Empty Club

Gabriel Orozco

St James's Street, London
25 June 1996 - 27 July 1996

Empty Club was sited in an imposing Georgian building in central London, temporarily inhabited by Gabriel Orozco. 50 St James's Street is located right at the heart of the English establishment. Initially the home of Crockford's 'Temple of Chance' gambling den in the 1820s, it then became The Devonshire Club. When agreement was secured for Orozco to work in the building, it had been refurbished for a new life as a corporate headquarters, but was currently unused and empty.

Orozco turned this inert building into a public place around which visitors were invited to wander around, look and play. Ascending the grand central staircase, they first came across an oval billiard table in the centre of a palatial room. The red ball was suspended from the ceiling, and hovered just above the green beize of the table. When hit by one of the white balls, it moved on its own arc above and beyond the perimeter the table, subverting the normal rules of the game and inviting the players to make up their own.

The theme of stasis and movement continued throughout Empty Club. On one floor Orozco installed a series of large prints entitled 'The Atomists' (named after a school of Greek philosophy which first posited the idea of atoms in motion). Orozco's prints were based on photographs from the sports pages of English newspapers over which he had drawn abstract forms based on circles.  

On another floor, a line of Moon Trees, in which white discs had been cut into the  leaves of the artificial trees, ran down the length of the space.  Alongside the trees, two long rolls of pinstripe cloth were stretched to make bowling lanes.  Striped deckchairs, like those in the nearby St James's Park, were available for visitors to sit in.  

Through Orozco's poetic re-shaping of familiar objects and images, 50 St James became a place for reflection on the relationship of centre and the periphery right at the heart of a culture constructed on the belief that it was the centre of the world.

Image: Installation shot of the oval billiard table in Empty Club by Gabriel Orozco, 1996. Photographer: Stephen White

The Play of the World

and other essays
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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.

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

The Light Touch

By Guy Brett
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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.

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

The Atomists

By Mark Haworth-Booth
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The Atomists

By Mark Haworth-Booth, 1998

The summer of 1996 saw not only the usual fixtures of the English sporting calendar but the more global events that come round only at four year intervals —the Olympic Games and the European Football Championships. The latter, Euro 96, was held in England for the first time. Partly because British participation in the Olympics was somewhat muted, and the form of the English cricket team sporadic, Euro 96 caused the major adrenalin rush of the sporting summer. There was collective euphoria: at last the national football side had played with style and success. Narrowest, and honourable, defeat at the hands of the Germans in the semi-finals allowed the English to fall back once again —if they wished— on a time-honoured formula. We may have failed in Atlanta, lost match after match to the cricketers of former colonies, and achieved less than was hoped for in Euro 96, but England had at least 'given the world' most of the sports and pastimes that enthrall it. The long list of games originated here even includes, some say, baseball (grown stupendously from the humble English game of rounders). In recent years the native fertility in inventing sports has been linked by scholars to that other great British invention —the Industrial Revolution. As Michael Oriard summarises: "The Industrial Revolution completed the triumph of capitalism ironically by devaluing work through the total separation of capital from labour. With the Industrial Revolution came not just a new kind of leisure but the beginning of an uncomfortable awareness that perhaps leisure, not labour, offered the best opportunities for human fulfilment". Thus, "a work-centred culture increasingly granted play a vital place in human life". The Industrial Revolution gave leisure first, of course, to the 'leisured classes'. One hundred years on, the rituals of collective labour began to transfer to mass identification with sport. By the 1990s football, in particular, had become not only the 'people's game' but its ballet, theatre, grand opera and religion as well.

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Image: Installation shot of Double Stump prints from The Atomists series by Gabriel Orozco 1996. Photograph: Stephen White

Circulation System

By James Lingwood
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Circulation System

By James Lingwood, 1998

Long before Gabriel Orozco took temporary tenancy of 50 St. James's Street in Piccadilly in the spring and summer of 1996, the imposing building in the heart of London's historic clubland had been vacated. The interiors had been stripped out and neutralised, all signs of previous lives had been erased. Apart from the presence of the doorman Mr Stubbs (he was indeed a distant descendant of the great English painter of horses and heredity), there was nobody in the place. The lights were on, the air conditioning hummed discreetly, the interior was impeccably clean. But, with the occasional exception of maintenance men and prospective purchasers, nothing and nobody disturbed its inertia. 50 St. James's Street was laid out and dressed up for inspection like a once active body from which life had now drained away: an entity of spaces and surfaces, but whose substance appeared to have evaporated.

