Ripples on the surface of life

EXHIBITIONS: Gabriel Orozco aims to cause 'a bit of disorder in the universe'. His artistic interventions are designed subtly to alter our perceptions of everyday things - so subtly, in fact, you may wonder why he bothers

Tim Hilton
Saturday 07 September 1996 23:02

Gabriel Orozco is a Mexican artist, from Veracruz, who nowadays is mainly based in New York, though he lets us know that he moves about a lot and has often touched down in Berlin and Spain. He has shown here before but the exhibition now at the ICA is his first full-scale display in this country. Here, apparently, is six years of work. The show is like an introduction to the artist's personality. Here I am, he seems to be saying, this is what the world looks like to me, take it or leave it, just as I do.

So the exhibition is nonchalant, slightly defensive and occasionally obscure. Take the Yielding Stone in the lower gallery. What is it about? It's a not-quite-spherical lump of Plasticine. Visitors are encouraged to roll the lump around on the gallery floor. Thus you get a sense of its weight, Plasticine being an oddly heavy material. Visually, the piece has no aesthetic interest or merit whatsoever. It's only when you discover (by being told) that its weight is exactly that of Orozco's own body that you get the point. It's his new version of the rolling stone metaphor.

Much of Orozco's work is like this lump. It's patently no good, perhaps a little surly, but is harmless in intention and effect. "I am interested in very simple gestures and actions creating a bit of disorder in the universe," he says. This is a fair though limited ambition for a contemporary artist, and it follows that the success of any piece depends on the minor nature of the disorder that Orozco seeks. If he aimed to cause real trouble in the universe Orozco would be a very bad artist. As things are, he makes tiny and quite interesting ripples on the surface of life. He is a minimalist in ambition and performance alike.

Orozco was born in 1962. Practically everything he does feels as though it belongs to an artist's juvenilia, even though he is in his 34th year. He has no growing artistic style. What counts is his attitude. For this reason his photographs are better than his sculpture. With the camera he manages a number of deft tricks, and they are his alone. When Orozco attempts 3-D art he joins the world of adult creative invention, and in this area his talents are modest indeed. Four mundane bicycles are made into a structure by turning two upside down and fixing their seat-pins into the head-sets of the two whose wheels touch the ground. A Citroen DS has been sliced lengthwise, an end-to-end section has been taken out, and then the two halves have been carefully joined and welded together.

The result is a pleasant, subversive look at a famous vehicle, but considered as sculpture La DS is next to nothing. It might be said that nearness to nothingness is Orozco's territory. So we have to be alert to notice each "bit of disorder". It follows, I think, that the heavier, more grandiose features are less satisfactory. In the upstairs gallery is Elevator. And that's what it is, a lift. You can step inside. Then you notice that Orozco has sliced the roof to make the ceiling lower than usual. Surely this represents a great deal of labour to make only a small amount of disorder?

Orozco's kind of art is sometimes called "interventionist", and it has been around for some time. Finding nothing particularly new in the ICA show, I wondered whether the Mexican avant-garde might be well behind the times. But it turns out that Orozco studied at the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, which is an up-to-date establishment these days. Whoever there taught him to be a sculptor did no more than a middling job, but I suspect some other tutor imparted definite photographic skills, and it's in his camerawork that we find Orozco's most agreeable comments.

Essentially, he takes professional-looking photographs of extremely minor "interventions". Small tins of cat food are placed on a heap of watermelons. Snap. A green ball is stuck in a tree. Snap. One lemon is placed on each empty stall of a deserted street market. Snap. A hammock is slung in the sculpture court of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Snap. They all look quite good, mainly because they have been conceived in colour. Black and white would not be so effective because Orozco needs the suddenness of a colour in, as it were, the wrong place. I like the greens of a photo of a steep, lush field in which sheep are grazing. Orozco has put a number of car tyres into this field, and their blackness and manufacturedness contrasts nicely.

You could say that there was an ecological message, except that no photograph insists on anything. The essence of Orozco's disorders is that they are inconsequential. Nowhere more so than in his extended series of photos, Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe. A Schwalbe (swallow) was a motorcycle/scooter used in the old East Germany. Orozco was in Berlin for a year, didn't quite know what to do, so rode his own yellow Schwalbe until he saw another one. Then he took photos of the two bikes side by side and moved on. Snap snap snap. There are too many photos in the series, but since they are exhibited in quantity one does have a queer feeling of pointlessness, and perhaps this is what the artist was aiming at.

Institute of Contemporary Arts, SW1 (0171 930 3647), to 22 Sept.

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