Magazine article Sculpture

The Matter of Energy: A Conversation with Damián Ortega

Magazine article Sculpture

The Matter of Energy: A Conversation with Damián Ortega

Article excerpt

Robert Preece: With your MAM Rio installation, do you see yourself as playfully critiquing the competitive, high-end art-collecting system? Are you critiquing the one percent?

Damián Ortega: Not really. But I love this twist when something good becomes immediately bad, or viceversa. You turn the switch, and low becomes high. One word and you create a paradox.

This show was very interesting because the pieces were really well done, and all of us-visitors, curators, and myself-got to see the production process. So, the results are only an aspect of it, which becomes fascinating.

I was going for substance, asking, "What is the most important substance in a sculpture?" Sort of like with medicine-I was interested in laws about producing generic medications in Brazil. I lived there when every - one was having this discussion. "Official" medication is expensive and the generic version cheap, which means it can help more people, which means a better public health system. But in the end, Brazil sent its medications to South Africa, which made it a big deal internationally. So, the pieces at MAM are not trying to fool anyone into thinking that they are the originals. They just try to create a physical and conceptual expe - rience with the real masterpieces for people who perhaps didn't know them.

In the end, my personal experiment was about the transformation of matter into energy. Matter turning into everything or anything. Matter being whatever we want, even waste. I feel very happy with this project because I keep finding different ideas around it. The show seems to produce many layers of interpretation, and this is great news for me.

RP: How did you make or have the pieces made?

DO: The story of this show is quite a long one because of the typical budget problems in South America. It was almost six years in the making, with different versions, several trips, and even government changes in Brazil. The curator went to Berlin and invited me to work on a project. I had been in Rio de Janeiro for over a year and felt very familiar with the city and the culture because, even though I admit it's never easy to stop being a tourist in a foreign city, somehow my love for it makes me feel close to certain local characteristics.

The Brazilian economy is closed to some foreign businesses, such as big clothing monopolies, and so they have developed their own culture and a market for their own productions and products. The distance from Europe and the United States has given Brazil a certain independence. I think that they are almost self-sufficient in their music, for example. Even though they are obviously part of the globalized world and they are well-informed about what's going on in the U.S., Milan, London, and Paris, they appropriate and reinterpret things with their own particular bias. I once compared it to eating something at a restaurant and then going back home to try and make the same dish with whatever's available in your refrigerator. It is a very creative process.

My gallery in Brazil, Fortes Vilaça, had a great idea for funding this show. I made a multiple, and they sold it without a commission, and in that way, we helped MAM get the amount we needed. We hired several guys who make the famous allegorical cars from the Carnival. They are self-taught sculptors with a lot of experience. Watching them work is quite a spectacle. They cut the material in a very seductive way, going from abstract shapes to figuration. We mounted a workshop in the museum and worked there for a couple of months. Each day, we would take out a block of Styrofoam and work on it, modeling almost a sculpture a day. Every day would be something new, a different show.

RP: I've read enough over the years to understand the unpleasant and harsh imagery of América letrina (1997), which refers to Duchamp and also comments on inter-American historical relations. Has it caused any unexpected offense?

DO: This work is sort of a "cover" of one of my gurus, Helio Flores. …

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