Upstairs in the Fruitmarket Gallery, shadow-like images of a medley of objects sit upon a table. Diligently placed by Damian Ortega, these works are mirrored onto the facing wall. To view these images is to enact a miniature tableau of Plato’s cave: you might walk behind the table, placing yourself between it and the wall: the real ‘ideal’ forms behind indiscernible to you, leaving you privy only to the crude, pale grey figures plastered on the wall.
Except those objects on the table aren’t really real are they? They are clay models painstakingly crafted by Ortega, and consciously arranged to construct a sort of utilitarian anatomy of humankind through the permanent objects he/she leaves behind. The Fruitmarket explains that, “all of life is there – we are what we make, how we make it, and what we make it with”. The shadows shown here are impressions of impressions.
Indeed, this whole exhibition is subsumed into the word ‘impression’. Ortega has created sculptures that focus on how the elements act on the earth. He explores the ‘impressions’ left on the earth by the intersection of human intervention and natural forces: both the ripples of sand left by the kiss of a wave and the cavity on the shore resulting from a toddler’s sticky-fingered excavation.
However, he does this in a perverse way, by meticulously re-creating nature. Making ‘impressions’. The literary theorist Victor Schlovsky said that the purpose of art is to make a ‘stone stony.’ Is this the condition of humankind as it stands now? Are we at the point that we so firmly habit the cerebral sphere and are so removed from our physical surroundings that we need to consciously go to an art gallery to be reminded of them?
Take ‘Eroded Valley’ for example, in which Ortega “track[s] the eroding power of a river on a sequence of planes made from brick” blurring the boundaries between the natural and the manmade. The form of the bricks extends out to the form of the piece. The progressive erosion is cleaved out of a rectangular block. The mark of skilled craftsmanship in Classical sculpture was for the viewer to be unable to discern the block of marble the statue was carved from. This sculpture is rather a manifestly self-enclosed artefact, an object whose confines are clearly delimited.
The block-form of ‘Eroded valley’ echoes the fact that the whole exhibition itself is constricted in the space of the gallery. For example, Ortega notices that the contours etched out to create the work ‘Tripas de gato/ Isobaric map’ “look like a map of air or ocean currents”. We automatically conceive of this as something snaking, sprawling and it seems incongruous for it to be contained in the flat surface of the exhibition room’s artificially geometric walls. Furthermore, if we become lost in and enthralled by the aesthetic pleasure of the centripetal scattering of blobs of clay in ‘Broken Sac’, the jutting pillar that interrupts this motion, abruptly reminds us of where we are.
A sort of uniformity runs through the exhibition courtesy of the medium of clay, used for all the sculptures. Indeed, Ortega stretches this classic medium of artifice to its material limits. It would seem difficult to represent something as transient as a wave with such a dense substance but the artist achieves it in ‘Lava Waves.’ Ortega is able to capture the essence of the natural object in motion, condensing an organic entity into a visual image. In the work in which he moulds clay with his hands, the title and action is supported in the texture and physicality of the piece.
These pieces of raw clay, are literally ‘hand-moulded,’ with the clear impressions of Ortega’s fingertips. This piece has a sense of artist’s touch, a feeling of human intervention. He tried to achieve this delicate tone in other works, such as ‘Broken Sac,’ but he instead worked with local blacksmiths to create unique tools for the project.
Throughout his practice Ortega has had a keen interest in tools-- exhibiting works that have contain signs of having been fashioned with machinery to even presenting actual tools as art-pieces. We return to the table of ‘abrasive’ (read: impression-leaving) ‘objects’. We might give pause to thought here, as Ortega has said he wants to explore the forces of nature, and we may also note that this exhibition is called ‘States of Time’ and the ‘state’ of these ‘natural forces’ is perpetual and indifferent to the destructive but temporally fleeting interventions of humankind.
Downstairs, the ‘special tools’ used to create ‘Broken Sac’ loom in the corner of the room, gazing with parental pride over the work they have created. It is perhaps an accident of similitude, but nonetheless a very meaningful one. The circular loops atop long sticks which constitute these tools appear like two humans. The Fruitmarket curators masterfully explained this exhibition: ‘All of [human] life is there’. The tools are us. In the kingdom of nature, natural forces will always reign supreme. In an exhibition that is encapsulated by impressions we might wonder what it says about us that the only traces left by humans independent of nature in Ortega’s ‘restaged’ universe are our ‘abrasive objects.’
Damian Ortega, States of Time ran from 9th July to 23rd October 2016 at the Fruitmarket Gallery.
Review by Eleri Fowler, third year English Literature