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Interview with Gabriel Orozco on his upcoming travelling retrospective: A global artist with global concerns

The artist states his work is about “space and time, action and philosophy”

Gabriel Orozco’s art is difficult to pin down. He began his career as a painter before concentrating on photography, sculpture and interventions in public spaces. Orozco was “raised as a socialist kid”, who travelled to the Soviet Union as a member of the Communist Party’s Young Pioneer youth group, and later worked for a short time with his father Mario Orozco Rivera, a muralist from Veracruz. His non-traditional approach to media and production has inspired a generation of Mexican artists including Damián Ortega and Abraham Cruzvillegas, who attended informal workshops at his studio from 1987 to 1992, transforming the local art scene into a contemporary art world destination. Since the early 1990s he has lived and travelled throughout the world, making minimal and anti-monumental works often using common materials like the shoebox he placed on the floor of the Aperto section for his 1993 installation at the Venice Biennale. He has also produced the virtuoso show-stopper like La DS (1993), an old Citroën car where he removed the centre portion, before reassembling the sides to create an aerodynamic wonder. Orozco’s works are loaded with references to his interests in space, time, complex geometry and mapping, making even the most seemingly straightforward work a challenge to make sense of. Today Orozco lives between New York, Mexico City and Paris with his wife and young son. On 13 December the Museum of Modern Art in New York opens a touring retrospective which then travels to Basel, Paris and London.

The Art Newspaper: Is it true that you’ve decided to reorganise your upcoming retrospective at each museum venue?

Gabriel Orozco: I have a different relationship with every city and I want to respond to that and to show works that haven’t been seen there before. I always try to do some site-specific interventions. The four spaces are very different, so I think it is important to adapt the show to each space.

TAN: Will there be many new works in your New York presentation?

GO: I’m not sure yet, I normally make those decisions during the last two weeks before the exhibition. First I’m focusing on what we’re bringing from abroad. I want to show works that haven’t been exhibited here before.

TAN: Your wife Maria Gutierrez works as a consultant for climate change to the United Nations. Have her interests in ecology and conservation influenced your work, specifically with regard to your practice of using recyclable materials like yogurt container lids?

GO: I think you can explain philosophical concepts or a feeling using very common things and you don’t need expensive production which also generates waste. So you could say I have an ecological awareness in my work. But my interest in ecology started a long time ago, before I met my wife.

TAN: Where did your initial interest in using these materials stem from?

GO: I wanted to liberate myself from the stereotype of production with fine art materials and I wanted to have a different relationship with my surroundings. I just work with what is interesting to me. It can be clay or a shoebox.

TAN: For years you’ve been described as a nomadic artist travelling the world and creating work without a studio. Why was it important for you to do away with your studio?

GO: I was bored with the idea of doing the same thing every day in the same space. I started to go out and take photographs and find new materials on the street. I was not a big traveller until I met my wife, and I started following her on some of her trips. So for many years I was not attached to any one location. I don’t have assistants; I ask for help when I need help, but I like to be light and free.

TAN: What interests you about the representation of games that seem to play a central role in your work?

GO: We take games and sports for granted. Every sport and every board game represents a particular world view of a particular culture. My work is about space and time, action and philosophy and I have made variations on chess, ping pong and billiards and a series of graphic variations of sport players called the “atomists”. I made these works thinking about the cultural distribution of space and the game as a symbolic field.

TAN: Many of your works seem to have a constructivist impulse. Is constructivism an important aspect of your work?

GO: I like the idea of concrete art instead of the term abstract art. I am more into the idea of construction than the thought of abstract art having a spiritual or poetic quality. In my way of working and thinking, art has to do with the idea of constructing or building forms, structures, games or images. They are constructions of language, the construction of a relationship with reality.

Also, I was raised as a socialist kid, with a very leftist background. I like the idea of an art that is involved in reality, using social, environmental and utilitarian objects. But I also understand the irony of this. That’s why the constructivists were crushed in the end by the Soviets, because it was too utopian, too childish, too naive to think in those terms in a society and a world that was at war in very many ways.

TAN: You seem to dislike talking aboutyourself.

GO: I don’t like interviews. The problem with interviews is you talk about things that are already in the books, and I feel like I am repeating myself. I’m not very patient, I don’t read interviews; I don’t know who reads interviews. But I am not comfortable right now also because it was very noisy in my favourite coffee shop today so we had to come to Starbucks for this interview, which is my ultimate nightmare!

TAN: There hasn’t been a lot written about my next question in the books, so I hope you can talk a bit about the workshops that you hosted for young Mexican artists from 1987 to 1992?

GO: No, that’s true, but there will be. A group of younger artists got interested in what I was doing and they asked if I could be their teacher. I didn’t like the idea of being a teacher, but I told them that they could come to my studio once a week to hang around and work with me. It lasted for five years and developed into a kind of workshop and experimental classroom with four artists (Abraham Cruzvillegas, Damián Ortega, Gabriel Kuri and Jerónimo López Ramirez aka Dr Lakra). The workshop is relevant today because they all became good artists.

TAN: Why did they need to come to you? Was conceptual art taught in the Mexican art academies in the late 1980s and 1990s?

GO: No, no it wasn’t. During the 1980s, art education was oriented toward painting andconventional sculpture, like many other schools around the world, and it was also influenced by postmodern theory. In terms of art production we weren’t aware of things that happened in the 1960s and 70s around the world because wedidn’t have many books about that period in the 80s. But who did anyway? When I started doing this new work in Mexico and later in Europe and New York it was a bit shocking for some people.

TAN: In 1999 you launched the experimental space Kurimanzutto in Mexico City with José Kuri and Monica Manzutto. Why did you want to open a gallery?

GO: Because I needed a gallery in Mexico that functioned like my work. I convinced Gabriel Kuri’s brother, José, to do this new gallery when he was studying economics at Columbia University. He was in touch with art and artists and he is a very capable business man. I explained that I wanted an unconventional gallery that didn’t have a white cube space but worked more like a moveable enterprise in different locations for different types of work. We opened the gallery after one year of preparation. At the beginning I was leading most of the decisions, but today I am not that involved, I am just one of the older artists of the gallery.

TAN: How would you describe the changes taking place in the Mexican art world over the past 15 years?

GO: In the late 1980s the Mexican art scene was very much involved in postmodern painting, the same as in Italy, Germany and New York. When I showed my work at MoMA in 1993 with the oranges in the apartment windows, and I showed the shoebox at the Venice Biennale, people in Mexico started to realise that I was getting attention abroad. And then I had a show at Marian Goodman Gallery with four yogurt cups, and it began to revolutionise the way people and artists thought about art in Mexico. During the rest of the 1990s younger artists and some of my colleagues started to develop different ways of working. Kurimanzutto was the first Mexican gallery to work with this type of art, and it had an impact on the market.

Today you have a market in Mexico; there are new collectors and a new way of dealing with contemporary art that is very attractive. We don’t have an art fair that is at the level we want—it is still a provincial art fair—but it is a sign that people are trying to build a market and an infrastructure. I think Mexico should have a bigger and more important contemporary art museum, and we will eventually. But it’s obvious that the projection of Mexican art internationally is much broader now and many young artists are travelling around the world and are represented by important galleries. All this was inconceivable in the early 1990s. I think that art in Europe, the US and Mexico has changed—and I have lived and participated in all of these [art scenes]. For me it has been a nice journey, that’s why I’m not sure what it means to be a nomad. I’m an international artist who has lived in different places who happens to be Mexican.