Unmaking the readymade

Damián Ortega, Cosmic Thing, 2002

No car maintenance manual would be complete without an exploded view diagram or two, so it seems appropriate that it should be a car that Damián Ortega chose to break apart and display as a kind of three-dimensional diagrammatic representation of itself; indeed Ortega based the car’s deconstruction on the diagram in the car’s repair manual. The car in question in Ortega’s sculpture Cosmic Thing is a 1989 VW Beetle. The Beetle is one of the Seen from the side – or the front, albeit to a lesser extent, as the picture after the jump will show – the car is immediately recognisable and the work seems like a drawing in many ways.

Somehow the explosion seems greater the closer in we get, or the moment we look at the work fro a less familiar angle. The front view, with wheels and tyres broken down into their constituent parts seems at first glance to simply have too many wheels. Though really I always read this essentially as a drawing – or more precisely as an exploded view diagram – there’s also undeniably a sense of the car just somehow drifting apart with sections simply floating away.

The VW Beetle – ‘the people’s car’, with its origins in Nazi Germany – is one of the most recognisable designs of the twentieth century and has a particular resonance in Mexico City, where Ortega comes from and one of the places the car was manufactured. Beetles were at one stage very widely used as taxis in  Mexico City, though the last of these will be retired this year. Though Ortega has used the approach of exploded view sculpture in other (later) works, Cosmic Thing is also the first part in Ortega’s Beetle Trilogy.

Moby Dick, 2005

The three works that form the trilogy all take rather different forms, though with the obvious unifying factor of the Beetle as a starting point. Moby Dick is a performative work in which Ortega attempts to control the movements of a Beetle using ropes and pulleys in a man-versus-machine heroic struggle. For the third part of the trilogy, Beetle ’83, Escarabajo, Ortega took a Beetle back to the factory at Puelba, Mexico from whence it came and buried it, upturned, in the ground outside.

Beetle ’83, Escarabajo, 2005

Quite apart from the reworking of iconic cars, there are a lot of connections between the work of Gabriel Orozco and Damián Ortega; perhaps most importantly, they share a sense of the absurd and an ability to transform the stuff of our daily lives into works that take on a wider significance and go some way towards better understanding the way the world works. There is often a visual humour at play, but more profound and political ideas are also being explored.

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