The Light Touch

By Guy Brett, 1998


The two historical streams which seem to me to converge in Gabriel Orozco's work are those of sculpture (a category still holding together despite many changes in practice) and that desire, underlying the experimental impulse in so much twentieth century art, to 'dissolve art into life'. These streams were astutely summed up in two sentences which Jean Fisher applied to Orozco in her 1993 essay about him, "The sleep of wakefulness"[2]) In his work can be felt, she wrote, on the one hand, "a profound meditation on the act of making"; and on the other hand, "the question of what may constitute the limits of recognisability of a work". Conventionally, these categories would seem to exclude one another. But the inherent paradox may be very much to the point. 

Take, for example, Orozco's Sand on Table, 1992. I see it simultaneously as a modest, random occurrence of everyday life and a sculpture. It seems to be very much a proposition within recent sculptural trends, beginning perhaps with Arte Povera: the 'poor' material (sand), the everyday support (table), and the beautiful equalisation between the material displayed on the pedestal (the maximum which gravity will allow to stay there) and the surrounding world, fused with the ancient figure of the pyramid (a form common to Egypt and to Central America). But I immediately realise that this sand and table would not have nearly the same effect if displayed as an object in an art gallery. The warm sunlight, the random impressions of people's feet in the sand, give the poetic inflection of the 'world', 'life', which enables one to internalise the image in a different way. In particular we seem to shortcut the institution of art, and to be placed directly in that common area of experience we all share. The lightness of touch by which Orozco does this is what we especially enjoy.

At the same time I cannot help realising I am looking at a photograph. This photograph is the sign of a perception taking place in the midst of life (albeit stimulated by previous works of art), but it is also an object which may be displayed in a gallery, bought and sold. Where does the freshness of the perception, which is basically a prolongation of the act of pointing, as if we were walking with Orozco and he saw the object in front of him, or put it together from what was lying around; where does this moment begin to cede to the demands of the marketable object? If Orozco simply kept his perception to himself in the act of walking around, thinking and feeling, there would be no communication. But nor would there be if the institutionalisation of the object obliterates that act of perception.

Looking for antecedents, Orozco's interventions have most often been interpreted in the stream of European and North American sculpture. Benjamin Buchloh, for example, in the course of two questioning, deeply thought-out essays on Orozco's work, has seen it as a derivation from, but radical 'inversion' of positions reached by the likes of Nauman, Serra, and Tony Cragg[2]. While true, this seems to me to be only a part of the story. Orozco can be related to another stream, already flowing for many years, which connects artists originating outside the European-North American territory, and which has been profoundly concerned with questioning the art-life boundary, the 'act of making', and the 'limits of the work'. In fact, a practice as specific as walking the streets and designating portions of reality within the conceptual framework of a political-poetic vision can be found among these artists. It would include the activities of the Argentinian artist Alberto Greco (1931-1965), a rebel against every form of institutionalisation, who, in 1962, proposed his Vivo Dito. Partly inspired by the example of Yves Klein, he would carry a piece of chalk with him to draw a line around an object or person in the street and sign it with his name (Vivo = living; Dito, derived from dedo, a finger, = the act of pointing). In the early 60s such behaviour still had the implications of madness or effrontery, and involved Greco in some narrow scrapes. 

The Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) carried out in the mid-60s, among other projects, his Appropriations, designating various found objects within his generic category of Bolides ('fireball' or 'energy-centre' in Portuguese). Some were given the qualifying subtitle of Estar, 'to be' as a quality of things, and the artist explained their rationale: "There is complete accessibility here for whoever arrives; no one is constrained by being in the presence of 'art' ... 'things' are found, which are seen everyday but which one never thought to look for. It is a search for oneself in the thing..."[3] Oiticica also had a general notion of inspired findings in the flux of the streets which he liked to call Delirium Ambulatorium. Then, as a third example, there is the Filipino artist David Medalla (b. 1942), with his on-going nomadic series of lmpromptus (c. 1979-), seizing in the photographic instant a hidden meaning in a particular place/time.

