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b. 1967, Mexico City
Damián Ortega was born in Mexico City in 1967. He has no formal art education, but was influenced by Gabriel Orozco, who led an experimental art course in Mexico City in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Ortega began his career as a political cartoonist, and the blend of wit and incisive critique requisite of this role continues to permeate his conceptually driven installations, performances, sculptures, and videos.
Ortega’s works highlight the latent poetry of everyday objects as well their complex social and political implications. For Ortega, meaning does not belong to singular forms but rather is produced by the relationships that spring up between multiple things. Recombining and disassembling mass-produced and vernacular artifacts, he charts the constellations of social, economic, and political forces that underlie material culture. In False Movement (Stability and Economic Growth) (1999), for example, three oil drums poised atop one another revolve like model planets, their precarious balance and eroded exteriors suggesting the underlying fragility and perhaps imminent collapse of a consumer economy.
In Controller of the Universe (2007), dozens of axes, chisels, hammers, and saws are suspended from the ceiling in a careful composition that evokes the orchestrated explosion of a cosmic toolbox. Here, tools can be understood as symbols of humanity’s desire to shape and control the world, yet this purpose is ultimately subverted by the subjective ordering of the work’s components. In Cosmic Thing (2002), Ortega disassembled a 1989 Volkswagen Beetle and suspended each piece from the ceiling by wire. The result evokes one perfect moment of the car’s explosion, transforming the automobile into an expansive universe composed of its many parts. While the disintegration of the Volkswagen in Cosmic Thing undeniably speaks to the artist’s penchant for creative destruction, it is also an act of dissection, inviting the viewer to look beneath the hood for this machine’s secret history. By presenting the vehicle in pieces, the work alludes to the processes by which the model came into being and endures today. Originating in Nazi Germany as “the people’s car” and manufactured only recently in Mexico and Brazil, the pervasive and popular Beetle is revealed as an emblem of political ideology and the inescapable reach of global capital.
Ortega has had solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2002); Kunsthalle Basel (2004); Tate Modern, London (2005); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2007); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2008); Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2009); and Freud Museum, London (2013). He has participated in the group exhibitions Made in Mexico, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2003) and Mexico: Expected/Unexpected, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2011), as well as in the Venice Biennale (2003 and 2013); São Paulo Biennial (2006); and Havana Biennial (2012). He was nominated for the Hugo Boss Prize (2005) and Preis Der Nationalgalerie für Junge Kunst (2007), and completed a residency with the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, Berlin (2006). Ortega lives and works in Mexico City and Berlin.