Champ de Vision : Damián Ortega Part 2
Champ de Vision
Damián Ortega Part 2
Anna Hiddleston + Sinziana Ravini, October 18, 2010
Interview with Damián Ortega…

This interview was made over an exchange of emails during May and June between Anna Hiddleston and Sinziana Ravini in Paris and the artist resident in Berlin. The questions were originally written in English and the answers in Spanish and translated into English by Carmen Cebreros in Mexico City.

AH & SR.:  Can you start by describing your working methods, your use of drawings or small-scale models for example? What is the origin of your ideas?

DO.: My faculty for abstraction is not very good. I need to draw, see and make things in order to understand them. The prototypes help me to be sharper. Ideas are like electric connections. In some ways they are accidents, like sparks. There are situations or experiences that become important for totally subjective reasons.

AH & SR.: Humour, double meanings and wordplay seem to be quintessential to your work. You began your career as a political cartoonist. What were you laughing at back then and what are you laughing at right now?

DO.: Double meaning has a very strong role in politics in Mexico. Word games generate complicity and conclusive social disqualifications. They occur in climates and tones so veiled and funny that they can pass completely unnoticed. There is an implicit but secret conspiracy in some answers that can be recognised only by the accomplice. These double meanings are very vulgar of course, very sexual and highly macho. I enjoy the most painful jokes; the ones that only happen among friends and that no one else can understand. The most painful jokes tell you something that is true and restrained which suddenly comes out.

AH & SR.: Indeed your photos often come in series of three or four. Do you feel at ease with this interpretation? And if not, what is your specific formal relationship to the world?

DO.: I suppose the world could contain as many forms of growth as there are species on earth. I am attracted by slow, articulated progression, where one thing generates another; and changes happen that are not always perceived. This spiral ascending growth – which ramifies like a plant - is linked to my conception of narrative, based on the anecdote. Narrative can be accelerated but it is always a succession of events. Acción/reacción is a large system of communication, just like each grain of sugar in the photo-sequence Conducción de energía. The succession of images as a narrative technique is a very natural consequence for me after my work producing comic strips for a newspaper. It was interesting to talk about politics not only from an analytical position. The medium has such a political impact that it can provoke reactions and public discussion with political repercussions. In a newspaper politics are not mere references, politics are produced there.

Damian Ortega/ Damian Ortega _cosmic thing
Damian Ortega/ Damian Ortega _cosmic thing

AH & SR.: In your piece Champ de vision, for the Espace 315, the visitor is invited to walk around shifting layers of transparent coloured spheres before turning to view the installation through a lens, at which point the spheres come together to form an eye. The eye is a heavily charged image in art history, literature and, of course, photography ?

DO.: One of my intentions is to stress the transitional zones between internal and external space. I look for the intermediate area or the threshold, where an object becomes an image as it crosses the eye, and then integrates the subjective mind’s space. It is both inside and outside, in the window and in the reflection of light towards the interior. These thresholds I am talking about are spaces where reality transforms gradually, until it turns into a memory, an idea or mental image.

AH & SR.: You show that the beholder is also a creator, for it is he/she who holds the key to the final image. Which is more interesting for you: what the beholder sees or the process he undergoes?

DO.: Well, it depends on the moment. While I am making the piece, I enjoy vagueness and parallel references from my own experience, and that is pretty selfish. However, when the time comes to install the piece, I mostly enjoy the other part – which is selfish too – in which the work fills a physical space and volume and people interact with it. It is very exciting. To have ideas is easy in a way; to make them happen, and let them find their own life is harder.

AH & SR.: With Spirit and Matter, 2004, you evoke the idea of distancing oneself from an experience and creating a memory of it. You explain how the work offers two viewpoints. One viewpoint is physical, as the visitor is invited to walk through the structure, and one viewpoint is conceptual, seen from the outside, where the structure comes together to form the words “spirit” and “matter”. Can this be applied to the role of the lens in your current installation?

