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Interview with Gabriel Orozco: “I am not into artists pretending to be heroes”

The Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco on his work, retrospectives and opening this year’s talks programme

After a retrospective that toured over two years to four major museums—New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Kunstmuseum Basel, the Pompidou Centre and, most recently, Tate Modern—Gabriel Orozco has arrived. But there are several ways of measuring an artist’s success and influence. One is the reaction artists have to each other’s work. In 2003, the young Mexican artist Joaquín Segura made a piece called Orozco For the People, for which he stole one of Orozco’s slides (Migrations, 1994) from a presentation Orozco was giving as part of a master class, then multiplied it so that anyone could have an Orozco print at an affordable price. Paradoxically, says Jessica Morgan, curator at Tate Modern: “Although Gabriel’s work has been of great importance for subsequent generations of artists, in fact, this influence has been generated largely by reproductions rather than a direct experience with his work.”

In this interview with The Art Newspaper, Orozco tells us what happens behind the scenes of such retrospectives, how he has balanced his work and life, and if his work has changed in the light of his success.

The Art Newspaper: In a recent piece in the London Review of Books on your show at Tate Modern, T.J. Clark says you’re the “anti-Joseph Beuys”. On the other hand, many people have called your work “conceptual”. Do you feel either of these is true?

Gabriel Orozco: I avoid these kinds of labels with cleverness and cunning [laughs]. I don’t consider myself a conceptual artist. I think it has become an easy label to place on any artist who doesn’t do painting. But this is a mistake: conceptual art is very specific and had its historical moment. But I was glad when Clark said I am the anti-Beuys, because when people ask me if I like his work I always say I don’t. I try to steer away from self-mythology. I try to disappear.

Is there a more discreet or intimate aspect to your work then?

I wouldn’t call it intimate, because that has a connotation of seclusion: the artist secluded in his studio, who doesn’t have a public life or interact. What I am more interested in is small gestures, discreet gestures that almost seem banal but that can have public impact. It’s not just about me: my studio, my love or whatever. I don’t believe that the opposite of the shamanistic political figure of Beuys is privacy or intimacy, but I don’t think the artist has to be a shaman either.

So your work is in dialogue with its context but you’re neither a political demagogue nor an artist-hero?

My work is about erasing my person to create objects or images that can be appropriated by the viewer. This is the mechanism I try to establish. I really hate self-heroism; I am not into artists pretending to be heroes.

How do you see yourself and your work in the context of Mexico? Do you feel your career and your practice have reflected what’s been happening there?

I am a part of a generation that was at the forefront of something new. I was a trailblazer, and I feel that what has come after me is very interesting and makes me optimistic. The Mexican art scene is now well established, it is expanding and becoming more structured. There are more and more people involved—it’s less of a closed circuit.

One thing that was important to me was to not be driven by dogma. I am not interested in convincing anyone that my way is the only way. On the contrary, I am still looking to define myself in an ever-changing situation: I am in flux. I don’t try to impose my truth, or my rules. This doesn’t mean I like everything and agree with everything. There is an ethic to what I do. I am also against a market-driven art practice, and against the obsession with conventional art distribution methods. I try to have a critical attitude with regards to this. Until the 1990s, people in my country took a very hard line about what Mexican art could be, and now young artists are much freer to do what they want.

Do you think that you take risks in your work?

I never begin a work using a defined technique and I don’t have a single way of working: I try to instrumentalise the work as little as possible. In fact, that’s why I don’t like video, and why I do as little photography as I can. The idea is to be in an open field, without technical or ideological prejudices; to try to open up as much as possible and understand the situation. This is why it’s hard to define my style. It is risky, because it means I am always a beginner.

I don’t like to give moral, scientific or ideological explanations for what I do. That can generate disconcerting reactions. People can be disappointed because I don’t like to explain myself. It can be difficult to understand why I choose to do something—that is the risk I take.

On the other hand, people have grown accustomed to my way of working and I think that, with time, that has become easier too. I have managed to get rid of people’s expectations and the weight they carry.

You will be leading the Art Basel Conversations programme. Could you give us an idea of what you’ll be discussing?

I think the conversation will be anchored on the idea of what a retrospective means: what it means to be in the moment I am in right now—when an artist’s work starts to get presented in these mid-career retrospectives. I will be talking about this with Michelle Kuo, editor-in-chief of Artforum. We’ll discuss what it means to be in the situation I am now; how I combine my work with my personal life; how I present my work in institutions—especially since my work often critiques those institutions. Also, how my work rhythm is affected by these kinds of shows and what their limitations are.

Do you think your life and work have changed after these large exhibitions?

I am interested in combining moments of great work and moments of privacy. Working on these large-scale shows, you become almost a manager. You have to answer questions about safety and insurance; about the images that will be reproduced on mugs, T-shirts, postcards. Everything. It’s very time-consuming and is not much fun. The fun part comes when I install: I get to play with the work. In fact, I like to play with my pieces as if they were a chess game, to place them in different ways in each of the different museums.

I feel that always, in the end, the ideas for my work happen in the in-between moments—and I always pay a lot of attention to those moments. During the three years these shows have been taking place, I started doing drawings on Japanese folding paper, which I just showed at Marian Goodman in September. I always find a way to keep working.

It’s funny, the impact these shows can have on your work is similar to the kind of effect that having a factory or very large studio must have: they demand your time and you have a lot of responsibilities to lots of different people. I try not to give in to these pressures: not to get too involved or lost in society, and not to get lost in my studio, isolated from the world. My work happens precisely in that space between the public and the private. As Oscar Wilde said: “To live in society is tedious, but to live out of society is dramatic.”

How much freedom do major exhibitions allow you?

More than anything, the question is what strategy to follow. What is the way to deal with this situation and still have an independent position? And also how not to get flayed alive. I mean, doing a mid-career retrospective is risky because your work could be badly positioned. These kinds of shows can have a very negative impact on the image of the artist. And that’s something that is out of your hands, you know? You just can’t control it.

For example, a retrospective could be less than good, but if the work can still hold up the artist and there is still an interest in the work, people can still believe in him as a creator. Or the retrospective could be a good show in the sense that it is well presented, beautifully mounted but the work, all together, could look bad. This can be very detrimental.

A retrospective won’t save you. It can be a death sentence. The End. Even if the show, as a show, is good. The pieces can be well presented and still not work, or the pieces could be badly presented and work well. I always give the example of Bruce Nauman’s retrospective in 1994 or 1995 at MoMA: it had a negative impact. Even though Bruce Nauman will always be Bruce Nauman, they say he stopped working for ten years after that show. He was really depressed.

I hope you don’t feel in that position...

No, not at all. I just had a show in September, and I’ve never stopped making work. The truth is I have to work at a slower pace, but that’s actually nice. The pace I had before was very intense. I also get to hang out with my seven-year-old son and my wife. I want to spend time with my family, so slowing down is good.

Gabriel Orozco took part in Art Basel Conversations during the fair