Celia Lyttelton meets
Gabriel Orozco's sculptures, photographs, and paintings are largely dedicated to the ephemeral in everyday objects. With Orozco, anything can transform into art: yoghurt containers, cars, even an entire whale skeleton. Orozco has re-conceived boomerangs, soccer balls, ping-pong tables, bicycles, and has carefully collected and organized desert samples, rubbish, and things so seemingly disparate as to make him an avatar of whatever it is you want to call contemporary art.
The son of a communist muralist, Orozco grew up surrounded by artists.
“It was a very nice childhood. I was born in ’62, so it was full of left-wing people, artists; my father was a young painter teaching at the university in Veracruz. I was surrounded by politics, the ’68 student movement, there as much as in France. My childhood environment was very artistic, full of photographers, artists, singers, music. My schools were like Montessori, so it was a very progressive education. My father was important, but not famous. My father painted murals and was politically active in the Communist party.”
Gabriel trained in academic painting at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas in Mexico City, where he learned, as he puts it, “fresco, tempera, oil, pastel, etching, everything.” When helping his father paint murals “mostly to earn money to
buy a car,” he decided against the life of a painter.
Instead, he travelled the world, carrying little more than a toothbrush, a notebook and an automatic Nikon camera. He started producing work that reflected his perpetual migration, wandering from one medium to another. He used foreign banknotes and airline ticket stubs as surfaces for drawings and paintings. He made sculptures out of cars and bicycles, suggesting ceaseless motion. He even exhibited his own suitcase. “The idea of a workshop has never appealed to me,’
he continues. 'For me, it’s important to move, and to leave my work exposed to things I don’t know. For each project I do something different. I make things – provisional things – and the only thing that is consistent is that I travel on my
own and do things on my own.” Orozco’s nomadic way of living informed his work around this time, and he took much inspiration from exploring the streets like a flâneur, while also travelling to remote parts of the world like Mali and India. Now Orozco is no longer the footloose wanderer, toothbrush, notebook and camera in hand, who found poetry in puddles and dignity in debris.
Orozco is a master of the understatement and there is nothing remotely showy about his work. Orozco can be seen as the opposite of Jeff Koons. He dislikes loud sculptures that make common things gigantic. Rather he revels in the common place and object, and imbues them with an entirely new meaning and perspective: an empty shoe box, a row of exercise books with one potato placed on top of them or a box of watermelons topped with cans of cat food; cat’s eyes appear to peep over the fruit, are presented not as art but, in place of art, thereby carrying the baton for Marcel Duchamp.
In his first show with Marian Goodman in New York in 1994, Orozco placed four yogurt caps onto each opposing wall in the empty northern room of the gallery. Orozco has said a number of times that he aims to “disappoint the viewer.” On the other hand people cannot but marvel at his audacity, and are not disappointed.
At his retrospective at the Tate Modern he showed Shoe Box 1993, a plain, white box, that visitors often picked up thinking it was rubbish. It was exhibited alongside a selection of tyres; a lift ripped from a Chicago tower block; a knot of four entwined bicycles; a ball of melted innertubes; and a vintage Citroën that Orozco has reduced to half its original width.
Over the years, he has used different teams of people and a wide range of materials – cutting up and re-assembling a Citroën DS, is one of his seminal works. A 1960 Citroën DS, an icon of French industrial chic, he trisected lengthwise and reassembled with the middle third left out; photographs of ephemeral interventions in the world (ripples from pebbles thrown onto a flooded flat roof, a fog of breath on the polished top of a piano and improvisatory sculptures in materials (wood, clay, plaster, polyurethane foam, concrete, sea shells, tree roots, moss) that feel newly discovered. In Orozco's work the quotidian becomes something rather magical and mysterious.
He once fashioned his own weight in Plasticine into a giant, greasy, lopsided sphere, and rolled it down Broadway in New York before placing it inside a nearby museum, so that the malleable material became encrusted with dust and debris, and marked with the impressions of everything that it had touched. Yielding
Stone is a mad kind of self portrait. “I come from a country where a lot of art is labelled surrealist. I grew up with it and I hate that kind of dreamlike, evasive, easy, poetic, sexual, cheesy surrealist practice,”
he declares. “I try to be a realist,” he adds. “There is humour in my work but I'm not playing cynical games or flirting with the art world or engaging with the frivolity of the market.”
Orozco is a canny artist who effectively bridges the gap between physicality and immateriality, the micro and the macro, the industrial ready-made and everyday detritus. Few contemporary artists have mined the space between the ordinary and the strange better than Orozco does.
Orozco's studio is the world, he is a boulevardier, he trawls the streets listening and looking. His work is multifarious, going off in all directions and tangents, entirely unpredictable and always expertly original. There is no Orozco style, but he does have a penchant for found, drawn, and sculpted circles and spheres. His
Samurai Tree Paintings, lustrous white and gold, are based on geometrical interrelated circles and spheres, like fabled swordsmen twirling steel.
November 2016 saw the unveiling of a garden by Orozco which is unexpected, a space that is contrived, man made, taming nature: the garden is embedded in our civilization, permanent and yet always changing and needing constant attention. It is the antithesis of what Orozco seeks to do with all things that are fugitive and transient.
So it came as a surprise to enter Orozco's garden of concentric circles in deepest south London overlooked by Brutalist council estates. Still a bit bare, the growth is young, there were scattered newly planted rosemary, thyme, climbers of passion flower, alpine plants, hellebore, ferns, muguet, magnolia, marjoram, grasses and alchemilla mollis.
Circles play an integral part in Orozco's work and he sees them as instruments of movement. This recurrence of circles in his work, whether in nature or the man made (balls, puddles, wheels), is carried through the garden. It is a geometry of intertwining circles outlined in York stone subtly mapping a series of spaces.
Each is lent its own distinctive character through slight shifts in form or by being at different levels, variously planted or featuring seating, a sink, water butts or a bowl built up with bricks. It is all harmonious and keeping with what a garden can be, with the spaces being used interchangeably for resting, eating, playing or showing work by other artists. The local York stone is laid out in bricks echoing the Victorian style of the South London Gallery. Influenced by the concept of urban decay, he designed the garden in a way for it to be gradually invaded by grasses and ground covers, which were chosen by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and include some 60 plants and bulbs; by doing so, the garden would assume a more natural character and highlight Orozco’s particular concept of finding beauty in the ordinary.
In its present state a flicker of disappointment crosses one’s mind, one is under whelmed, but that is because the garden is only in its early growth. The intention is that it will become over grown and rambling with grasses, creepers, climbers and fragrant flowers and the York stone will all but disappear. And the good news for the locals is that it is open to the residents of the Sceaux housing estate giving them much needed greenery.
There is a hint of the Zen in the South London Gallery garden, and this may be because Orozco currently lives in Tokyo. “Zen has always had an importance for me; I enjoy reading about Zen. I’m not a religious person, but notions of the void, emptiness and time, the perception of landscape interest me. I like the Suiseki tradition (appreciation of natural formation of rocks), the connection with nature.”
South London Gallery garden by Gabriel Orozco, 2016 © Gabriel Orozco
Aerial view of the South London Gallery garden by Gabriel Orozco, 2016 © Gabriel Orozco