Aptly titled, the exhibition “Do It Yourself” goes beyond stating the obvious—that Damián Ortega deconstructs, scrutinizes and repurposes his chosen materials. Organized by Tate Modern curator and ICA adjunct curator Jessica Morgan, the survey—which fills the main gallery, two hallways and a small room with 19 mixed-medium pieces from the last 13 years—showcases Ortega’s methodical obsession with form, function and socioeconomic reality. Utilizing a cultural palette that reaches far beyond his Mexican roots, he ponders the human experience through various means, employing civil engineers’ drawings, product manufacturers’ instruction diagrams, and ordinary objects such as furniture, mirrors and kitchen staples.
A number of the works conceal provocative truths beneath their veneer of whimsy. Cosmic Thing (2002), a dismantled vintage Volkswagen Beetle, its parts suspended in midair, could be a 3-D diagram for a life-size model-making kit or a freeze-frame from a Matrix film. Dull gray body paint, worn components and an imposing presentation, however, encourage sobering reflections on the VW’s origin as Hitler’s “people’s car”; it would come to be mass-produced in Mexico, where this model was made in 1989.
For Tortillas’ Construction Module (1998), Ortega cut slots into the edges of tortillas and fitted them together into what reads as a perishable scale model of modernist apartments. That the work will eventually disintegrate yields a strong yet playful tension between fragility and longevity. In Classified Cob (1998-2005), decay has begun to tip the balance. Assuming the role of genetic taxonomist, Ortega numbered each of 505 corncob kernels with a fine-tip pen, then let the ear dry for seven years. On the day I visited, numbers 1, 2, 504 and 505 had fallen away, with more about to drop. Once again, time and impermanence—here in the form of a familiar, omnipresent and ephemeral commodity—are Ortega’s essential themes.
The artist’s Belo Horizonte Project (2004), never before exhibited, lines a narrow space along the ICA’s glass wall facing Boston Harbor. Titled “beautiful horizon,” the piece comprises four stacked groupings, each containing eight 12-inch polished stainless-steel cubes, and a grid of reflective flat panels hung at eye level along the wall behind. With the bustling docks, distant buildings and low-lying coastal greenery surrounding the museum reflected on all sides of the cubes, Ortega creates a discombobulating inverse panorama.
Ortega explores the relationship between natural design and urban planning, independent thought and mass consumption. He assigns unorthodox roles to common sociological iconography, mining reason from absurdity, as in Nine Types of Terrain (2007), nine projectors showing looped footage of bricks arranged in the landscape and falling like dominoes.
Photo: Damián Ortega: Cosmic Thing, 2002, disassembled 1989 Volkswagen Beetle, 22 by 23 by 241⁄2 feet; at ICA.