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Sketch of Damian Ortega’s Hollow/Stuffed:market law ’12 (c)Kate Withstandley

Excellent. Politician art again! But isn’t all art is political, though? As is pretty much everything, in fact. Even animals have their own hierarchy system, intrinsically political in nature. We can’t avoid it, particularly us human beans, struggling to cling to the vine. We need structure. For society to function we need be told what to and what not to do, often to unbelievable extremes. Unfortunately, as is regularly the case, the top of our self-imposed hierarchy mistreat and manipulate us and we in turn mirror their behaviour in our microcosmic lives, sometimes abusing others around us and even the planet on which we live. Damien Ortega’s work often deals with political issues concerning his native Mexico, but the themes he tackles in his new exhibition, Traces of Gravity, run through society and mankind as a whole and he explores them alongside and through, traditional human emotive characteristics.

Congo River ’12

Set in the ground floor gallery of the White Cube, Mason’s Yard, Congo River consists of a number of carefully placed (but seemingly chaotic) car tyres, spread around the floor and built up in piles. What appears to be white powder can be seen in places, but it’s nature is not immediately obvious. It is in fact salt, and has been spread along the tops of the tyres in a straight line. The salt indicates the snaking stretch of a river and, depicted as a line of white powder, could be addressing the topic of cocaine smuggling. It is interesting that the line of salt can only be seen as a dead straight line from two viewpoints – at either end. At any other point the line is broken into many as it crosses various levels of the tyre, possibly a comment on the continued damage to great rivers through industrialisation. The same broken/unbroken illusion is created by the placement of the tyres whereby they appear as carefully peaked mountains from each end, but a chaotic sprawl in the round. Although the physical set-up can clearly be a visual metaphor for a river running through landscape, other elements complement the intended notion. It spoke to me of disruption. The choice of materials; salt and rubber – natural elements refined by humans. The contrasting natures; chaos and order – line/broken line – our human chaos disrupting the order of nature. It’s also notable that all of the works in this exhibition are monochrome, or variations of black and white, invoking the traditional connotations of white as pure, black as impure – white representing nature, while black is humanity and industry. Contrast and juxtaposition emphasising the vast gulf of difference.

Hollow/Stuffed:market law ’12

In an empty darkened room on the lower ground floor hung what looked at first glance much like a whale or shark, suspended on hooks and bleeding white matter. Moving closer I realised that no, indeed, I had not mistaken this for a Damien Hirst exhibition, the suspended being was in fact Hollow/Stuffed:market law, a representation of a submarine made from industrial sacks. Salt is used again, flowing from a small hole at the underside of the front end; a reference to the use of narco-submarines in cocaine smuggling along the South American coast to Mexico. The lighting in the room is dramatic, with a quite literal and perhaps also metaphorical, highlight on the work and the issues it confronts. The steady stream of salt, piling up like the sands of an hourglass, seem to be pinpointing ongoing wastage; not in Mexico alone but as part of our global throwaway culture. Embodying the principle of interactive, living art, the installation is constantly changing. I wondered what it might look like when the salt runs out. When the belly of the beast, so to speak, is empty. Will it just hang there as a few empty sacks, signifying our failure and as an unsettling portent for the future?

Preserved ’12

‘Preserved’, in the final room, continues to use salt as a primary material. Creating a negative image, the salt gives the spatial void around the vehicle solid form, a technique also employed for the adjacent ‘Fossilised’, concrete casts capturing the space inside old cameras. Rachel Whiteread’s House, ’93 strikes me as a precedent; the exploration of unused and unnoticed space and its transformation from void to form ties in with Ortega’s preoccupation with change and adaptation. For ‘Preserved’ Ortega utilises alternated lighting, striking the installation with two spotlights and enforcing varied viewpoints upon the viewer, highlighting again the disparity between changes of perspective.

Fossilised ’12

Damian Ortega’s work is both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating. Like all my favourite art it made me work for the meaning, encouraging and challenging me to decipher its threads. Much of my interpretation may not have been intended by the artist, but was generated through themes within the pieces linking and developing with my own ideas. Although seemingly an impassioned plea inviting discussion and dialogue, Ortega’s work could also be seen in an instructive form; an offer of guidance to our political leaders. Perhaps even, in its most abstract form, a morality tale through salt.
All images (c) Damian Ortega unless otherwise noted

Poor Doris Salcedo. Like the injustice of a serious musician permeating the public consciousness for the appearance of just one of their songs on a car advert, Doris is a household name mainly as a result of her Turbine Hall installation Shibboleth ’07. Not that the installation was commercial or of less quality than her other works, but recently someone actually referred her to me as ‘that crack woman’. I think Doris deserves more. Her name should be bigger than it currently is outside of the artistic inner sanctum that is the world of collectors and academicians. But I get the impression that Doris isn’t much of a self-publicist, likely more through choice than inability. Her work portrays a character at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Hirsts and Emins and even Picassos of this world.

