The Play of the World

By Jean Fisher, 1998


In a vacuum any object hanging from a weightless and unstretchable wire free of air resistance and friction will oscillate for eternity. — Umberto Eco (Foucault's Pendulum, London: Secker & Warburg 1989)

The point about Foucault's pendulum, as Eco's narrator goes on to say, is that it oscillates around a geometric point, somewhere in the universe, which has no dimension and therefore cannot move; and since it cannot move, it doesn't rotate with the earth. And it cannot rotate around itself, because there is no 'itself'. This non-dimensional point, holding its breath infinitely, nonetheless enables the movement of the world to reveal itself.

Something of a microcosm of this physical conundrum is produced by Gabriel Orozco's Oval Billiard Table (1996), presented as a central part of his Empty Clubproject in 50, St. James's Street, a now defunct gentleman's club. In keeping with the club's august history of gambling and sports, the table is one of a 'suite' of games the artist devised with a particularly 'English' flavour.

This, however, is no ordinary billiard table. It is oval, a shape first suggested to the artist by the elliptical dome of the 17th century La Chapelle de la Vieille Charité in Marseilles (where the work was also later installed) and mirroring in turn the oval plaster ceiling moulding in the grand first floor room at 50 St. James's. Two white balls rest on the green baize surface, but there are no pockets. A third red ball hangs by a fine wire from the ceiling, little more than a whisker's breadth above the centre point of the table top. Although it appears immobile, the pendulum-ball is nevertheless quietly performing an imperceptible oscillation in a duet with its shadow. In its imaginary extension, the wire connects the pendulum-ball to the inexistent, dimensionless point of the universe.

The cues in the stand invite us to play. I hold my breath in order to aim the cue at one of the white balls on the green baize so that it strikes the red suspended ball. The percussive impact forces it to miss its resting beat; it swings wildly, and waltzes drunkenly out of its customary orbit beyond the limit of the table, before assuming a new, elliptical trajectory. Since the balls cannot be pocketed, the game itself would appear to be interminable, its resolution infinitely deferred. Thus, amongst the diverse materials actively brought into play by the artist one must add space, time and movement.

Oval Billiard Table is a game but also a parody, or perhaps an illusion, of a game; it is as if we, the intended players, had slipped through a looking glass into a space where matter and objects had become displaced from their habitual relations, capturing us in a Borgesian crisis of faith in our perception of reality. It is only necessary here to challenge the laws of gravity to render the game impossible, absurd -and perhaps also, by extension, human existence itself.

"The world is the infinite curve that touches at an infinity of points an infinity of curves, the curve with a unique variable, the convergent series of all series". Gilles Deleuze (The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, London: Athlone Press 1993)

Direct or indirect allusions to 'games' are a recurrent feature of Orozco's work. At the simplest level, one might think of the childlike playfulness by which the most ordinary materials are imaginatively mobilised: the plasticine ball rolled through the city picking up the dusty, particulate skin of the streets (Piedra que cede, 1992); the circular tyre tracks formed by riding a bicycle through puddles (La extensión del reflejo, 1992); or the propped and piled rubbish in Isla en la isla, 1994, which, from a liminal point of view, mimics the distant New York skyline. On the other hand, there is Pelota ponchada, 1993, a photo of a deflated and dysfunctional child's football, now transformed into a water vessel bearing a reflected image of the sky, another allusion to the infinite. Thus, somehow, the most unremarkable scraps of matter become enfolded into what in less cynical times might have been called the vibrations of the soul.

Closer to Oval Billiard Table, however, in its reference to systematised games, is Horses Running Endlessly, 1995, a wooden chess-board comprising four times the expected number of squares, and where the only pieces are knights whose moves are unerringly oblique: the knight, like the swinging pendulum-ball, transgresses the logic of linear progression, deferring its advance at every turn. In both works, as indeed in others, a semblance of 'real life' is presented and yet in a form that is exorbitant: both in expansion ('too many' knights and squares; or, elsewhere, the seemingly infinite series of paired scooters of Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe, 1995) and in contraction (the 'lack' of corners and pockets in the oval table; or, the ultra-thin version of La DS , 1993).

