The Student
Damián Ortega
by Megan Wallace, 19/09/16

The Fruitmarket Gallery, Until 23rd October

Damián Ortega works on a truly international scale. The Mexican sculptor has represented his country at the Venice Biennale and has had solo exhibitions at the Tate Modern, the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art and other iconic museums and galleries.
However, his current exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery has such an intimate feel that it is easy to forget that Ortega is something of a giant in the art world. The exhibition space is filled with small sculptures rather than the larger-scale works, made using industrial materials, which are characteristic of his oeuvre.

However, the thematic content of his work proves consistent; as ever, he is concerned with consumption, with showing the mundane or quotidian in a new light and with patterns of human behaviour. At his best, Ortega holds up the intricacies of the human experience for speculation without passing comment or adopting a moralising tone. We can see this at work in ‘Abrasive Objects’, a collection of familiar tools made in clay, ranging from a spanner to a smartphone, painted white and assembled on tables on the second floor.

There is a clinical air to how the objects are displayed, making the viewer think of the carefully arranged findings of an archeological dig. This forces you to consider the work from an anthropological standpoint, rather than suggesting that any one object is superior to the others. Indeed, it seems as if Ortega is inviting us to consider what the objects can tell us about the societies that made them.

The thematic concerns of the exhibition are repeatedly outshone by the work’s physical qualities. This is due to the artist’s use of clay, a material which brings us back to childhood art lessons, evoking ideas of play and joyful artistic experimentation. Consequently, it feels as though the sculptor is using the exhibition to go back to basics, to charge his work with spontaneity, and to revel in the joy of making art — particularly given that much of the work was hand-moulded by him and his technician.

Indeed, it is the medium of clay in its various states that steals the show — from the unfired clay in works like ‘Atmospheric Pressure’ to the fired and glazed clay in ‘Icebergs’. By showing the ways in which the same base material changes when subjected to different conditions, we are moved to envisage different ways in which our environment impacts upon us.

Finally, there are also clear environmental implications of the exhibition, with the piece ‘Eroded Valley’ mimicking river erosion in terracotta. This forces us to stop and think about the ways in which we are shaping our planet.

Image Credit: Karen Bryan