These in turn rebound and reveal a tradition within European art, even within sculpture, which revolved around the polemical negation of established canons of value and permanence, and an ironic embrace of the worthless. For example, Giacometti, at a certain moment in his 'surrealist' phase, produced what he called Disagreeable Objects, "objects without base and without value", in his own words. What Giacometti had to say about the wooden carved plane with two protuberances called Object To Be Thrown Away, 1931, is very interesting:

"It was no longer the exterior form of things which interested me but rather what I felt in my own life ... I didn't want to create a figure which looked realistic on the outside, but wanted to experience life and to create only those forms that really affected me, or that I desired."[4]

Giacometti set 'experiencing life' against the traditional practices of art, and his talisman of this desire was a sort of ugly thing which would not fit or function within established, expected protocols, "mobile and silent objects" as he also called them.

The conundrum is that life and art are not two separate entities but are continually creating one another. Subject/object, active/passive, are similarly pairs of opposites which cannot exist without each other. There are the objective facts of the environment around one, but there is also our subjectivity and deep individual psychic response which makes us alive to one aspect and blind to another. 'Life', in this sense, is as much fantasy and dream as solid reality. Jean Fisher's encapsulation of Orozco's process as 'a meditation on the act of making' could be expanded and reciprocated to include 'a meditation on the act of being made'. All the objects or situations in the street which seem to be objectified by the artist are simultaneously creating him. This indication of the importance of reciprocal relationships would be highlyappropriate, given the yielding, 'feminine', aspect of Orozco's sensibility which delights in imprints.

Yielding Stone, 1992 (apt oxymoron!), Orozco's 'disagreeable object', is one obvious example: the plasticine lump which rolls and picks up imprints and debris wherever it is, a clear self-image since its weight has been made the same as the artist's. Orozco has conjoined active and passive in an earlier work, My Hands Are My Heart, 1991, the heart-shaped piece of clay made by the clasping impress of his two hands. Indeed, the metaphor of the heart (centrality, feeling, life, what really matters) is made a nexus where earth, body, the will to form, and the surrender to being formed, meet equally.

It is a precarious matter, on the edge of dissolution. The beauty of another work, Pinched Ball, 1993, lies in its light touch, its marriage of sculptural reference and psychic make-up. We all know these punctured footballs which have been kicked about the streets and then abandoned. A cipher of activity and perhaps aggression is made into a yielding receptacle which has passively received some rain water which now calmly reflects the sky, a delicate image in subtle tones extending (accidentally? deliberately?) to the pale blue-green-grey of the asphalt on which the ball has been photographed.

The nagging contradiction waiting in the wings is that the light touch which captures an instant of perception out of the flux of life can be reduced to boredom and inertia by repetition. The image becomes emptied and exhausted by consumption, just as a fashionable word, so fresh when first coined, comes to signify nothing but the pretension or conventionality of its users. This hardening inevitably misses the life-experience, the process of walking, thinking, feeling, experimenting with the environment, which is vividly recorded, for example, by words and pictures in Gabriel Orozco's series of on-going notebooks. One way out of this impasse is to make the consumer also a producer. This would be another aspect of thinking in relationships and reciprocities rather than either/or categories, and admitting that every person is multi-faceted. Many of the participatory and collaborative proposals by artists in the 60s and early 70s (which have never been given their due in art history), provided structures in which active and passive, individual and collective, producing and spectating, ephemeral and durable, were woven together. They leave a powerful and demanding legacy, summed up, for example, in writings by Oiticica in the 1960s where he spoke of" ...the quest for individual liberty, through increasingly open propositions, aimed at making each person find within themselves, through accessibility, through improvisation, their internal liberty."[5] Can we follow this call for 'increasingly open propositions', in today's inevitably changed conditions? Clearly there must be many models for reciprocity, as a condition of avoiding the dogmatic and formulaic and staying close to life-experience.

One of these models may be to explore with greater subtlety the reciprocity —and disjuncture— between the 'art' space and the 'rest of the universe'. A motive which runs like a thread through many of Orozco's works —found, made or a combination of the two— is the desire to find figures of cosmic generality, astronomical/mathematical figures of movement and space, within the accidental and the everyday (most recently in The Atomists). This was earlier seen in Crazy Tourist, 1991, the planetary system of single oranges arranged and photographed on the stalls of a ramshackle, deserted popular market; and its metropolitan variant, Home Run, 1993, where the public looked out from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see the work in the windows of neighbouring apartments.