And yet, of course, Orozco's 'games' may be said to be 'exorbitant' only insofar as they are meant to correspond to a recognisable, already existent game (in this case, billiards or chess), an assumption that can be made only if they are also intended to occupy compatible, or —in Leibnizian terms— 'compossible' worlds, an assumption which is less secure than it might at first seem. From the point of view of a Leibniz-Deleuze picture of an infinity of possible worlds, of convergent and divergent pathways, Orozco's game, at some point in the past, would seem to have diverged from its nominal likeness and taken a path to a world 'incompossible' with it. Indeed, the work produces the unsettling sense of being confronted with some other, cryptic or hermetic order for which the game rules have not been provided. The consequence of this mutation of relations is that the people who are watching or playing, unable to map themselves within an entirely familiar field, lose a sense of certainty- and become 'decentred'.

It is tempting to consider the work's own 'incompossibility' with the building's prior existence as the Devonshire Club, an exclusive, hegemonic male domain, whose threshold few of us, including Orozco, would have been allowed to cross. Here, undoubtedly, over the billiard table, deals would have been struck affecting the governance of both home and the colonies, manipulating a cultural world order which the club members, with the utter certitude of the privileged classes, must have once assumed to be everlasting. As Orozco is well aware, the residues of this old imperial order continue to exert influence, if no longer from 50, St. James's Street then elsewhere, yet they are out of time with the rhythm of the contemporary world. Like the blow to the pendulum-ball, the club's own existence was eventually caught up in political or socio-economic events that produced an inflection of its regular orbit into a divergent path, one now, ironically, 'compossible' with ours and Orozco's.

Thus, whilst gravity holds the resting pendulum-ball at the centre of the table, the 'event' —the blow— obliges it to swing out of field, such that the orbit of the periphery comes to undermine the influence of the gravitational 'centre'. In any case, wasn't this 'centre' always a hegemonic conceit, an elision of the infinite and equal, shifting perspectives produced by the earth's rotation? There are other points of view: "Nature is an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere,"[1] quotes Borges from Pascal, tracking the metaphor through an esoteric labyrinth of references in an infinite temporal regression that characteristically goes nowhere, but leads us back to Oval Billiard Table.

Orozco's decentring operation produces a compelling analogy with current cultural debates on centre-periphery relations. In a deterritorialised world that no longer possesses a centre (a telos —an organising principle such as God, the Imperium, or even the gentleman's club), there can be only a multiplicity of inflections or contingent points of view.

We have seen how, in Oval Billiard Table, the swinging pendulum-ball challenges the authority of the gravitational centre —a position which we cannot occupy. Moreover, unlike the regular billiard table, Orozco's pocketless ellipse provides no privileged position from which to survey the field, but an indefinite number of equally tangential points of view. And perhaps significantly, it in itself does not present a game of elimination (no balls or players are knocked out of play) although the relations of its parts may change; in other words, displacement is an event inherent in the work's internal relations as well as those with the spectators or players.

" infinite line would be a straight line, a triangle, a circle and a sphere."
Borges ("Avatars of the Tortoise", ibid)

Orozco's predilection for curves, spheres and ellipses —all present in Oval Billiard Table— could be restated alternatively as a reticence towards rectilinearity; the point is that these two geometries suggest rather different relations of bodies to space-time. At base, it is the Cartesian grid which seems to be incompatible with the sensibility projected by Orozco's work, not simply because the grid tends towards fixity as opposed to the sphere's infinite movement of inflections; but also because it maps the world-as-object from the perspective of a coherent, centred subject, one that the artist's work consistently resists. Nothing could be less 'Cartesian' than Línea perdida (Lost Line), 1993, a plasticine ball whose circumference is irregularly criss-crossed by threads of cotton, disappearing here and there into the surface, and seemingly without beginning or end.