DO.: Champ de vision is a constellation, hanging from the ceiling of the Espace 315, which people can walk around. It is a kind of semi-transparent, penetrable shape, formed by primary-coloured spheres dispersed in the space. My intention is that when the visitor enters the exhibition room, he/she can feel the complete space and be immediately immersed in it. I want him/her to become an integral part of the piece from the inside. At the same time, there is a darkened area at one end of the room for the spectator to establish a different kind of relationship with the piece, to see it from another point of view. From here, the perspective is more synthetic, condensed, immaterial and illusory.

AH & SR.: For the Espace 315, the way you let the beholder reconstruct the dispersed image of the eye gives him or her the privileged position of creating order from disorder. Do you have any interest in chaos theory or are you more interested in the humanist tradition of central?

DO.: When I did the expanded vision of the Volkswagen in Cosmic Thing, 2002, I was surprised by the emptiness generated at its centre. The absence of the driver, for example, is palpable in the front seat. Controller of the Universe is also part of an “explosion”. The centre of this piece is the beholder’s viewpoint towards which all the suspended tools converge. The same thing happens in the piece for Espace 315 at the Centre Pompidou. It is also a work that recalls the humanist point of view. It is about a glance that can never grasp the absolute perspective of things. It is partial and eclipsed: a visual trap.

AH & SR.: Is the imperceptible equally important? Your work renders concrete a process of seeing that is inherently invisible or abstract, taking place purely in the mind. It is the representation of a process that also ultimately takes place in time. You had several ideas for titles for the 315 piece connected to the relationship between the external and the internal world. Can you tell us about them?

DO.: I like to think that the importance of objects lies in the ideas they generate. I once read that, in Sanskrit, the concept of thing is understood as equivalent to “event”.1 I found this incredibly interesting, because the importance of the object is played down in order to emphasise its function, its production system, the technology employed in making it and its implications as a cultural and historical product. The exercise of replacing the word thing for the word event acknowledges the life and internal movement permanent in any object, beginning with its atomic constitution. I think that if we could see an object from the inside with all its atoms, it would be like seeing inside a ray of light... with everything moving! The possibility of changing the notion of sculpture – understood as an object – for that of an event seems amazing to me. Reality relies upon relations and not upon substances. I thought about so many titles for the exhibition at Espace 315, making reference to all this: Interior/Exterior, The Limits of Wholeness and Nothingness, The External does not Exist, Wave Saturation, Atomic Stimulation... I thought about thousands – it seems I had not much to do during the Berlin winter!.

AH & SR.: Are you more interested in deforming rather than confirming reality and do you believe in the existence of reality as such? Is there a passion for the real in your works as described by Alain Badiou or are you dealing rather with a passion for different ways of perceiving reality?

DO.: It is difficult not to transform everything into fiction if you think that just by talking about reality it disappears. To name is to convert things into a system of words, images and ideas. Reality is outside, and the brain replaces living creatures and converts them into the brain’s reality. I have always tried to avoid making pure representations, in order to establish a closer relation with reality (in the sense that my work would be part of it), and to acknowledge the works as a direct presentation of my position within it. I prefer the objects to impact, integrate and operate in such order, as facts in their own right and not as if they were staged. However, I can’t take for granted that the subjective reading of things is equally real and conclusive. Perception is an unavoidable and constant factor, almost inevitable. Interpretation and experience are graces or disgraces we have to consider. Besides, the deformation of reality can be a form of its confirmation. As Matisse wrote: “To see is itself a creative operation...”4. What I’m trying to do in Champ de vision is to focus the attention and – for a moment – incite consciousness to concentrate on the fact of seeing. I try to generate a perceptual and sensorial happening. What you will find on one side of the exhibition space is a codified, abstract and incomprehensible system, yet built with elements and materials whose physical presence is undeniable. In the other part of the room you will face a vision, an optical illusion, something fictitious and unreal, though identifiable: the representation. The spectator can only find one – or another – specific position in the space, then his/her perspective is partial, and this makes him/her part of a massive visual eclipse.

AH & SR.: Works such as Piel, Centro Urbano Presidente Aléman C.U.P.A, 2006, where you convert the apartment plan of one of the first Mexican Modernist buildings into a leather cut-out and let it hang languidly from the ceiling are direct references to the failure of Modernism. What is your relation to the Modernist tradition?

