Art review: Damian Ortega at Cleveland Museum of Art

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Controller of the Universe, 2007. Dami�n Ortega (Mexican, b. 1967). Found tools and wire; 285 x 405 x 455 cm. � Dami�n Ortega, Courtesy White Cube. (Stephen White)

Step into a Damian Ortega sculpture and you step into another dimension, or so it seems.

Ortega is famous for his “blown-apart” sculptures of cars, bricks, Coca-Cola bottles, tortillas, and in his current exhibit — Damian Ortega: The Blast and Other Embers — old tools.

The exhibit, on view through Sept. 29 in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Glass Box Gallery, consists of two installations: Controller of the Universe (2007) and Tool Bones (2013).

Ortega, born in 1967 in Mexico City, is the leading Mexican artist of the generation that emerged in the wake of the influence of Gabriel Orozco. He makes playful use of everyday objects and turns them into installations that mischievously, often ironically, challenge perception and conception.

He first caught attention at the Venice Biennale in 2003 with Cosmic Thing, where a Mexican cultural icon, the Volkswagen Beetle, was dismantled and suspended from the ceiling.

His works have been exhibited at institutions all over the world. After a long stint in Berlin, he now lives and works in Mexico City.

Controller of the Universe, one of Ortega’s best-known installations, consists of hundreds of tools like you or I would have on and around our tool bench — hammers, saws, planers, clippers, screwdrivers, awls and punches — suspended from the ceiling by clear nylon fish line and carefully arranged in various heights, angles and attitudes to create an orchestrated explosion that moves spherically and simultaneously in all directions.

Visitors can move around it, go through it, stand at any point in the gallery to look at it, even within the work itself, and it seems to change every time.

For instance, if you’re standing inside it, the tools dance about your head and you can see how he may have conceived the piece. If you’re standing over in the southwest corner, they seem to be flying at you.

The related series, Tool Bones, created specifically for the Cleveland Museum of Art, have a Modernist feel, perhaps like a Henry Moore maquette.

These, however, are real tools that have been wrapped, then covered with a plaster coating.

Visitors can imagine what the tools might be, even fantasize about using them, but they are static, lying on the gallery floor, not to be touched.

It’s as though the tools have been mummified, preserved under wrappings, lying in state, or stasis, as Reto Thuring, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, puts it.

“He’s well known for taking things apart,” said Thuring, noting that he chose Controller of the Universe specifically for the Glass Box Gallery because of its “special conditions.”

“It’s in some ways a very challenging and in others a very interesting space. We can’t show anything that would be light-sensitive in there” because three of the four walls are glass.

“I’ve had that work in mind for that space for a long while,” Thuring explained. “I’ve always thought of it as infinite movement, a moment in time that could go on forever, and having that in the glass box would be interesting because you wouldn’t have walls that would hold it back, and it could imaginatively go on forever.”

He wanted to show it alongside a recent work, so he visited Ortega in Mexico City, where he was in the process of making Tool Bones. Cleveland is the first museum to show this installation.

“The new installation is somewhat inconspicuous, as it lies on the floor in the four corners of the gallery,” Thuring said.

Ortega began his working life as a political cartoonist, and if you look closely at his work, you can still see a strong sense of sarcasm, or at least tongue-in-cheek punditry, coming through.

When Thuring talked with Ortega, he said he got the feeling that the works, especially the VW Beetle, came from a tradition in Mexico of holding onto things and making them work, long after they would have been discarded in the United States.

“In Mexico, you find a very different approach to maintaining things,” Thuring said. “People don’t get a new car every few years. They keep the old ones going, just like in Cuba, and that’s true for other things, not just cars.

“So taking these cars apart and showing their inner life reveals that. Mexico is less consumer-oriented, and they live with these things because they must.

“If you look at these countries, it’s a very interesting comment and you must think about it,” he said. “America ships its old cars to Africa where they repair them and they still use them for another 20 years or so, or they use the parts and put them into other cars over there.”

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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