Controller of the Universe, 2007. Found tools and wires, 112.2 x 159.45 x 179.13 in.

The Matter of Energy: A Conversation with Damián Ortega

Narratives about Damián Ortega highlight his early shift from political cartoonist to artist, thereby conjoining his wit and sense of playfulness to incisive critique and intellectual rigor. Even more interesting, however, are the variety of forms and wide range of materials that Ortega uses as a sculptor and installation artist and how these two aspects interact with his approach to content. Operating in different ways in every work, the play across form, material, and content creates a dynamic discourse of surprise and diversity rooted in visual seduction. 

Robert Preece: With your MAM Rio installation, do you see yourself as playfully critiquing the competitive, high-end art-collecting system? Are you critiquing the one percent? 

Damián Ortega: Not really. But I love this twist when something good becomes immediately bad, or vice-versa. You turn the switch, and low becomes high. One word and you create a paradox. 

This show was very interesting because the pieces were really well done, and all of us—visitors, curators, and myself—got to see the production process. So, the results are only an aspect of it, which becomes fascinating. I was going for substance, asking, “What is the most important substance in a sculpture?” Sort of like with medicine—I was interested in laws about producing generic medications in Brazil. I lived there when everyone was having this discussion. “Official” medication is expensive and the generic version cheap, which means it can help more people, which means a better public health system. But in the end, Brazil sent its medications to South Africa, which made it a big deal internationally. So, the pieces at MAM are not trying to fool anyone into thinking that they are the originals. They just try to create a physical and conceptual expe­rience with the real masterpieces for people who perhaps didn’t know them. In the end, my personal experiment was about the transformation of matter into energy. Matter turning into everything or anything. Matter being whatever we want, even waste. I feel very happy with this project because I keep finding different ideas around it. The show seems to produce many layers of interpretation, and this is great news for me. 

Dreamers #4, 2015. Graphite on concrete statues, dimensions variable.

RP: How did you make or have the pieces made? 

DO: The story of this show is quite a long one because of the typical budget problems in South America. It was almost six years in the making, with different versions, several trips, and even government changes in Brazil. The curator went to Berlin and invited me to work on a project. I had been in Rio de Janeiro for over a year and felt very familiar with the city and the culture because, even though I admit it’s never easy to stop being a tourist in a foreign city, somehow my love for it makes me feel close to certain local characteristics. 

The Brazilian economy is closed to some foreign businesses, such as big clothing monopolies, and so they have developed their own culture and a market for their own productions and products. The distance from Europe and the United States has given Brazil a certain independence. I think that they are almost self-sufficient in their music, for example. Even though they are obviously part of the globalized world and they are well-informed about what’s going on in the U.S., Milan, London, and Paris, they appropriate and reinterpret things with their own particular bias. I once compared it to eating something at a restaurant and then going back home to try and make the same dish with whatever’s available in your refrigerator. It is a very creative process. 

My gallery in Brazil, Fortes Vilaça, had a great idea for funding this show. I made a multiple, and they sold it without a commission, and in that way, we helped MAM get the amount we needed. We hired several guys who make the famous allegorical cars from the Carnival. They are self-taught sculptors with a lot of experience. Watching them work is quite a spectacle. They cut the material in a very seductive way, going from abstract shapes to figuration. We mounted a workshop in the museum and worked there for a couple of months. Each day, we would take out a block of Styrofoam and work on it, modeling almost a sculpture a day. Every day would be something new, a different show.

RP: I’ve read enough over the years to understand the unpleasant and harsh imagery of América letrina (1997), which refers to Duchamp and also comments on inter-American historical relations. Has it caused any unexpected offense? 

Campo de vision/Champ de vision, 2008. Spyhole, 5000 acrylic plaques and steel wire, 472.44 x 196.85 x 196.85 in.

DO: This work is sort of a “cover” of one of my gurus, Helio Flores. He published a newspaper cartoon that caused great controversy, of Uncle Sam’s toilet. When I was transitioning from being a cartoonist to becoming a sculptor, I tried to bring images and objects from cartoons into the three-dimensional world as real objects. This transformed them into a different experience, with different interpretations. Nobody has felt any offense from this work that I know of. The response has always been good, as if we were accomplices of the joke. But it has not traveled outside Mexico, so it would be interesting to know what other people think.

RP: How exactly was América letrina made, and where was it installed?

DO: I made it with a regular ceramic toilet, which I broke into pieces. The added parts were made of epoxy, and then there were hundreds of layers of varnish and a lot of polishing to make the lines between the original and the extra parts disappear. The piece was made for the back cover of a magazine, so thousands of copies of the image were made. We had planned for the sculpture to travel to New York for a show, but another artist had also made a scatological piece and it just felt like too much to put them together.

RP: Walk me through the siting of the works called Order, reply, hazard (2004)? 

DO: This piece was done in Belo Horizonte, a city that was artificially built as a utopian political decision and that served as a test for Brasília. A young Oscar Niemeyer was commissioned to make three buildings, one of them a casino. He made a very elegant building, filled with mirrors. My idea was to play with deconstructing a cube, a dice that breaks up into fragments—halves, quarters, eighths—and then somehow make it more complex by not only using whole numbers. I divided the cube into smaller cubes, made from the same mirror found at the casino, and I copied the mechanical system of Lygia Clark’s “Bichos” series in order to articulate them. The show was just the cubes thrown on the floor somehow randomly. It was a very good show, I think.