DO.: Piel is the floor plan of an apartment at Miguel Alemán State housing complex – the first in Latin America - consisting of a series of multi-family housing buildings, whose space was designed according to basic needs. The floor plan is scale 1:1 in relation to the apartment designed by Mario Pani. This plan was reproduced in leather, on which I tattooed the image of a multi-family building, in order to establish a more direct reference with the body. In doing so, the limit of the physical body becomes evident; the skin works like the border for the exterior, like a wall separating the private space from the outside.

AH & SR.: What interests you the most, the formal or the relational dimensions of your work? Is there a red thread that holds together your body of work?

DO.: It is funny but interaction with the public doesn’t really interest me at the moment. I think this has become the most demagogic part of art. It is too simplistic to say that art is about finding an answer of some sort, or entertaining an audience eager for fun, wanting to push buttons as they do daily on their computer. A relation always exists with the work, even when it is hermetic or abstract. I am interested in the relationship with the visitor, in the sense of a flux of ideas, whether they are formal, conceptual or concerned with action. It is about knowledge and exchange.

AH & SR.: Is there an ethical dimension to your work? According to Claire Bishop, works that are too open tend to alienate the beholder and thus become undemocratic and exclusive. What do you think about that? How open are your artworks after all?

DO.: The possibility of a democratic reading can be ascribed to my work, which is both spectacular and accessible in many ways. However I do not think this is important. Something can be good without subscribing to popular taste, even if it is selfish or anti-democratic. Art is like that, and I think it is better like this. I depart from my own position when I start working. I try to clarify it in order to make it as comprehensible as possible. At the end of the day however, everyone recuperates it differently: sometimes they expand it and sometimes they reduce it. A work’s “openness” is defined (to a large extent) by the context and the time it takes for the intelligence of an artist to be appreciated – simultaneously, didactics for its interpretation and recipes for its promotion arise. This second part is terrible since, as criteria are standardised, limitations are imposed on the number of possible readings, and the artist’s complexity is almost reduced to a series of slogans.

AH & SR.: In some of your previous works, like Cosmic Thing, 2002, and Nine Types of Terrain, 2007, it seems as if you are trying to dissect and thus “kill” the object in order to give it life again, or to disconnect objects in order to reconnect them. Is there a Frankensteinian method in your body of work? If not, what scientific or non-scientific methods do you prefer using?

Well, I have to recognise that I have created a few monsters, which have a life of their own. Generally, I like each piece to follow its own logic, and chase it in search of its own style. If one idea demands a certain material or a specific treatment, I try to adapt to what the work needs. This is not something scientific. I think it is mostly a method of trial and error. Nine Types of Terrain is a piece that exemplifies this method very well. The work was filmed during the winter in Berlin. It was as cold as hell and the filming was pretty austere. At the end we sent the material to a laboratory to be developed. During the developing process they damaged the original negative. When I saw the films for the first time, I couldn’t believe it: It was all damaged! I spent one week in bed, I was so depressed. Some time later, I was invited to show in a museum, and I proposed to do this piece all over again. So they gave me the money, and by then spring had started. We filmed with a big budget this time, and the result was a disaster. Everything was perfect and boring. I returned to the original version, and tried to correct the colour with several filters, always using analogue mediums – nothing digital. This is the version I showed in the end.

AH & SR.: You are thinking of presenting several sculptures based on molecular structures at the entrance to the exhibition. This fascination with the molecular is recurrent in your work. We find it in your Módulo de construcción de tortillas in 1998 and with Molécula de glucose expandida in 1992-2007. Can you talk about the dialectics of micro-macro in your work?

