Orozco: the idea, if not the delivery

I’ll be honest: modern installation art is not my sort of thing, and so the Tate’s current exhibition of the work of Gabriel Orozco is not the type of exhibition that I would ever have paid to go and see (or if I had, I would have been very grouchy about it.) But fortunately, thanks to the brilliant Christmas gift of a Tate membership, I was able to waltz in without a penny changing hands. Such details do make a difference, and I suspect I was better disposed to the whole outing as a result.

Orozco’s overarching theme is his interaction with the world around him, especially as he moves from country to county; and his art consists of displays of this world but often with some part of himself inserted into and affecting his surroundings. So for example there is an old elevator car, but cut down to his own height; and a Citroën DS cut down to half its width with just enough room for the driver’s seat. There is a photograph of water melons but he has brought tins of cat food along to balance on top of each of them; and a photo of a huge, vacant marketplace in which he has posed an orange in the middle of every empty market stall.

My mathematical background meant that the first glance I had of his Samurai Tree Invariant paintings made me think of some computational logic diagrams (and they were) dissolving down fractal geometry pathways, which appealed to me personally, even if they looked like some slightly dated 70s op-art efforts; I was surprised when I found that they were, indeed, game theory diagrams. There was a room displaying banners containing short lines of text drawn from New York Times obituaries with the name of the subject removed – “Author of many suspense novels”; “Helped to Burn Hitler’s Body” – which are disturbing reductions of a human life to just a few characters, although personally I found the end delivery rather bland (the lines retain their typeface and relative sizes of the original NYT headline and are frankly rather dull.)

In the same room as these banners is Orozco’s best known work and the one featured on the Tate poster for the exhibition, Black Kites – a found genuine human skull on which a grid of black parallelograms has been inked in – but the exhibit rather throws away this semi-iconic work of art in a rather nondescript display case that’s easy to miss. In any case it’s a rather small work by necessity, being a normal-sized human skull, and its raw, real bone starkness seems to neatly contrast with and rebuke Damien Hirst’s frankly repellant £50m diamond-encrusted skull “disco ball” comment on commercialism.

For me the most striking exhibit was Orozco’s Chicotes, a display of remnants of burst tyres that he has picked up from Mexico’s freeways. It might appear at first look to be exactly the sort of pretentious installation that makes modern art sceptics (such as myself a lot of the time) roll their eyes, but I was quite fascinated by the parts of the tyre that had been literally ripped apart by the force of their final rupture. Not only did it speak eloquently of the violence of that explosion, but it left the tortured ends stretched into tendrils of rubber reaching out into the air, for all the world like a living plant sending out roots to keep itself alive: an oddly disquieting notion. On top of this was the one thing that can never come over in any picture or description of an art exhibit, which was the overpowering smell of the rubber, with hints of the oil and burning that they had gone through in their lives on the road, which was immensely evocative.

Less successful was Lintels. This uses the collection of lint that builds up on the hot air output filters of tumble driers and the like, and thus consists of bits of fabric from clothes as well as skin and hair from the bodies of the people that wore them. As an idea, this collection of something usually invisible to us, fragile and quickly discarded but which nonetheless consists of genuine human detritus, is a potentially really powerful comment on the ephemeral nature of organic existence. Unfortunately the exhibit itself just hangs these skins of lint out on washing lines over the route to the exit, which is boring both as an idea and in execution as a visual spectacle.

The largest collection of work in the exhibit is Orozco’s 1995 photographic set Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe – shot during a year living in Berlin when he had been getting around riding a yellow East German Schwalbe motorscooter. Anytime he saw a ‘twin’ of his own Schwalbe, he would park up and take a shot of the two of them standing side by side. As a piece of art, I find this one of the least inspired in the collection as there are plenty of Flickr photosets using the same idea of taking a common object and photographing it in various locales, and it doesn’t seem to me that this collection was any more demonstrably a piece of art than those of thousands of Flickr users.

But more than that, the collection actively annoyed me because over half the photos has been photographically ‘flipped’. This is fine as long as there’s nothing in the shot to give it away, but in a good many of the pictures there are posters and street signs that were overtly mirrored and are now strange, weird-looking illegible hieroglyphics. As someone who worked in reprographics for seven years, where we had to be continually careful about ‘flipping’ a picture because of text or because of inadvertently adding or removing a wedding ring, or converting jackets from male to female attire, this sort of thing in the exhibit irritated me to distraction. If they had all been mirrored then you could make a case that Orozco was making a wry comment about seeing an unreal version of reality, but the truth is that the “flipping” is purely random and seems to be just to make all the Schwalbe-pair face the same direction across the collection.

To me, this is just a cheap and careless trick; if the direction was really that important (and is it, really? Some of the shots were head-on rather than to the side in any case) then it should have been taken into account, planned for and done in the posing of the scene and the composition of the original shot. Simply inverting the photos later on with total disregard to the effect on the rest of the picture is just lazy if not careless. It is the artist putting the importance of his idea of the ‘unity’ of his collection ahead of the truth of the subjects, a fundamental dishonestly too often born of an artistic arrogance.

It’s this sort of disregard for a precise, careful execution of the final piece of work that for me seems to run through much of the work exhibited here: Orozco seems all about the idea; and the delivery of it, frankly, is just a bit of an after-chore. It’s the kind of thing that would mean an anal GCSE tutor would mark Orozco’s work with a ‘B’ at best. Which in itself raises an interesting question, intentionally or not: does the value and beauty of art lie in the quality of the production of the end item, or in the idea of the artist behind it?

As a final word, I should say that I tend to count the ultimate success or failure of an exhibition by whether I go out afterwards and see things with a new eye (and usually evidenced by being inspired to take a lot of photographs.) And for all its faults, the Tate’s Orozco exhibition with its focus ont he world and the environment around us sent me out into the streets of London inspired to take a lot of photographs.

This was originally intended as a post for Taking The Short View, but it obviously outgrew that blog and so ends up here. Tomorrow I have another Tate-related post on Photographic Typologies, which definitely will appear on the companion blog.


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