Shibboleth ’07

I never got to see the famous ‘great crack’ as it has been named by some, although I felt deeply disappointed that I didn’t, after listening to Roger Lloyd-Pack read Adrian Mitchell’s poem The Song of The Great Crack aloud at a Stop The War meeting and almost reducing the audience entirely to tears. The poem records the writer’s emotional reaction to the installation and though it is too long to recreate now, I shall cite a short piece and strongly recommend you buy the book and read it in full:

and the great crack / is Lethe the river of forgetfulness / which the mass media drinks each night / to wash away the past

and the great crack / is the cry of massacred innocents/ poor hungry raped or murdered /

and the great crack / is the handwriting of an alien / whose love letter to the human race says: / meme meme tekel upharsin / you have been weighed in the balance / and found wanting

and the great crack / is despair / that useless emotion / which sometimes threatens / to flood the mind

As can be fairly easily gleaned even from this small extract, Doris Salcedo’s work deals with life, death and the politics in between. Unlike someone like Damien Hirst, however, her message is understated. The power is in the restraint. Dignity and strength of mind deal with mortality, not through morbid curiosity but with a quiet despair and grim anger. Less is more here.

Shibboleth ’07 – Detail

Approaching that wonderfully compact and minimal White Cube outpost, hidden away down an alley in Mason’s Yard, I was intrigued to see what Salcedo had created next. The first piece on the ground floor, A Flor de Piel ’11-12 surprised me straight off. Having seen detail photographs of the work in reviews and such like, I had somehow imagined it as a wall hanging when zoomed out. I’m glad it wasn’t. The piece is intended to give the impression of a giant shroud and consists of thousands of Rose petals, waxed and carefully stitched together to create an undulating mass covering 2/3 of the floor in the ground floor gallery.

A Flor de Piel ’11-12

On passing through the doorway and seeing this, my first thought was actually not of a shroud but of a landscape, mountainous and vast. The wax used to preserve the petals gives the material a leather-like appearance in texture; when bunched and folded this works with the variations in colour and tone to create a scene resembling a bird’s eye view not dissimilar to that of South American desert regions. This may not have been the intention of Salcedo, but I liked her interpretation too; the death shroud created through careful manipulation of the fragility of life, to speak for those whose lives were also carefully manipulated, although without the care which went into this work (Salcedo took inspiration from the concept of offering flowers to a victim of torture). It has a certain poetic irony to it.

A Flor de Piel ’11-12 – Detail
A Flor de Piel ’11-12 – Detail

The lower ground floor housed her newest work, Plegaria Muda and was an altogether appropriate place to situate it. I wasn’t immediately sure what to make of the numerous tables laid out one on top of another, but I was struck by the aesthetic uniformity of the upstanding tables, which put me in mind of large dead insects with their legs reaching in vain to the heavens. On closer inspection I saw flashes of green protruding from the underside of the top table and as my eyes scanned downwards, discovered a layer of carefully placed soil in between the upright top table and the bottom one standing.

Plegaria Muda ’08-10

The connection with burial and coffins was immediately clear (the work is an homage to Colombian victims of army-sanctioned mass murder) but the overwhelming message portrayed through this installation is of the triumph of life over death. Salcedo seems to be making a fierce statement – you can kill and maim us, break our families and communities in the name of unjust wars, but out spirit will live on through them and others we connect with; we will not be forgotten.

Plegaria Muda ’08-10

The exhibition is on until 30th June so hurry yourself down to Mason’s Yard. Don’t miss this.

I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds ’06

I find the witchhunt against Damien Hirst odd in its singling out of just one man. The nature of the art market is for as much money to change hands as possible, in order to invest for a higher sale in the future. It’s fat cat gambling, basically. Stock market politics. The industry is responsible for germinating the notion that the more grossly overpriced a work is, the more worthy it must be – a fallacy which fills my bones with anger and disgust. So if Hirst’s works are not Art and not worth anything, then surely it’s the market who’s the fool in this situation? I’m not sure how that is more Damien Hirst’s fault than any other artist. Maybe he played the system. Well, don’t shoot the messenger. Not half as many column inches have been written about arms dealers who make billions from selling weapons to violent dictatorships, yet somehow people see that as less of an affront than Hirst whipping off spot paintings ten to the dozen. Remarkably, people seem genuinely offended, as if our very nation has somehow been tarnished by this so-called ‘charlatan’.

Making my way around the controversial Tate retrospective, I found the legendary Spot Paintings  difficult to deal with. Having grown up in the 90s, the spots are, to me, synonymous with modern British art and to look at them objectively and try to provoke a response was surprisingly onerous. Too much has been said and written about them already. My head was full of Saatchi and Sewell and Guardian Arts. I don’t dislike the paintings, although I found them rather tiresome after the third or fourth piece, a feeling which also covers my response to his Medicine Cabinets ’89. To decipher the message he was trying to portray through the choice of medicines in each cabinet and on each spot-covered canvas seemed just too much like hard work. So how about the much-discussed fact that a lot of these pictures are produced by assistants in his studio? Well, so what? Leonardo did it, Michelangelo did it, blah blah blah. What is wrong about it is that the other artists in the team are not credited for their contributing work. Maybe the lead artist should take the main credit, for the concept and design, then the team receive listed credits and a share of the royalties.

lodomethane 13c ’99-01

As everyone must now know (unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 20 years) Hirst’s work is strongly themed around the life cycle; birth, death and mortality. Earlier works, such as Away from the Flock ’94, evoke the spirit of a young Hirst searching for meaning and using his own place in the cosmos to ask those very same questions he had seen tackled in countless works of art throughout history. Vanitas symbolism is explicit in Hirst’s works; skulls, butterflies, decay, but depicted in a unique way. Had Hirst followed tradition and produced gloomy oil paintings containing these connotations of mortality (see Pieter Claesz) his work would not have broken boundaries and become so representative of modern British art. In A Thousand Years ’90, a symbolic sculptural piece expressing the nature of the life cycle, Hirst manages to create a poignant visual language which references the Vanitas movement whilst placing his work within the modernist, technological zeitgeist.

Away From the Flock ’94

A Thousand Years ’90

His later pieces, in comparison, seem to radiate a dark, bitter and violent hysteria; they play out the cliched tale of optimistic, inquisitive youth morphing into the vitriolic older man resigned to his fate.The pieces seem to spit death at the viewer like venom. In contrast to the curious anatomical element of Mother and Child Divided ’93, for example (at which I heard someone whisper ironically ‘eww that’s disgusting…ooh is that bit a rump steak?’), his more recent pieces I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds ’06 and Black Sun ’04 (hundreds of thousands of dead flies glued to resin on a perfect circle) portray a deeply disturbing and gruesome cynicism. The latter in particular seems to just revel in repugnant mass destruction and provoked images in my mind of blood spattered murderers grinning at their spoils.

Mother and Child Divided ’93

Black Sun ’04

Black Sun Detail

Both Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II ’06, and  Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven ’07, are aesthetically beautiful whilst hopelessly morbid. Hirst disassembles the pure artistry of nature, in the form of millions of butterflies, and reconstructs them to fit the human idea of beauty; that of order and tessellation ie. stained glass windows. He appears to be mocking the chaos and non-conformity of nature by forcing it to yield to his power; that of his life over their death.

Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II ’06

Doorways to Heaven ’07

This theme continues in the installation In and Out of Love ’91, possibly the most controversial work of the whole show. I, like many others, found the work distasteful. These creatures are not already dead like his other specimens, but living and trapped inside a white-walled room. It was extremely sad to watch them fluttering at the walls and floors trying to get out. But perhaps this is one of Hirst’s points about mortality and the human response. It’s interesting that we can be so horrified by the carcass of an animal we are happy to eat every Sunday with our roasties, and that we don’t mind sticking a thousand chickens in less space than the dimensions of their body from the start of their short lives until they are on our plate, but we shy away from butterflies having a restricted lifespan. Maybe because they’re pretty? We have been de-sensitised to cows and chickens over the years, but butterfly beauty wins the awards in the commercialism stakes. Our response to death is so varied depending on how it is presented to us, it smacks of hypocrisy.

In and Out of Love ’91 / ’12

With his later works becoming increasingly acrimonious, in an ironic way Hirst is himself becoming a symbol of the decay which so fascinates him. Alas, he cannot join his cows and sheep in suspended animation…although, well, you never know.