DO.: All phenomena start somewhere, and generally as something tiny. You can find a symptom of something big expressed in a small particle. A sample is enough to understand a complex system. The most important characteristics of a particular culture are normally revealed by the individuals who are a part of it; for example, you can distinguish or recognise so many features in a person through language, as if you had taken a blood sample. The limit between interior and exterior is very porous; it is not hermetic. It is receptive and permeable. Molécula de glucose expandida is a work that deals with the consumption of sugar in Mexico as a collective and cultural phenomenon. It is exhibited as a molecule formed by particles that are soda bottlecaps collected from stores and restaurants in Mexico City. I enlarged the molecule to a huge size. It is a rhizome hanging from the ceiling, growing and expanding in the space like an alien. This work can be grasped from the inside or from the outside. It is a chemical structure, but also a social one: micro and macro.

AH & SR.: Among the artists who have explicitly worked with the politics of colour and perception, Jesús Rafael Soto, Yayoi Kusama, Bridget Riley, Yaacov Agam, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Helio Oiticica, which ones do you feel closest to, and why?

DO.: I would put Oiticica first, since he is the one I find most interesting. For example, the Parangoles attempted to generate an event – a demystified, de-dramatised, de-ritualised object-event – open to experimentation and bodily participation. Rather than being about representation, it was about a real and collective experience. As far as I know, he was not at all interested in Op art. He found it simplistic, to do with mechanical stimulation and reaction, like a game. What was important for him was the notion of participation and action, which awakens feelings and opens channels of perception. There is a huge difference between including a participant and implicating a spectator who ends up being manipulated and becoming an accessory of the work. I have loved Bridget Riley since childhood. The massive plagiarism of her work is a part of my childhood memory (not as a work of art, but as the image of my aunt’s bag, the wrapping paper for my school notebooks, etc.). The image of the Mexican Olympic Games in 1968 was a copy of her works. Goethe looked through a prism and was concerned with understanding what his eye saw subjectively. He stressed that colour is not about light alone but also about how we perceive it.

AH & SR.: Which colour theorist do you feel most related to? If neither of them, which are your scientific and theoretical sources of inspiration?

DO.: In my opinion, the most important aspect of this piece has to do with our perception of specific moments, and how these moments are determined by the ‘illuminants’, that is to say the context in its widest sense. It is a total phenomenon. Art is not just an “object”, it is a “work”, which implies a system of relations. In this system, the object stops being something already known, and becomes new knowledge. This is a complex phenomenon, which cannot be understood only in terms of perception. Things are not fixed, defined and absolute. Things continuously are, and this implies their ability to change and, at the same time, the unavoidable and unpredictable condition of change.

AH & SR.: What kind of experience do you want to evoke through your art? Which possible journeys can one undertake through your art?

DO.: I would like to provoke the same feelings I have, in other people. I want to do a work that makes you laugh or infuriates you, that makes you feel fear or nostalgia, that gives you a heroic feeling, or even a macho attitude, vile and cowardly. This is what art is for: to create a field of recognition. In the case of Champ de vision, I would like it to feel like an ethereal space, something colourful but at the same time contained within a limited area, hundreds of modules floating like atoms. I imagine it like condensed gas suspended in the air, and forming a conical figure, like a swarm of bees: something big and spatial.

AH & SR.: You have transformed many heroic symbols into prosaic objects, or used and displaced monuments as in Transportable Obelisk, 1996. Failure seems to be very central to your artwork. How do your latest works relate to failure and heroism? Which risks do you take and which ones are you not willing to take?

DO.: The obelisk is a symbol of stability and it is also a point of reference. It is a totem, situated in the centre of the town, commemorating the foundation of the city or a memorable event. This element irradiates a particular energy, which means it is protected and preserved; it delineates a territory defended by the tribe, around which objects are organised. This zone of control generates a sense of belonging, of nationhood, of religion, and it brings people together under its shade, rejecting those beyond its reach. The phallic axe determines the hierarchies of the tribe: those who are closer receive more benefits, those who are further away, live a mistaken life. Its shade contains and outlines the border.

AH & SR.: What happens if the monolith is detached, and displaced from its original place, extracted like a wisdom tooth? Where does all that system of values and hierarchies go?

DO.: I think the risk in art is to do what you really want to do and keep going in spite of what
other people say, whether what you are doing is rubbish or wonderful and people shower you in flattery. It is one’s own responsibility.