Short cut I, 2010. C-print, 45.78 x 60.58 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

The Power of Irrationality: A Conversation with Fernando Ortega

Fernando Ortega brings poetic attention to overlooked and seemingly inconsequential aspects of daily life. He has induced spiders to weave webs around various objects, including a harp denuded of strings and a television antenna, and expanded the notion of museum space by erecting a gigantic tower crane to hold a hummingbird feeder. Ortega delights in scenarios that either thwart the human desire for satisfaction, possession, and conclusion or freeze things into a state of potentiality. Striking a fine balance between emotion and intellect, his understated works focus attention by frustrating any notion of permanence and all expectations of an art object. In Ortega’s hands, small things can have large consequences.

Elizabeth Fullerton: You employ time as a core element in your work.
Fernando Ortega:
I think that’s the key to getting my work—taking the time to watch something and to observe. I’m a really good observer. Sometimes you have to take a lot of time for a spider to finish a web, to follow a monotonous dripping, or to see a small insect moving really, really slowly—not in our time, in his time. I have learned through animals and insects that there is another kind of time: the time of nature, the seasons, the weather. I don’t really belong to human time, especially art world time. I’m always fighting the hurry of the art world.

Rosa subido, 2016. Aluminum telescopic ladder and helium balloon, ladder: 1500 cm. high. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

EF: Is your aim to slow the viewer down?
FO: Exactly. I showed a video piece at the São Paulo Biennial that demonstrates that very nicely. The hummingbird is the fastest and most hyperactive bird on earth, and I decided, “Okay, I want to see this bird sleeping. There must be a place where these guys rest, but they don’t show us.” That meant a lot of research with ornithologists and biologists. The final result was that I was able to put a hummingbird to sleep in a natural way. It’s a kind of hibernation; when these birds don’t have enough food or light, they disconnect and sit all by themselves.

EF: How long did it take to get the bird to sleep?
FO: It took about two days. My studio became a jungle. With the help of a scientist, we lowered the temperature, took food and light away from him, and gave him an option to perch. Almost like magic, he started to slowly calm down, to puff out, and then he made his last “pew pew pew.” It was rather emotional to see a bird with no borders. He was yours, for one hour of deep sleep. And at the end, when you want to wake him, you do the opposite—turn on the light, warm the place up, and put out sweet water. At first he was shy, then he drank the water to get energy; I opened the window, and woosh, he left. It was like he was on vacation in my house for two days.

EF: Is it important that your interventions in the natural world are minimal?
FO: Yes. When you start observing and take your time, you notice that creatures in nature need a lot of things that humans need. You can contribute—you can offer a solution to an insect, to an animal. When I was in India, I took a photograph of a shortcut that I made between two leaves. I was observing ants making a very long trip, and I asked myself, “If I put out this safety pin as a bridge, will they use it?” It was the idea of saving time and energy, and they started to use it almost immediately. I was extremely happy that I could create something to optimize their trip.

EF: Often there’s a calculated precariousness in your work, such as harmonicas balanced between large panes of glass on ledges or a ladder extended to a balloon that’s hovering at the ceiling.
: It’s a representation of something that can happen as an accident. It can fall, it can be destroyed, it’s not permanent. Why? Because sometimes I get really bored with sculptures. It’s a way to say, “Okay, let’s move it.”

Vacancy, 2013. Spider web on rabbit-ears antenna and wooden base, antenna: 72 x 55 cm.; base: 107 x 80 x 50 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

EF: A way to add tension?
Yes, and from that tension many things can follow. It means that you are going to see something different from what you are seeing now. And when you sense this special tension, you know that you have to look properly and quickly because this is not forever—your senses become more refined, more concentrated. For example, one of my more dramatic sculptures was an antenna with a spider’s web. You can imagine what it meant to bring it from my house to the gallery for display—there’s nothing so fragile as that. It was like a performance. From my studio to the gallery by car is about 10 minutes, but it took an hour because we had to be so careful. I was noticing how bad the streets are in Mexico City because the web revealed the quality of the road surface. Finally, I put it in the gallery, and people who wanted to buy it asked, “Will it last?” I said, “I don’t know, do your research. What can I tell you? Yes, no, one year. It depends on you, how careful you are.”

EF: You seem to enjoy frustrating the viewer’s expectations. A ladder may give access to a musical triangle hanging from a rafter, but the baton remains out of reach, positioned on another wall. Then there’s the dripping water that narrowly misses hitting a drum head, sometimes blown off course by a fan.
FO: When you don’t get something and are left with a need, there’s a very powerful sensation. I love that because if we are honest, what do we really deserve? We want so much information that we can’t even process it. We need to know everything, to see everything, and sometimes it’s more mechanical than a real need, just because the energy of the world is to consume, consume, consume. So, I leave you in that moment, and you don’t get a conclusion, or you make the conclusion by yourself and imagine the sound of the triangle. If it’s so important to you to close the piece, go up the ladder; but we already know the sound of the “cling,” we already have it in our minds.

K5—Hidden Peak, 2013. Aluminum folding platform ladder and musical aluminum triangle, opened ladder: 450 x 450 x 79 cm.; triangle: 16x16cm. Photo: Michel Zabé, Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

EF: It’s that need to own, to achieve, to tick the box.
Exactly. It’s a very conceptual way of understanding sound. You have the representation of a “cling.” I can live with that; but if you can’t, you have to make the effort and take the risk. It’s the same with the leaks. You already know what a snare drum sounds like, but I create an impossible situation with the fan, so you stay with an emptiness.