As a result of some initial conversations in 1994, Gabriel Orozco and I spent time in London the following year looking for a particular kind of building. Our research was guided by three conditions. Firstly, we were looking for a prominent building from the 18th or 19th centuries, a building which embodied the self-confidence of the period when "Britannia ruled the waves". Secondly, it was necessary for the building to be located right in the middle of London, since Orozco's ongoing enquiry into the relationship between the periphery and the centre needed a place in the centre of this world centre and not one on the periphery. And thirdly it needed to be empty. Orozco had spent time in the summer of 1995 in some of the large parks in the centre of the city, and the building we hoped to find was conceptualised as a kind of interior park offering an unhurried, leisurely experience in which the visitor could relax, reflect and play -a place to be in, as well as look at things in (a working title for the project wasParque). In the spring of 1996, after extended negotiations with several owners of vacant buildings, Artangel signed a temporary lease on 50 St. James's Street and Orozco was able to develop his ideas in situ. The "Building to Let" signs remained on the ground floor throughout our occupancy.

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Image:  Installation shot of the oval billiard table in Empty Club by Gabriel Orozco, 1996. Photographer: Stephen White


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The unexpected has returned to 50 St James's Street, in the heart of London's clubland. This solid Georgian building was home to Crockford's scandalous "Temple of Chance" in the 1820s before silting up for over a century as the Devonshire Club. Now it is, temporarily, a place of surprises again. Artangel has taken it over for its 1996 artistic happening. — Financial Times, Weekend 13/14 July 1996

Selected Press

The ballroom of 50 St. James's Street is empty except for an oval billiard table with a red ball suspended like a pendulum above its center. Some visitors pick up a cue and take a shot at it, others just stare as the ball sways hypnotically back and forth. What used to be a stuffy men's club on a street of stuffy men's clubs has been turned into a kind of grown-up playground by the 33-year-old Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco. — Carol Vogel, The New York Times, 27 July 1996

By introducing the public into the private, Orozco perverts the heavily coded rituals of the games, altering their rules. One of the snooker balls is hanging from the ceiling, the miniature spectators that populate the cricket pitch have trees growing out of them, the bowling green is made of pinstripe material and the xeroxed sports pages are embellished with geometric shapes, mimicking the kind of art you might find in a financial headquarter. — Gianmarco Del Re, Flash Art, November - December 1996

Orozco has filled the empty building with games (or symbols of games) such as you might find in any English park or pub. On the main floor there's a snooker table, on the second floor posters of football and cricket players, and on the third some striped deck chairs and a game of bowls. Like Whiteread with her concrete house, he is making interior spaces available to inspection by the public. — Richard Dorment, The Daily Telegraph, 10 July 1996

About Gabriel Orozco

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Gabriel Orozco

The Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco has forged a reputation as one of the most original and inventive young sculptors working today.

He studied at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City (1981–4) and at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid (1986–7) and now lives and works in Paris, New York and Mexico City.

Orozco works with found objects and spaces, questioning the boundaries between art and the everyday environment and inviting consideration of our notions of reality. He often creates works for a specific space or on the occasion of an exhibition and is not restrained by medium, working in drawing, painting, installation and sculpture.

Orozco has exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the Whitney Biennial and Documenta as well as having solo exhibitions internationally including at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Serpentine Gallery, London and Kunsthalle Zürich, Zurich. He was awarded the Seccio Espacios Alternativos prize at the Salon Nacional de Artes Plasticas in Mexico City, a DAAD artist-in-residence grant in Berlin and the German Blue Orange prize.


Images: Black and white photograph of the artist Gabriel Orozco playing pool on the oval pool table created for Empty Club, 1996 (left) Photograph: Maria Gutierrez; Portrait of the artist Gabriel Orozco (above)

Book: Empty Club

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Empty Club

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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)..." — Jean Fisher, Empty Club

The grand Georgian building at 50 St James's stands in the centre of London and at the heart of the British Establishment. For almost 150 years, it was the home of The Devonshire Club, a domain for English gentlemen. Refurbished for a new life as a corporate HQ, 50 St James's lay vacant through the summer of 1996, suspended between an empty past and an unknown future.

Gabriel Orozco animated this sleeping building with a sequence of sculptural transformations. An exquisite Oval Billiard Table was installed, the red ball hovering above the green baize. Elsewhere visitors ecountered The Atomists, an extended series of sporting prints; a dreamscape model of Lord's cricket ground and an avenue of 'moon trees'.

Guy Brett's The Light Touch, Jean Fisher's The Play of the World, Mark Haworth-Booth's The Atomists and James Lingwood's Circulation System discuss Orozco's subtle meditations on movement and stability, centre and periphery, rules and etiquette within its particular British context.

  • Hardback
  • 112 pages
  • Colour
  • Bound in Beligum
  •  27.4 x 17 x 1.4 cm
  • Published by Artangel 
  • Design: Luc Derycke, Ghent
  • ISBN-10: 1902201027


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Who made this possible?


Gabriel Orozco’s Empty Club was the 1996 Artangel/Beck’s Commission, part of series of collaborations between Artangel and Beck’s that began with Rachel Whiteread's House. This project was supported by BecksThe Elephant Trust, The Henry Moore Foundation, Visiting Arts, City of Westminster and Governent of Mexico

Artangel is generously supported by Arts Council England, and by the private patronage of The Artangel International CircleSpecial AngelsGuardian Angels and The Company of Angels.