Our earlier mention of the extreme selectivity of any view of the 'accidental' and the 'everyday' (a testimony to its immense flux), leads to the observation that in Orozco's 'everyday' people, at least until very recently, have rarely appeared. Orozco's is a sculptural everyday. There are sometimes animals, but mainly objects. In fact it becomes part of the poetics of a light touch to evoke the human through inaminate objects. It stresses that we exist with objects in a state of interdependence and reciprocity, for better or worse. In one of his notebooks Orozco speculates about "social space/time in the form of an object" (Oval Billiard Table could be an example, one in which the hand is invited to intervene). This is only a device of course, which could, and perhaps has, started to change, although the introduction of the human image in Orozco's work remains an intriguing problematic.

The boundary between the 'art' space and the 'rest of reality' is a very mobile thing since its exact placement is continually being contested between the liberating forces of imagination and the stultifying tendencies of the institution. When I think of this contest I think of two of Orozco's works particularly, which are themselves mobile and silent (to borrow Giacometti's terms), and in an interesting sense, 'empty'. Both Empty Shoe Box, 1993, and Parking Lot, 1995, are marvellous exercises of lateral thinking —illuminating the field by taking a position to one side of habit— and of the application of a Zen, or guerrilla, tactic: turning to one's own advantage already existing systems of energy and power.

Empty Shoe Box has caused considerable annoyance when it has been exhibited. Directors of busy public museums despair of the consequences of insuring as an art work a nondescript open box which Orozco insists on placing on the floor or in a corner where it could easily get kicked or thrown away. There has sometimes been the complaint (not least at the Venice Biennale in 1993) that Orozco has lowered the tone of a would-be important mixed show by submitting a slight piece of work, whereas, paradoxically, the modest empty box can become in one's mind the opposite: an expansive figure of receptivity, openness, possibility, especially by contrast with some of the more laboured efforts around. In the atmosphere of 'artistic jousts' that these group exhibitions have become, rather as in the poetic jousts of the past, to accomplish much with minimum effort counts for a lot, and raises the pitch of the vitality that all are seeking.

Parking Lot was the title of a recent Orozco exhibition at the Galerie Micheline Szwajcer in Antwerp. He simply opened the art gallery as a parking space to any passing motorist who happend to be cruising the city centre looking for a convenient place to stop. 'Lateral thinking' is perhaps synonymous here with a 'light touch'! As well as a sophisticated addition to his 'yielding' images —opening oneself and the art space to the random intrusions of the anonymous city— Orozco produced an allegory of the deflation of artistic pretension which includes the essential ingredient of a self-deprecating humour. In fact he perpetrated a joke far funnier and more pointed than any satirist of the absurdity or the 'emptiness' of modern art has managed to produce. It was encapsulated in the idea that an anonymous passer-by, in the act of blithely solving a banal problem of everyday urban life should unconsciously contribute to the elucidation of a crisis in the direction of contemporary art, which can either lead the way to a pointless, self-referential trap or open up possibilities for a vitality of art-life interrelationship which is yet to come.

The anonymous motorist and his symbiotic car slip into the role of protagonist by crossing a threshold between one context and another, contexts which are as much mental as physical, which may be as invisible to one person as they are loaded with meaning to another. This is the reality we live, the multifaceted simultaneity of our social being in which we continue to insist on our unique individuality. What but an agile, ironic and tender consciousness can negotiate between the two?

[1] Jean Fisher ("The sleep of wakefulness" in Gabriel Orozco, Kortrijk: The Kanaal Art Foundation, 1993) 
[2] Benjamin H.D. Buchloh ("Refuse and Refuge", Gabriel Orozco, Kortrijk: The Kanaal Art Foundation, 1993, and "Gabriel Orozco: The sculpture of everyday life", Gabriel Orozco, Zürich: Kunsthalle, London: ICA, Berlin: DAAD, 1996) 
[3] Helio Oiticica ("Position and Programme", 1966, Hélio Oiticica, Rotterdam: Witte de With, Paris: Jeu de Paume, 1992) 
[4] Alberto Giacometti (letter to Pierre Matisse, 1947, quoted in Alberto Giacometti1901-1966, Vienna: Kunsthalle, Edinburgh: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1996) 
[5] Hélio Oiticica ("Appearance of the Supra-sensorial", 1967) 

Image:  The Moon Trees installation, part of Empty Club at 50 St James's Street. Photograph: Stephen White.