Damián Ortega, Using Everyday Things to Create Timeless Works

Damián Ortega. Photo: art21.org
Damián Ortega. Photo: art21.org

Damián Ortega is a Mexican artist born in Mexico City in 1967. He has lived between Berlin and Mexico since 2006 and currently presents his installations internationally. He is known for the quality and originality of his installations, such as Cosmic Thing presented for the first time at the 50th Venice Biennial in 2002.

To Cosmic Thing followed works such as Miracolo Italiano from 2005, Project for social housing from 2007, Melting Point from 2011, and The Rocket and the Abyss presented in 2015 in the exhibition of the Crystal Palace of the Retiro Park at The Reina Sofia Museum located in Madrid. In Mexico, he is represented by the gallery kurimanzutto.

Ortega expressed a special sensitivity to art from a very early age. He was born in a family of intellectuals and artists. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father was a university actor. He was able to access very unorthodox pedagogical methods in his early years of education, where he participated in experimental group workshops. It was when he interrupted his high school studies at the age of 16 that he began his artistic career as a political cartoonist.

The political cartoonist


Damián Ortega – Miracolo Italiano 2005. Photo: flickr.com

In 1985, Ortega lived through one of the most difficult times in Mexican society due to the terrible earthquake that took place in the country on Thursday, September 19, 1985. This affected Mexico City in particular, and it was the most damaging in the history of this country. Due to the lack of action protocols, the situation experienced during the days following the earthquake was one of chaos. Civil society itself was able to alleviate this situation when it began to self-organize in the rescue and assistance of the victims.

Although he had no formal art education, during that time Ortega began to work in magazines and newspapers satirizing the government of that time in Mexico. The politicized work of muralists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros of the 1920s was a great influence on him. At the same time, he began to create his first artistic works, installations, and video sculptures. In 1987 Ortega met the influential artist Gabriel Orozco, who was leading an experimental art course in Mexico City. He and other artists in his circle began attending the art school installed in Orozco’s home, which they called the Friday Workshop and in which he participated until 1992.

Cosmic Thing

Damian Ortega - Cosmic Thing, 2002 - image via influx
Damian Ortega – Cosmic Thing, 2002. Photo: influx

In 1998 he began his international career with his first individual and collective exhibitions. During 2002 she presented the work that brought her international recognition at the 50th Venice Biennale, The Cosmic Thing. This original work presented the “people’s car” developed for the first time in Nazi Germany and which in those years was mass-produced in his native Mexico.

The work presented the worldly and famous model Beetle of the Volkswagen brand, model 1989, in gray color, disassembled and suspended by cables from the ceiling piece by piece, representing a fragmented object and a new way of seeing this famous car model. The Cosmic Thing from 2002 is part of a trilogy composed by Beetle 83 also from 2002 and Moby Dick from 2004.

In this work Ortega seems to show a fascination for the relationship between order and chaos. Cosmic Thing allows us to see under the shell of the machine and present the true story to the observer. It is a work that suggests the relationship between repressive authoritarian systems and capitalism, and at the same time is an emblem of political ideology.

Ortega carried out this work taking into account that the Beetle model (called Volcho in Mexico) was one of the most popular cars of the 20th century, for being an accessible model that presented the possibility of having a car for millions of people. His aim with this work was to show the relationship between the interior and exterior of a car, expanding the common vision of this mundane object and giving it artistic characteristics.

The art of everyday things

Dreamers #4, 2015. Graphite on concrete statues, dimensions variable
Damián Ortega – América letrina, 1997. Photo: muac.unam.mx

In general, Ortega’s work is inspired by a wide range of everyday objects such as bricks, wastebaskets, or tortillas. His creative process has been described as a playful process of transformation and dysfunction. His work is intertwined with critiques of bureaucracy, poverty, capitalism, and megalomania. To do this Ortega uses references from the history of mass production and consumerism. In doing so he also demystifies the complexity of political and social systems.

From an early age, Ortega was influenced by the concept of readymade and the methodology of conceptual art because of his fascination with the work of Marcel Duchamp. Because of this, he employs for his works various common materials such as tools, bricks, golf balls, car parts, placing them carefully in the gallery space.

Her fascination with Duchamp’s art was expressed with great intensity in her work America Letrina of 1997. This work was part of the art movement that characterized part of a generation in the 1990s, whose intention was to go beyond the traditional codes of sculpture and bring humor to the object. Here Ortega launches a socio-political commentary on the situation of Latin America in relation to the United States.

Ortega’s Later Works

Controller of the Universe, 2007. Found tools and wires, 112.2 x 159.45 x 179.13 in
Damián Ortega – Controller of the Universe, 2007. Photo: genetology.net

In 2006 Ortega produced a work that would earn him great recognition in his home country. The project “Alias Editorial” which seeks to publish essential and fundamental texts within contemporary art that have been discontinued or have not been translated into Spanish. In addition to having been written by the artists themselves or having been interviewed by them. In the same way and thanks to its austere edition, Alias Editorial makes the acquisition of these texts accessible to the public.

The 2007 installation Controller of the Universe was composed of all kinds of tools, saws, and axes. It is a frozen explosion that seems to move us into a dream of conscious tools. The work generates alternative ways of looking at the tools and thinking about what the tools are and mean for the viewer. The installation maintains a violent and threatening character, generating the perception that the frozen tools could follow their path in all directions through the room at any time.

Ortega’s later most relevant solo exhibitions include Damián Ortega, Kunsthalle Basel, Basel, Switzerland (2004); The Uncertainty Principle, UNTITLED Project Series, Tate Modern, London (2005); Damián Ortega: The Beetle Trilogy and Other Works, REDCAT CalArts’ downtown center for contemporary arts, Los Angeles (2007); Champ de vision, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2008); DoIt Yourself. Damián Ortega, ICA- The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, United States (2009); Tool Bit, PinchukArtCentre, Kiev, Ukraine (2011); Damián Ortega, Barbican Centre, London (2010); Damián Ortega: Apestraction, The Freud Museum, London (2013); Cosmogonía doméstica, Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2014); Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Milan, Italy (2015); El cohete y el abismo, Palacio de Cristal del Retiro, Madrid (2016); Play Time, White Cube Bermondsey, London (2017); The Modern Garden, Garage Museum, Moscow, Russia (2018), and Porous Structures, Gladstone Gallery, Nueva York; (2019) among others.

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