The wit that characterised Damián Ortega’s former career as a political cartoonist is also apparent in his art. In one sculpture shown here, what looks like an elegant model of a molecular structure turns out to be composed of tortillas — a reference to Ortega’s native Mexico. In the work Margin of Accident/Running Gag, a chair appears to catapult backwards through space. Is it four chairs impacted together, or one chair caught at four different moments? A cartoon strip is just a series of fixed images yet our familiarity with the narrative form enables us to understand it as a sequence of snapshots in time. In Ortega’s hands, we are invited to view sculpture in much the same way. Far from being static, these sculptures suggest the potential for continual evolution and change.
Subverting the notion of sculpture as a solid, monumental, finished object, the works Ortega has selected to show at Tate Modern are intended to stir up doubts. Concrete Cube, comprising slabs of black concrete, is made up of interlocking segments that can be reordered so that the work can appear as a single cube, or be scattered in fragments across the floor. Ortega’s most recent works develop this theme. The large-scale sculpture 3 Stones/Chairs Mine, created especially for this exhibition, takes the form of three wooden constructions, each incorporating individual chair-frames. Ortega deliberately presents it as a work-in-progress, with the implication that it could continue to grow, or be rearranged into new configurations. Detaching a functional object like a chair from its everyday setting and projecting it into the realm of art involves a certain short-circuiting of the viewer’s expectations. There is a subtle irreverence at play here that pokes fun at both the purity of canonical Minimalist sculpture, and at the museum as repository for the kind of permanent monuments that Ortega seeks to undermine.
In the context of Tate Modern, Ortega invites us to contrast the monumental and permanent (the museum and its contents, preserved for posterity) with the chaotic and ever-changing nature of the universe, or as he puts it: ‘Creation and annihilation, repeated endlessly: until time runs itself out.’
Damián Ortega was born in 1967 in Mexico City, where he now lives and works.