In an age of austerity, it has become increasingly rare for private galleries to make the space for art that is so unsellable, so uncommodifiable. But then the White Cube is not just any gallery and Damiàn Ortega is not just any artist. The brainchild of British Art dealer, Jay Jopling, the White Cube quickly established itself as a forerunner in the London contemporary art scene in the 1990s.
Best known for his “exploding” sculptures in which he dissects objects and ‘reassembles’ them in disassembled form, Damián Ortega has shied away from resting his laurels on top of one big idea. In his latest solo exhibition at the White Cube, Traces of Gravity, Ortega continues to play with diverse ways of making art and innovating new concepts.
In this show Ortega uses salt as the metaphor through which to tie an otherwise disjointed collection of work together. The significance of using salt is that it was historically a very valuable form of currency – at least before it became possible to manufacture salt industrially. Salt could be used to barter with, and to pay for labour (hence the modern English derivative, ‘salary’).
Another less obvious, common thread that runs through the exhibition is its ephemerality. The works on display are not meant to be preserved for all eternity: they have been easily made, and can be destroyed just as quickly. Ortega is by no means the first artist to create short-lived art, and he will certainly not be the last. However, the willingness of privately owned galleries (who must necessarily rely on profits in the absence of government funding) to take on such avowedly uncommercial projects serve as an important barometer of the health of the art market in an unstable world economy.
In Congo River, an installation of car tyres adorns the ground floor gallery, onto which a line of salt is drawn, winding its way over the peaks and crevices of the rubber in the same way that a river meanders through mountains (here, the line references the cocaine trafficking of Ortega’s native Mexico).
Hollow / Stuffed, Market Law takes the form of nine-meter replica of a German submarine (submarines are increasingly being used to smuggle cocaine out of Mexico). The sculpture is made from salt-filled industrial food sacks, which are strung from the ceiling. A small hole has been punctured into the lowest part of the sculpture, which will allow its contents to trickle out during the course of the show.
In Preserved, a discarded bicycle is cast down onto the floor, covered in a pool of salt. Only the negative image of the bike is clear of salt, creating the impression of a shadow. To the side of the bicycle is a series of concrete casts of cameras taken from Ortega’s own collection, an ironic nod to the ability of the camera to freeze the memory of an artwork that has a limited life expectancy.
Words by: Carla Raffinetti © Artlyst 2012.
Image: Installation view of Congo River (2012), © White Cube.
Damian Ortega, Traces of Gravity *** 3 stars