The End of Matter, 2015. Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM Rio), 
Rio de Janiero.

RP: What led you to explorations involving copper sheeting in Being I, Being II, and Being III? Would you say that here the aesthetics of form and material are pushed to the forefront, perhaps especially with the siting? 

DO: This show was held in a factory in Birmingham. Jonathan Watkins and Helen Legg invited me to do a project outside the Ikon Gallery in order to get the city involved, so I wanted to look for places, materials, and workshops in that area. One day, I saw a picture in the newspaper of one of those immense rolls in which the material is in its rawest state, ready to be used in automobiles or industries, and I thought it was beautiful in the sense of its potential and also in its degree of compression and containment. The roll is somehow like a huge battery with accumulated energy, a great coil. I thought that I wanted to make a monument to a battery—have a big acid container wrapped in copper and turn it into an energy condenser. This was impossible for numerous technical reasons, but I remained fascinated with the possibility of releasing the energy or letting it flow freely without a specific purpose. The exhibition was called “Being,” as in “existing,” not “doing.” I wasted the energy, turning the material into a game, turning its back on its industrial duty. I made waves with the material by extending it and compressing it.

RP: How did you develop the idea for Campo de vision/Champ de vision (2008)?

DO: It’s funny, because this idea had been in my head for many years. I had tried to do something similar, but failed several times and quit. One day, a gallerist came to my studio and told me that I should be more trustful of my instincts and more persistent. So the idea was reborn, waiting for an oppor­tunity, and luckily, I had one. The original idea was about decomposing an image, separating it into its minimal particles, so that a person could walk into it and become a part of a molecular, almost atomic world—inhabiting the space that exists between ink dots suspended in space. I say that the idea was old because I remember being a kid and staring at advertisements and at magazines with a magnifying glass and realizing that there was a whole system of blue, magenta, and yellow dots making up all the visible colors. I used to love getting lost in those dots and in the empty space between them. I wanted to know: What was this space? I had a chance to do this work in a fantastic space, with a very talented team and an advantageous budget. It was produced in Berlin with the aid of a brilliant guy who turned out to be even more obsessive than myself. In the end, there was the condensed image, a small slide where we could see an eye. I used to think that optical illusions and the construction of images were magic, unexplainable. I still do, somehow. 

RP: In photographs of Controller of the universe (2007), the objects appear perfectly laid out. Could you explain why the pieces are arranged this way? 

DO: The idea is that whoever is in front of this work can become a participant, not just a spectator. Unfor­tunately, the idea of interaction has been misunderstood. People think that it involves pushing buttons and receiving automatic impulses, but for me, interaction is achievable with any piece. I see the work, and it is acting through my sight, suggesting things that make my mind wonder or imagine. That is the sense of all art, and we don’t really need spectacular shows. The idea is that the work seen from afar is an explosion, a moment in the Big Bang. But if you look closer, you realize that there is a central corridor, which you can walk through, and in doing so, you become the center of the explosion. All of the tools are reachable from this center. They are positioned according to our lines of sight. I aligned them by tracing lines to the direction in which I saw all around me. Everywhere I looked, I placed a tool, in the direction of my gaze. We, as people, are able to transform or modify what we see with the help of tools. My position was ambiguous, because tools fascinate me, but I am also aware of their—and our—destructive capacity. In these moments, I am enjoying not having to do anything, just watching things and enjoying them for exactly what they are.

Being III, 2007. Plywood and copper sheet, dimensions variable.

RP: Cosmic thing (2002) is considered a breakthrough work in your practice in terms of obtaining greater visibility. Did you sense this might happen while you were constructing it? Why do you think it captured the attention of so many people?

DO: This work came at a time when I had already had some shows, and I had some experience—at least in terms of the ideas and types of works that interested me. There was a previous journey, so it wasn’t just a random success. I had made works that supported this piece, and others would come as a response or reaction to it. I knew that it was a good work. I was—and am—proud of it, but I never thought that it would be such a “hit.” Even now, I get about a request a month to show it or publish its image somewhere. It is very gratifying and also very frightening, because it has created many expectations. People push me to do what they want or what they think I should do. 

RP: What might the Damián Ortega who made Tortillas construction module (1998) think about the Damián Ortega who made the sculptures at MAM Rio—and vice-versa?

DO: I think that the Rio Damián would find the other guy a pretentious, young artist. And the young Damián would take me for an old, bourgeois, boring artist.

Robert Preece is a writer living in Rotterdam and a Contributing Editor for Sculpture.

Watch these videos on Damián Ortega and his work

Damián Ortega: Casino. HangarBicocca, Milan (Italy) Interview on Youtube.
Damián Ortega, interviewed by Rodrigo Ortiz Monasterio from Kadist Art Foundation on Vimeo.
Damián Ortega in conversation with José Esparza Chong Cuy from Kadist Art Foundation on Vimeo.

For more information on Damián Ortega, click here.