Damián Ortega’s work traces economic and material exchange and, in particular, how regional culture affects commodity consumption. His work investigates systems, volumes and forms with an experimental curiosity in a range of different media including sculpture, installation, photography, film, drawing and performance.
Emerging mid-way through the 1990s, Ortega began his career as a political cartoonist and his art retains the intellectual rigour and playfulness associated with his previous occupation. He sees art as a process of “unlearning”, dependent on a sense of mobility, whereby the energy residing in inanimate things is revealed through both the successes and failures in a work's production. In his sculpture, everyday objects such as bricks, rubbish bins or tortillas are subjected to his characteristically “mischievous process of transformation and dysfunction”, creating a surreal unhinging of reality through the use of subtle and personal irony.
His larger installations often feature complex physical systems that appear uncontrollable or on the verge of collapse, realised in basic materials such as concrete, clay, bricks, rubber or leather. In these works, he investigates the relationship between object and action, focusing on the themes of matter, energy and transformation that lie at the core of his practice. In Nine Types of Terrain (2007), nine 16mm film projections feature lines of bricks arranged in military-style formations across an unremarkable landscape; as if driven by some external force, these rhythmically fall, like dominoes. In Hollow/Stuffed: market law (2012) Ortega recreates, in sculptural form, a found newspaper image of a submarine used to transport cocaine around South America. In this work, the vessel is made of salt-filled, biodegradable plastic sacks that are sewn together and hung from the ceiling in a darkened space. The salt leaks out slowly during the course of the work's display, creating a cone-shaped heap of white powder on the ground beneath: a slow accumulation of matter that becomes a material register of time passing and of the work's own disintegration.
Likewise in Ortega's hanging works, objects are disassembled and deconstructed, set in a transitory state, and suspended on wires like three-dimensional drawings or models. In Controller of the Universe (2007) for example, an array of old-fashioned work tools such as saws, pick-axes and hammers are suspended at different heights to create an exploded form with a vortex at its centre, accessible through the two pathways that divide the structure. Calling into question the identity of objects, tools are used as representations of work and labour processes, and as 'bridges' between humankind and nature.
Perhaps Ortega's most well-known work, however, is the epic 'Beetle Trilogy' which consists of an installation, a performance and a film that interweave the personal and the political. In the first, Cosmic Thing (2002), Ortega literally deconstructs a Volkswagen Beetle with each part suspended by wire in mid-air, evoking a fragmented mechanic's diagram. This piece offers a new way of seeing the 'people's car', first developed in Nazi Germany but closely connected with the history of modern Mexico since it was readily available, inexpensive and easy to repair. The second and third works in the trilogy are the performance Moby Dick (2004) and the film Escarabajo (2005). In his performance, the artist stages a battle between man and machine by attempting to pull the car across a layer of grease to a live soundtrack of 'Moby Dick' by Led Zeppelin. In the film, he takes the car on a mythical voyage before finally 'burying' it in Puebla, Mexico, one of the last places it was produced.
Damián Ortega was born in 1967 in Mexico City, where he lives and works. He has exhibited widely including solo exhibitions at The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (2019); Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2018); The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2016); Malmö Konsthall, Sweden (2016), Palacio de Cristal, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2016); Fondazione Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan (2015); Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro (2015); Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2014); Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (2013); Barbican Art Gallery, London (2010); Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2009); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2008); REDCAT, Los Angeles (2005); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2005); Tate Modern, London (2005); Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland (2004) and Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2002). Selected group exhibitions include Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh (2020); Biennale Arcipelago Mediterraneo, Palermo, Italy (2019); 12th Gwangju Biennale, South Korea (2018); Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, Japan (2018); Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain (2017); 14th Biennale de Lyon, France (2017); Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2016); Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2015); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2014); 55th Venice Biennale (2013); 11th Havana Biennial (2012); 27th Bienal de São Paulo (2006); and 50th Venice Biennale (2003).