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In ICA exhibit, Ortega argues for closer look

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
In ICA exhibit, Ortega argues for closer look
Damián Ortega’s “Cosmic Thing,” a disassembled Volkswagen Beetle. The mammoth work commands the gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, the site of “Do It Yourself,” the first career survey of the artist’s work. (Photo: John Kennard)

Mexican artist Damián Ortega’s “Tortillas’ Construction Module” (1998) might serve as his manifesto. An interlocking, vertical stack of baked tortillas, each notched on four sides, it can be reassembled in a variety of ways. Like the exhibition as a whole that is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, until Jan. 17, 2010, it explores objects on their way to becoming something else.

A political cartoonist with sculpture, Ortega probes how things work and connect — as well as the workings of physical and social structures that produce them. Often disarmingly simple and playful, his works have larger implications, often hinted at by their titles.

Organized by Ortega with Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan, who also collaborated with him on the exhibition catalog, the exhibition “Damián Ortega: Do It Yourself” is the first career survey of Ortega. Its 19 works include sculpture, photography and video created over the past decade.

The works examine the parts and whole of phenomena large and small, from a dissection of a tennis ball to expose its writhing core of rubber strips, on view as a video, to an installation that laments the futility of vast public housing projects.

Ortega has wavy black hair and a light mustache, and speaks in a modest and thoughtful manner. When asked what he learned by bringing a decade’s worth of works together for the first time, Ortega, 42, replied, “When my brother and I were very young, we cut open a tennis ball to discover the monster inside. Years later, I continue with that same idea of cutting open and deconstructing something to see how it works.”

Near the tortilla tower, Ortega displays an ear of corn, another Mexican staple. Each of its kernels is numbered as if for scientific analysis.

Scrutiny of the everyday is very much the business of these works.

The mammoth work that commands the cavernous gallery is “Cosmic Thing” (2002), Ortega’s deconstruction of a Volkswagen Beetle. Every one of its parts exuberantly protrudes from the car’s skeletal frame, which is suspended from the gallery ceiling. When his own Beetle ran its last mile, Ortega gave it a ritual burial near the Volkswagen plant in Mexico. The sculpture pays homage to the low-cost vehicle that put his country on the road as well as the do-it-yourself culture of car repair spawned by its ubiquitous, swappable parts.

Likewise, many works on view use materials that can be readily reassembled for other uses. A group of “Autoconstructions” that Ortega concocted in his apartment binds chairs into bridges and other structures that have nothing to do with their function as furniture.

Ortega has the satiric eye of the political cartoonist he was earlier in his career and a humanist’s respect for the power of individuals to critique their world. He is heir to the conceptual artist’s preference for ideas over representation. He also inherits the early 20th century Dadaists’ iconoclastic use of junk in objects of art, and often expresses his own vision with the most modest of means.

A turning point in Ortega’s transition from political cartooning to fine art was his participation during the late ’80s in an informal studio class with his friend and mentor, Mexican sculptor and photographer Gabriel Orozco. “It was an interesting time for him, me and us,” Ortega said.

After Orozco returned to Mexico City from a trip to a newly liberated Spain, said Ortega, wearing a wool shirt, corduroy pants and sandals, “He wanted to break with tradition and open the frontiers. We were good friends, from the same neighborhood, and on Fridays, we’d meet and talk, listen to music, joke, and trade ideas about art.”

Gracefully balanced, three oil drums rotate on a turntable in “False Movement (Stability and Economic Growth)” (1999), a comment on the fragile economics of Mexico’s oil boom.

“Skin” (2006-07) renders the floor plans of apartments in three mid-century housing projects in fragrant, hand-tooled cow leather. The complexes were designed by master architects as mass housing solutions for overpopulated cities. The looping strips of leather drape limply from meat hooks like slaughtered cows, dramatizing the failure of the projects, which have decayed into notorious slums.

Homebuilding on a more modest scale is the subject of photographs arranged in matching grids, “Resting Matter (Brazil)” (2004) and “Resting Matter (Mexico)” (2004). Each shows cottages and shacks with extra building materials — usually bricks — stored nearby for future additions. The images are a curiously engaging survey of people and their hand-made homes. A sloping pile of bricks flanking one Mexican dwelling resembles a miniature Aztec temple. In Brazil, a tidy white cottage with a terra cotta roof has a matching shed for its bricks.

Bricks — the basic building blocks of many structures — become characters of a sort in several works.

“Nine Types of Terrain” (2007) presents videos of clay bricks arranged in nine of the battle formations prescribed by Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in his 551 BC treatise, “The Art of War.” The projectors stand on a row of white pillars shaped like the bricks. Filmed in the vacant site of the former Berlin Wall, some of the brick configurations resemble miniatures of epic earth art projects such as “Spiral Jetty” by Robert Smithson or the serpentine stone walls of Andrew Goldsworthy. As the rows of bricks slowly tumble like dominoes, they fall with a resounding clatter that evokes water rushing over rocks.

The do-it-yourself culture celebrated by the deconstructed Beetle takes a more elegant and abstract turn in “Belo Horizonte Project” (2004), which makes ravishing use of the ICA’s harbor view. Its title alludes to the Brazilian city Belo Horizonte (Beautiful Horizon), designed by Oscar Niemeyer and other star Brazilian architects. Composed of polished steel with a mirror-like surface, an assortment of unfolding cubes are mesmerizing minimalist sculptures that invite viewers to create their own images. Depending on a viewer’s perspective, the cubes may reflect the metallic grill of the floor and the rippling water below or people passing by. The possibilities are endless.

As you step outside, you will see the towers of glass sprouting up along the harbor with a fresh eye. Ortega’s humanist, humorous perspective diminishes their stature. They seem less solid and imposing, and less important than the people who may inhabit them.