Damián Ortega: Corn and industry

By bringing together an important selection works by Damián Ortega (Mexico City, 1967), this exhibition highlights his production from the last thirty years, producing a portrait of the artist through his practice. Through installations, sculptures, photographs, films, and weavings, the display adopts the format of a fable linking corn and its cultivation to the rise of globalized industry to reveal the contradictions underlying the concept of “development.”

Damián Ortega: Corn and Industry is the artist’s first retrospective in Mexico and Latin America. Its title comes from two early works: Pico cansado (1997) and Elote clasificado (2005). Albeit humble in scale, materiality, and artistic intervention, these pieces are crucial for an understanding of his urges and obsessions with the social and material culture of labor.

Ortega is a self-taught artist who left high school to pursue his own pedagogical project in art. He started to create art in the 1980s in a national context drastically different from that of today. His work can be understood as a reflection on the unbridled transnational policy that favors mass production and displaces traditional ancestral knowledge. Many products that were customarily made or obtained locally began to be manufactured or imported from other countries. This exhibition positions the artist’s work at a critical juncture in Mexico’s recent history when the country was opened to foreign investment, prompting the proliferation of industrial manufacturing. 

With this reading in mind, the display is organized in three conceptual blocks —Harvest | Assemble | Collapse— that present recurring theme in his practice, such as agriculture, labor, production, industry, and their effects. Damián Ortega: Corn and Industry uses these concepts to tell an alternate story of progress and the effects of a globalized industrial era.

Productivity is a recurring theme in Ortega’s artistic practice. His work questions the neoliberal stance that conditions human value in relation to its productive capacity. Using corn as a source material and satire as a habitual tool in his work, the artist demonstrates how history, and the current use of this crop are intimately intertwined with Mexico’s sociocultural history and industrial development. His work reveals the tension between maize, its production processes, and its uses. This complex tension between agriculture and labor has been fundamental for the construction of a national identity. Thus, the body of work showcased here includes pieces placing corn in dialogue with others referring to the economy and industrial aesthetics.

Documenting the material culture of labor—from raw materials to tools and record-keeping of time invested—Ortega comments on production processes and their connection with theories of development and progress. In his work, rudimentary tools employed in preparing the land and harvesting can be seen as analogous to the start of a new language. Ortega identifies these utensils as objects that promote communication and exchange, thus establishing the possibility of a new economic enterprise.

The automation of labor gave rise to an industrial era that intensified the manufacturing of products and led to the disassociation of knowledge of where and how consumer goods are made. Ortega addresses this human alienation caused by global industry through a series of works that meticulously study the symbolic charge of objects and their shapes, emphasizing their models of production, consumption, and cultural value. Through these exercises he creates situations that make it possible to visualize the intangible social weight of his subjects beyond their simple function.

Under this principle that seeks the essential and symbolic understanding of those objects and material bodies embedded in a national identity—such as the tortilla, Coca Cola, and petroleum—Ortega’s work also offers as an opportunity to analyze the sociocultural principles implied by industrial production.

Aware of the dangers of the contemporary industrial era and its impact on countries constituting what is known as the Global South, Ortega’s work comments on and warns of the possible damages that can be wreaked by its poor practice. His work not only documents fragments of a capitalist production system, but also satirizes the dependency of technological and social advances on natural resources such as petroleum and water.

The threat of environmental catastrophes from precarious working conditions has also been a recurring theme in Ortega’s work throughout his career. Outsourcing production processes to “underdeveloped” countries, like Mexico, has had a lasting effect on the material and social culture of the region. Ortega’s response to this over-industrialized, automated panorama is a dystopian world that serves as a moral and warning of an unknown future in constant change. The fable of the myth-creation of maize and industry, which is presented in this exhibition, concludes with the artist’s characteristic humor and leads to the chaos ensuing from its supposed progress.

Damián Ortega: Corn and Industry is the artist’s first retrospective in Mexico and Latin America. Its title comes from two early works: Pico cansado (1997) and Elote clasificado (2005). By bringing together an important selection works by Damián Ortega (Mexico City, 1967), this exhibition highlights his production from the last thirty years, producing a portrait of the artist through his practice. Through installations, sculptures, photographs, films, and weavings, the display adopts the format of a fable linking corn and its cultivation to the rise of globalized industry to reveal the contradictions underlying the concept of “development.”

Damián Ortega’s work breaks down, dissects, and dismantles the parts that give body to the material culture of his surroundings. Distinguishing between them through his keen observation of their transformations, Ortega tends to define his work as a relationship of energy, resistance, equilibrium, and gravity, as a negotiation between the forces and weights that compose an object.

After exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ica) in Philadelphia in 2002 and the Venice Biennale in 2003, Cosmic Thing (Objeto cósmico, 2002) catapulted Ortega’s career and was instrumental in directing international attention to the contemporary art scene in Mexico. This seminal work shows a Volkswagen Beetle from 1989 with each of its parts suspended at a generous distance from each other, permitting thorough inspection.

This car of German origin was produced by the millions in the Volkswagen factory in Puebla, and it was designated the official taxi of the Federal District (now Mexico City) in 1971, making it a key attribute of the urban identity of the nation’s capital. Ortega’s work on the German car—which also includes a performance, a video, and a series of photos—can be understood as a critique of transnational companies and their assembly plants in Mexico, which benefit from cheap labor and as a direct response to the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement that entered in force in the 1990s.

In 2003, a year after Ortega created Cosmic Thing, Volkswagen ceased production of the VW bug once and for all. In retrospect, this series of works can be read as a memorial or monument to an imported product, which was so prominent in Mexican culture that it became an object of national pride.

Integral to Damián Ortega’s practice is his editorial work, conducted through his non-profit project called Alias, which began in 2006 and continues to this day. His mission is to engage in the “dissemination of the work and thought of authors particularly significant for contemporary art” in the Spanish speaking world. The first title in Alias was Conversando con Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne, whose English edition was given to Ortega by the artist Gabriel Orozco. To establish a dialogue with Duchamp’s ideas, Ortega enlisted a network of friends to help him translate the words of the French artist. Crafted almost as if an exquisite cadaver with different styles of translation, this debut publication marked the start of an ambitious editorial undertaking that makes global perspectives in art available to readers in Spanish.

Damián Ortega: Corn and Industry is the artist’s first retrospective in Mexico and Latin America. Its title comes from two early works: Pico cansado (1997) and Elote clasificado (2005). By bringing together an important selection works by Damián Ortega (Mexico City, 1967), this exhibition highlights his production from the last thirty years, producing a portrait of the artist through his practice. Through installations, sculptures, photographs, films, and weavings, the display adopts the format of a fable linking corn and its cultivation to the rise of globalized industry to reveal the contradictions underlying the concept of “development.”

In the video installation in this space, Nueve tipos de terreno (Nine Types of Terrain, 2007), Ortega captures on 16-millimeter film a simple chain reaction with bricks falling one after another in different configurations and terrains. Giving the impression of a work in progress, the movement of the effects dominates and the sound of them falling alludes to a production line in constant operation. Regarding the piece, Ortega comments: “Building and demolishing. Appearing and disappearing. Making and unmaking as much as possible. I want the act shown on a real scale and in real time, observing and discovering its own abstract and audible capacity. No manipulation. No emotions. No cheating. No tricks. Instead, direct and swift actions.”

Nine Types of Terrain refers to the famed book on military practice and war strategy by Sun Tzu, The Art of War, published in the sixth century B.C. With the critical reading of industry presented in this display, it can be said that Ortega connects industrialization to the military tactics of production, which leads to constant precariousness.

Últimas entradas
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap