Sunday, 29 July 2012


c Damian Ortego;Photo Todd-White Art; courtesy White Cube
On the lower ground floor of the White Cube Gallery in Mason's Yard a submarine (198 x 87 x 874cm) floats from the ceiling. It's based on a plastic model of a WW2 GermanType XXI submarine and is made of biodegradable plastic sacks, metal - and salt. So instead of seeing something aggressive and agile like a real submarine, all you get is a rather sad, flaccid, immobile vessel, incontinent too in that it can't even protect its own contents.A thin white line of salt is the only moving part and it drools onto the floor below, piling up in a heap. Look long enough and you spot minute folds and hollows in the mould's geometrical perfection. The grains do not move individually over the surface but slide down like slow  tears.

Salt is usually our ally, a preservative and flavouring agent which can be used as currency in exchange for other desirable goods. The notes you can ask for at the reception desk tell me Ortego is using it as a metaphor for exploring human intervention.This piece refers to the illicit use of submarines carrying another white substance, cocaine, along the South American coast to Mexico.

The notes also tell me that the title refers to T.S.Eliot's poem The Hollow Men, which, we are told, is a reference to Joseph Conrad's novel The Heart of Darkness.
'We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men'
is how the poem begins but it is probably better known for its final lines:
'This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.'
On the ground floor a thin line of salt is etched onto car tyres piled in a heap on the gallery floor. The title Congo River relates again to Conrad's novel and to the epic film Apocalypse Now, both of which use a river journey to examine the unknown.
I confess I have difficulty in relating to art works which need so much explanatory text. No, that's not true. I think of times when the text is part of the artwork, as in Michael Craig-Martin's famous Oak Tree 1973, when he exhibited a glass of water on a glass shelf announcing that it was in fact an oak tree - and gave cogent reasons why we should believe him. But to have the artist's intentions not even in the same gallery room is hard. I know there are substantial arguments against  heavy labelling which might prejudice what the viewer sees, but I think the present arrangement does little to enhace the viewing experience. Indeed I felt infantalised, asking for a crib sheet.

However, Ortego is an artist who playfully and artfully makes you look again. He uses surprising objects - from golf balls to pick axes to bricks, rubbish bins and torilla - to create inspirational art, all subject to what has been described as Ortego's 'characteristically mischievous process of transformation and dysfunction'. Here is Cosmic Thing, a 1989 Volkswagen Beetle car as you have never seen it, shown at the Venice Biennale in 2003. The Boston Globe called it 'a car manual brought to life'.
White Cube is the London gallery which continues to show this innovative Mexican artist.   this is a link with a very good commentary on Cosmic Thing when shown at ICA Boston

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