In the rationalist ordering of the world, the grid divides and sections space-time, positioning and organising subjects and objects within it in a hierarchy. It is not difficult to see this as a cartographic manoeuvre under the direction of a colonising gaze. The violence of this gaze was captured by Carl Andre when he described his sculpture as a 'cut' in space. A question of semantics, perhaps, but nonetheless indicative of the ambivalence of the grid in American minimalism and the extent to which it remained attached —however unconsciously— to the Cartesian subject despite its shift towards democratising the object.

But if one imagines that space-time is not an empty exteriority waiting to be carved up and filled with bodies but internalised in matter, then the 'cut' may be seen, in fact, to be a fold.

Do we, for instance, insist that, on being struck, Orozco's pendulum-ball effects a 'cut' in space, or can we speculate rather that it provokes a change in amplitude of a wave that ultimately folds to infinity? Envisioning Orozco's work in this way, we begin to see folds everywhere and in many guises. We have already mentioned, for instance, how Piedra que cede is folded into the layers of dust and debris of the street. We might also think of the cut and suture of Naturaleza recuperada (1990) and La DS as a process of refolding and internalising space in alternative configurations; or the parabolic curve formed by the hammock slung between two trees in the sculpture garden of MoMA, New York, 1993, as a visible fold emerging from within two invisible folds —a 'line' in nature, after all, delimits the perceptual horizon, not the object or its relations. And among the photo-works, there are folds that range from the simple envelopment of banana leaves in a sleeping bag (Hojas durmiendo, 1990), to the sleeping dog folded into itself in sleep's simulation of death (Perro durmiendo, 1990), to the invisible fold in space-time that displaces potatoes to exercise books on supermarket shelves (Cinco problemas, 1992).

To imagine the fold to infinity, the fold within the fold, is also to imagine the world as a continuity, in which discontinuity —the apparent separation of things 'in' space and time— is merely an index of the failure of our perceptual tools to distinguish the subtle movements and connections of matter and mind. Indeed, a change in perceptual awareness is like the unravelling of folds, a differentiation that alters the habitual relations of things. Along with Borges, we may speculate that everyday appearance has no greater claim to 'reality' than dreams or hallucinations.

Orozco's work presents a reality that puts reality into doubt; or as Baudrillard says of the trompe l'oeil (to whose choice of banal objects, hallucinatory 'realism' and tendency to weightlessness certain of Orozco's photo-works bear a passing resemblance), it reveals that "'reality' is never more than a world hierarchically staged (mise-en-scène)..."[2]

For Deleuze, the fold to infinity that implicates matter and soul, the dialogue between gravity and weightlessness, are characteristic of a (neo)Baroque sensibility that is transhistorical and transcultural. Born of the collapse of a symbolic order of the world thought to be stable, its exorbitant and continuous displacement of reality is a reflection of something felt to be a conceptual vacuum and spiritual rootlessness. Such might be a description not only of the historical wounds of the Americas but also of a contemporary global state of being, in all of which Orozco is also implicated. In more ways than one, the artist's work inflects what is universal in the local.

In entering into dialogue with the concept of the 'game', the work reflects on the condition of art itself —a rather typical Baroque trope. The game is an event which, like art, combines geometric order with chance elements, ephemerality with the interminable, identity with difference (for instance, insofar as every soccer game is both identical to and different from every other, its duration is as limited as it is infinitely extendable in repetition). Both art and the game possess a material existence that articulates, but is not coincidental, with 'real life' . Each obeys its own ritualised rules which constitute its internal limit —until, of course, another sequence of events converges on the limit and effects a change in direction or amplitude (and, of course, an internal disposition to be so affected is built into the system). Despite the fact that it moves in the so-called real world, Orozco's work does not re-present an indexical reality, nor does it stage the probable —what can be extrapolated from existing relations in reality—, but rather unfolds a play of the possible and the impossible —what can be imagined beyond immediate perceptual relations.

