Heart of Darkness

, 28 August 2012

Damián Ortega’s current exhibition, showing at White Cube Gallery in Mason’s Yard, has a simplicity that belies its effect – the memory lingers.  In the ground floor space, an obtuse reference to the famous Joseph Conrad novel, Heart Darkness, comes in ‘Congo River’. A pile of tyres, are here arranged to form a curious island running across the gallery, a white line of salt bisecting it –perhaps this it is leading the viewer on; an entryway to the journey upriver.  The rubber tyres, in tandem with the work’s title, lead us to draw connections with the colonial project that bled Africa dry of its resources. When juxtaposed with that white line, which may be salt but clearly suggests a line of cocaine, we find ourselves drawing parallels between those rapacious free marketers of the Victorian era and the contemporary drug trade – the negative effects of which the Mexican Ortega is no doubt familiar with.

Damián Ortega, 'Congo River' (2012). Image courtesy of White Cube.
Damián Ortega, ‘Congo River’ (2012). Image courtesy of White Cube.

‘Preserved’ presents us with a bicycle, seemingly abandoned on the gallery floor. This work is fixated on concepts of image and memory. Again the totemic salt is employed, in this case having been poured over the bicycle to create a silhouette, beneath it on the floor, through negative space. With shadows, a sequence of spotlights double and triple this afterimage, the actual object almost becoming secondary to its reiteration.

Damián Ortega, ‘Fossilised’ (2012). Image courtesy of White Cube.
Damián Ortega, ‘Fossilised’ (2012). Image courtesy of White Cube.

This focus on the image is reinforced by the work’s positioning opposite ‘Fossilised’ where a line-up of cameras cast in concrete are frozen by their spotlight. Both ‘Fossilised’ and ‘Stone’ – a to-scale concrete cast of a floppy disk – have something to say about the preservation of image, memory and information in the modern age. In both cases the materiality emphasizes both a classical sculptural approach, and indeed something more primordial and prehistoric. The series of cameras represents a chronological sequence of technological advancement, but they are now all preserved, set in stone, as it were, as objects rather than recorders of history. The floppy disk’s recasting only serves to re-emphasize something most of us are familiar with as technology marches on; the actual object would not seem much less prehistoric.

Damián Ortega, 'Preserved' (2012). Image courtesy of White Cube.
Damián Ortega, ‘Preserved’ (2012). Image courtesy of White Cube.

The exhibition’s centrepiece, and the most impressive work, is ‘Hollow/Stuffed: market law’, the title another indirect reference to Conrad, via T.S. Eliot. The initial impression is that of threat and power, a nine-foot sculpture of a submarine, spot lit, looms out of the darkness above the viewer. It is a white whale (perhaps referencing another great nineteenth-century existentialist). But closer examination reveals that this threat is hopelessly compromised. The submarine is constructed from a patchwork of food sacks, and has sprung a leak, salt (naturally) pouring out and piling up before it. As it ever so slowly empties, it sags weakly, hanging in its supports. We are informed that the submarine occupies a central position in modern-day drug-trafficking, particularly on the coasts of Ortega’s homeland, but even without this knowledge, there is much to be considered here about the nature of trade and economics, the failures of political structures and so much more.

Damián Ortega, 'Hollow/Stuffed: market law' (2012). Image courtesy of White Cube.
Damián Ortega, ‘Hollow/Stuffed: market law’ (2012). Image courtesy of White Cube.

And therein lies the beauty of Ortega’s work; that objects so disarmingly simple can resonate so powerfully, ideas that refuse to leave your brain. You’ve been taken on a journey.

Damián Ortega’s Traces of Memory is at White Cube Mason’s Yard until September 8, 2012.