Currently on display in the east wing glass box gallery, Damián Ortega: The Blast and Other Embers highlights the striking suspended sculpture The Controller of the Universe. Additionally, this exhibition features the Tool Bones series, which were created specifically for this exhibition. We sat down with Reto Thüring, associate curator of Contemporary Art, to find out more about the exhibition.
I think that having the Tool Bones at the CMA is an important statement for the institution, because we’re not so much into showing debuts of works. So the fact that Damián did these works specifically for the CMA and for our exhibition is very meaningful.
The history behind it was that I was really thinking of a work that could go into the glass box, which is a very special exhibition space in terms of many factors. It’s also a complicated exhibition space because you can’t show anything that’s light-sensitive. You can really see it from outside, as well as you can see from the inside to the outside, which makes it very open in this way—an extraordinary gallery space. I wanted to find a work that takes that into account. I think the central piece, The Controller of the Universe, a work that I’ve seen before, does exactly that. It’s this explosion which is like an infinite process or a potentially infinitive movement. In the glass box where you don’t have the walls that throw back this movement, the work gains a lot. And so far it’s been only exhibited in closed white cubes. So I was thinking of that, but at the same time I didn’t want to show only an existing work, as we’ve done before. I wanted to go one step forward and to show something with that.
I started talking with Damián first about The Controller of the Universe, and he was fine with showing that here. And then we went back and forth, and he came up with the idea of showing some kind of wrapped tool sculptures. He sent me some sketches and then he invited me to come to Mexico City to see casts, which were really different from what the first sketches looked like. But it was different in a good way; it was even better than what I saw on paper. So we went from there, and we had to decide if we would want to have the plaster pieces—that were also the prototypes—that we are showing now. These also served as maquettes for bronze versions, but I liked the quality of the plaster more than the bronze. I think the tactility or surface quality of the plaster is closer to real bones.
Historically speaking, plaster is a poor material, but over time and in contemporary practice, there is really not this hierarchy anymore. And that’s how we came to this decision to combine The Controller of the Universe with the Tool Bones.
I think of The Controller of the Universe as something like a starting point, like the point zero, the moment when mankind started to progress by gaining more and more control over nature with tools, but virtually, with anything that they can utilize. This way you can read the work as an imaginative history of mankind colonizing Earth or something like that. But also, it’s a humorous, not to say sarcastic statement, because [Damián] would invite you to step into the center of the work and to become the controller of the universe. But as we all know, us being the dominant force within nature is a very fragile, very complicated thing and more and more often it turns out to be an illusion after all. . . . We don’t really belong in that middle. If The Controller of the Universe is like the beginning of something that he’s imagining, the Tool Bones are at the end of an imaginative process. They’re dead material and every movement has come to an end. At the end, there’s no more possible energy left.
Looking at Tool Bones you may wonder, “Did we become like machines in the end, [and] will our bodies look like Tool Bones at some point, rather than bones of just people?” This is a very relevant and also very open statement, especially if you think of the installation as a whole. Of the beginning and the end and all that lies in between. And you can walk yourself through that process and imagine what our position might be, or our duty . . . and where we might have gone wrong. And even though the Tool Bones seem to be secondary in terms of their size related to The Controller of the Universe, I think it is really the installation and the combination of the two works that create the meaning, and they’re balancing out each other’s meaning.