fin, 2003, whose anthropomorphised forms were created by pouring liquid polyurethane foam on to a tilted rubber sheet so that when the rubber was stripped away the smooth surfaces of the shark-like objects, which now hang from the gallery ceiling, were revealed.

Among the oddest suspended objects are Lintels. Strung on wires suspended across the gallery, like surreal washing, are swaths of fluffy grey lint collected from New York laundromats. Joseph Beuys, of course, comes to mind, but this lint has not been imbued with any magical or mystical properties. Rather, through this display of human detritus (the skin, hair etc, that form the lint) Orozco invites us to see its possibilities as sculptural material, to note what we might very well not otherwise see, its varying textures and subtle vestigial colour.

The verbal word play on an architectural structure around something as insubstantial as washing machine effluvia is typical of his game-playing inclinations. The etchings made from pressing the lint on to printing plates in Polvo Impreso (Lint Book) 2002 are surprisingly beautiful; with their subtle grey-black tones they might be describing the surface of the moon or the bark of a tree. But they also demonstrate his predisposition for non-art materials, linking him strongly with the mood of the Italian Arte Povera movement.

This eye for the incidentals of the world is very much part of his art. Havre-Caumartin, 1999, a set of three graphite drawings, was made from rubbings taken of the circular mosaics on the wall of the Parisian metro of the same name. The variations in density are caused by the bodily pressure exerted.

Geometric patterns, particularly circles are revisited and repeated within Orozco's work. The formal patterns of Blackboards, 1998, a series of 10 classroom boards silk-screened with computer generated designs, reminiscent of electronic circuit-boards, also form the basis of a number of drawings which he has filled in with colour working out from the centre like a model of the expanding universe. Since 1994 he has been dividing circles and ovals into two and four quadrants with perpendicular lines and then filling in the sections with primary colours. The placing of the colour and their relationships is based on the moves made by the knight on the chess board. The results look like molecular structures - 3D models of DNA or proteins - depicted on a flat surface. He has used this same intersecting devise with collected ephemera, from airline tickets to paper currency, to create works influenced by that master of detritus, Kurt Schwitters. Circles, drawn and incised with a compass dominate his Atomist series, the only works to include the human form (if one excludes the two rather beautiful series of his own hand prints). The spheres superimposed on the Atomist series relate to the analysis of movement and the desire to formulate a system that describes the human body in motion in the manner of Eadweard Muybridge.

Often Orozco's art is displayed on "working tables", a field of action that functions rather like a blank sheet of paper on which new scenarios can occur. His Game Boxes, 1998, are constructed of Plasticine "pieces" - balls and "submarine-like" shapes - fitted into "found" boxes that once contained educational film material and, therefore, dictate the shape and size of the Plasticine objects placed in them. The games invite the viewer to pick up the pieces and engage in a match without any apparent rules, where the system and methodology can be constructed by the players and either brought to an abrupt end or continued indefinitely. These Game Boxes, which have never been shown before were made around the time of the Penske Work Project. For this, Orozco drove round SoHo and West Village in New York collecting whatever detritus turned up, arranging and photographing it on the street, then transporting it to the next site in a removal truck rented from Penske company. The vehicle thus became a sort of mobile studio, allowing serendipity to play its part within the tightly constructed "rules" of the project.

Perhaps Orozco could best be described as a "postmodern surrealist"; for in his work chance, beloved by the surrealists, meets the mood of eclecticism that is so much a feature of postmodernism. He is an artist who not only lets happenstance play its role, but one who knowingly sets up well-defined systems only to allow them to be subverted by accident, experiments and chance. For him, art can be anything - a photograph of a mosque made from sacking and timber poles set up in the scrubland of Timbuktu, Mali, which seems to have attracted his attention because of the pattern of circles cut into the fabric to let in light; a series of found yoghurt cartons with circular holes; endless lines drawn on a scroll of paper with a ruler that include an "accidental" bulge where his projecting finger has disrupted the flow - anything, in fact, that fits with his obsessions and intellectual investigations.

An appropriate image for his corpus of work might be that of the Meccano set where bits are bolted on one to another to make a complete structure. It is almost impossible to think of the pieces singly; for individually they often just don't make sense. What he has created is an idiosyncratic schema of the world, one which asks questions about the nature of art, about how we see the everyday and the marginalised, the differing values we place on what is "found" compared to that which is made. In her catalogue essay, Briony Fer quotes the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss: "If I may be allowed the expression, it is not the resemblances, but the differences, which resemble each other." It is this sentiment that is at the heart of Orozco's work. But Orozco is not some neo-Romantic making a new organic whole out of the shards of postmodernism; rather he is an artist who simply gives another twist to the kaleidoscope in order to see the shards in a different format, to experience them from a different perspective. This is not art that delves into deep emotion that talks of grief, loss or love but as in a Borgesian short story suggests that there are always more labyrinths along which one has not been, new ways of seeing.

Gabriel Orozco, Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020-7402 6075) to 30 August