Feature

Exhibit of the week: Damían Ortega: Do It Yourself

The centerpiece of the Damian Ortega retrospective at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art is a dismantled Volkswagen Beetle suspended from the ceiling.

Institute of Contemporary Art, BostonThrough Jan. 18

“What’s the difference between an artist and a mechanic?” said Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. That’s one question raised by a funny and fascinating work, made from a “dismantled Volkswagen Beetle,” that forms the centerpiece of a new Damían Ortega retrospective at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. “Following the diagrams in the repair handbook, Ortega disassembled the vehicle and suspended the components from the ceiling.” The result looks like an explosion stopped in midair, or perhaps some “kind of ritual sacrifice.” Like many works here, ­Cosmic Thing (2002) is impressive more for its imaginative concept than its rather ­mechanical execution. “Full of conceptually driven sculpture and installations,” this sprawling collection reveals the best and the worst aspects of the Mexican-born artist: “He has interesting and provocative things to say, but often an arch delivery.”

I suggest you look again, said Daniel Quiles in Artforum. Cosmic Thing may at first seem like “a lost special-effects explosion from The Matrix,” summing up everything bad about today’s flashy conceptual art. But up close you notice that, far from being “a futurist celebration of technology,” it’s a sort of homage to “the rusty, dirty, fraying parts of an old car.” VW Beetles, it turns out, are “an emblem of Mexico City’s chop-shop culture.” And this is hardly the only time that Mexico turns out to be the secret subtext of an Ortega work. Tortillas Construction Module (1998) uses those food items “to make geometric abstractions,” while in Elote clasificado (2005) he obsessively numbers each kernel on an ear of corn. Again and again, Ortega grounds his high-concept ideas deeply in his native culture.

That’s why Ortega’s “sardonic, mind-teasing works” never seem purely conceptual, said Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe. Each retains a sense of individuality, and an appealing handmade quality. Autoconstruction, Bridges and Dams: Bridge (1997) seems at first to be nothing more than “a handful of old chairs” roped together in a rickety fashion—“one slipped knot, you fear, could cause the whole thing to tumble.” But such precariousness is an essential part of Ortega’s aesthetic, which frequently contrasts “the idea of technological progress and order with ordinary, obsolete things.” Thus, even when the artist works on an elaborate scale, as in Cosmic Thing, the result “has a built-in humility that’s part and parcel of its wit and sympathy.”

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