"We might say that throughout the centuries two opposite tendencies have competed in literature: one tries to make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud or better, perhaps, the finest dust or, better still, a field of magnetic impulses. The other tries to give language the weight, density, and concreteness of things, bodies and sensations."
Italo Calvino (Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Trans. Patrick Creagh, London: Jonathan Cape, 1992)

If Calvino's observation may be extrapolated to include visual languages, then Orozco's work would seem to oscillate between both tendencies, encapsulated in Oval Billiard Table's play between gravity and weightlessness, gravitas and absurdity, inertia and mobility. It is also the paradox of music, which articulates the concrete with the insubstantial, horizontal melody with vertical harmony (the diachronic and the synchronic), rational order with non-rational emotional affectiveness.

The movement of the work is, perhaps, towards a musical weightlessness, or what I imagine as 'breath'. I say this for the too obvious reason that air is a form of matter that is enfolded in several of the artist's works: as a rhythmic susurration in the swinging pendulum-ball; as 'inspiration' in Naturaleza recuperada; as 'expiration' in Pelota ponchada and Aliento sobre piano, 1993.

Aliento sobre piano is, for me, the most enigmatic: no more than a patch of condensed breath held forever, through the blink of the camera's eye, on the glossy surface of a grand piano. I suppose what fascinates me about this particular work is that the expired breath is captured indefinitely in that instant before it is necessary to take another gasp for life. Why should this image of apnrea, of suspension of breath, be so compelling as to take my breath away? Perhaps because it expresses what Catherine Clément has characterised as a moment of 'syncope'. Clément draws on Rousseau's definition of syncope as "prolongation on the strong [beat] of a sound begun on the weak [beat]; wherefore, every syncopated note is in counter time, and every collection of syncopated notes is a movement in counter time."[3]. Described as a 'cut' of time, syncope might also, according to the 'logic' advanced here, be called an enfolding of the first beat by the following, creating a discord, a delay, a suspension of time, of breath, that anticipates the move to a new harmony. What is significant about syncope therefore is its regenerative potential: an interval, an inflection, a momentary eclipse of reason from which a potentially expanded perception subsequently unfolds. In Orozco's work we encounter it in a suspension of breath on a piano, a fold in La DS, the oblique move of the knight 'running endlessly', and a blow to a pendulum-ball that changes the amplitude of its swing to produce a play of the interval itself.

In 1993 Orozco collaborated with the composer Manuel Rocha on a sound-work, Ligne d'abandon. The piece is a series of tones of varying duration that derive from the digital manipulation, extended or contracted, of the sound of a car's screeching wheels. As a natural referent the sound itself is syncope: the scream of tyres that precedes an interminable moment of silence before the sound of impact. The emotional experience is one of an overwhelming sense of dread, followed by an interval when I hold my breath in anxious anticipation. All seems to happen in 'slow motion', as if time stood still, which, in a sense, it does. Ligne d'abandon plays on anticipation; the varying duration of sounds are syncopated with varying intervals of silence, the two paths producing a measurable progression or a dissonance as they move in and out of phase with each other.

Syncope and fold: both produce intervals of sorts, inflections in space and suspensions of conventional, measured time, by which the world holds its breath before shifting orbit. Erotic and exorbitant, the rhythmic swing of the pendulum-ball measures the interval of desire itself; and, as we suspect, the anticipation that is desire oscillates for eternity. It is the essential creative moment. Afterwards, the world is never quite the same.

"In a same chaotic world divergent series are endlessly tracing bifurcating paths... Even God desists from being a Being who compares worlds and chooses the richest compossible. He becomes Process, a process that affirms incompossibilities and passes through them. The play of the world has changed in a unique way, because now it has become the play that diverges."
Gilles Deleuze, op cit, and Deidre M. Mahoney, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1994)

[1] Jorge Luis Borges ("The Fearful Sphere of Pascal" in Labyrinths, eds Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby, London: Penguin Books 1962) 

[2] Jean Baudrillard ("The Trompe-l'Oeil" in Calligram: Essays in new Art History from France, Norman Bryson (ed), Cambridge: Cambridge Universty Press, 1988) 

[3] Catherine Clémente (Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture, Trans. Sally O'Driscoll)

Image: Close up image of the Moon Trees installation, part of Empty Club,1996. Photograph: Stephen White.