EF: A thread of humor or absurdity runs throughout your work. To what extent were Dada and John Cage influences?
: These are elements that can be used to explore the more irrational part of me. I believe in the power of irrationality. It’s a shocking element. When I was a student, Dada and Cage were important, but now reality is more important to me. I’m more interested in watching my city and understanding it, in understanding the nature of all the doubts that we have. Dada was too in your face, and that’s not my style.

EF: Assisted Levitation, your crane and hummingbird feeder installation (Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, Mexico City, 2008) combined excess and restraint. What was behind this simultaneously lyrical and ludicrous juxtaposition?
FO: It was because of the museum that I needed the crane. I wanted to put a hummingbird feeder in the window, and the museum said, “You can’t hang anything here.” This was my solution. I decided to empty the gallery so it was all white, with nothing on the walls, and so people had to search for my work. At the end, you saw the real world, and that was my work. I was trying to say that sometimes it takes a huge effort to make people pay attention to tiny things. I knew that the scale of the thing was going to be absurd, but it was very beneficial. And it was functional. The bird feeder was hanging, supported by the crane, and the birds came to eat—so it was perfect.

Levitación asistida / Assisted Levitation, 2008. Specially erected crane holding a hummingbird feeder visible through the window of an empty hall on the second floor of the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, crane: 98 ft. high. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

EF: Is creating a sense of theater significant to your work?
: I create platforms to give importance to things that many people don’t care about. Nobody watches hummingbirds in the city, so I need to create these massive things to give them attention. They need our attention. I’m an artist, and I know what it means to install a big red thing because I know about aesthetics. When I was imagining this 98-foot crane, I was sculpting in a way, creating my composition. In the world of art, you have to know how to seduce with aesthetics, materials, and equilibrium.

EF: The gigantic crane also heightened a sense of the fragility of life.
I always pay attention to fragility, but I do it my way, with more poetics, with more irrationality. I’m working on a film with rhinos, which is powerful for me. These are prehistoric animals, and the last white rhino has died. After I started to observe them, I decided to make a fable about this massive animal, and his companion will be a water drip. Why a drip? Because they are totally opposite, like a hummingbird and a crane. I like to create that kind of friction. The drip is invisible, you almost won’t see it; it’s going to be more about sound, because rhinos have incredible hearing. I started to do some shoots of the rhino in the sand with only his ear moving, but suddenly nature decided no. I had to stop because they were in heat—of course, I’m happy, take your time.

EF: A similar balance between the absurd and the profound is at play in Music for a Small Boat Crossing a Medium Size River (2012). You asked Brian Eno to compose a one-minute piece of music for the duration of a short river crossing in Veracruz.
It was a totally forgotten, one-minute boat crossing that nobody cared about, but the ferryman put on music as a service. When I took the ferry, I was shocked by the beautiful absurdity of the situation. In order to bring attention to it, I decided, as with the crane, to invite a master to help me make this place more important. Brian Eno immediately said, “I will do it.” It’s about the passing of time, and the music is incredible. When I saw it in action, the music and the people creating this ambience, I thought, “I could film it,” but then I said, “No, it’s about having the experience. I’m not going to film it, I’m not going to give you the CD; you need to go there.”

EF: You strive for invisibility in your work, which runs counter to the trend for large-scale spectacle. I’m thinking especially of the fly-electrocuting device that you contributed to the 2003 Venice Biennale. Set high up, out of the line of vision, it plunged the Arsenale into darkness every time a fly was killed, almost like a requiem for a tiny insect amid the high-powered art world hustle.
FO: That’s the wager I make. Sometimes you run the risk that people won’t see you and you won’t be part of the art world, but my position is that in order to be good, I have to have one leg in my own world, where nobody’s allowed to come, and the other in the world of art.

Untitled (Fly Electrocutor), 2003. Fly electrocutor device, 127 x 58.42 x 15.88 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

EF: It’s an anti-promotional, even confrontational, piece.
FO: It was the height of summer, and I thought flies must be all over the world, even in Siberia. When one lands, “tchhhh.” There’s total darkness, and all the artworks are without light. It’s like a blackout for the moment a small fly passes away. Imagine being interrupted in Venice for a fly—those are the things I really enjoy. For me, flies and birds are always more important than art. I was sharing the space with Damián Ortega, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Daniel Guzmán, Jimmie Durham, and Jean-Luc Moulène, and I had to convince them to let me switch the light off. I said, “Guys, you have to help me. What will happen? It’s 10 seconds of your life, of your moment. This is for something else, let’s take the risk.”

EF: Death is inherent in the fly killer piece, while danger lurks in many of your other works. In the darkly humorous Adagio Sostenuto (Sustained Adagio, 2013), you connected an acoustic guitar, tantalizingly placed as if to invite viewers to release their inner rock star, to 120,000 volts of electricity.
: It was about seduction and the stage. In Mexico, it’s very common to put up an electric security fence, which can give you a real shock. You don’t die, but you need to recover. So, I bought a fence and put the electricity into the strings of a guitar. Of course, I associate the guitar with rock and punk. I love rock and roll, and this was a representation of risk. If you want to touch, you have a responsibility as well.

EF: The guitar conjures up loud music, screaming fans, and overdoses.
FO: Yes, it was that, but in a very silent way. It’s a very minimal composition. It means all that you can imagine—dead people, shouting—but it’s saying, “This can happen if you want.” You can touch it or you can imagine it, like the triangle.

Elizabeth Fullerton is a writer and critic based in London.