Gabriel Orozco, Black Kites 1997. Philadelphia Museum of Art: gift (by exchange) of Mr. and Mrs. James P Magill.
Another card purchased at this year’s Documenta 13. Black Kites by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco.
You have to qualify Orozco with ‘Mexican’, for the first point of contact with this piece is always the decorated skulls of pre-Cortes Mexico, the ghoulish remnants of the Aztec death cult, or the crystal skulls of Arthur C Clark (and, sadly, Indiana Jones), the ones that you pick up in Glastonbury for a hundred quid or so, and that are always fakes (notwithstanding what your flatmate’s crazy tour manager might say).
Black Kite might also remind the reader of the Cheel Gaar of the Indian Parsi and Dakhma of the ancient Persian Zoroastrians, the sky burials of Tibetan Buddhism, where kites and other birds of prey wheel over the towers of silence. All these things a skull can tell us: so far, so Damien.
But of this sculpture, produced by Orozco for Catherine David’s curation of Documenta X in 1997, is explicitly none of those things. If the skull is the ultimate ready-made, the structure that lurks, a la Ray Bradbury, below the skin, then Orozco’s intimate encounter with the skull is his attempt to understand and map that inner geography. Pencil, ink, bone; these are the tools for our understanding for millennia. The black inked squares do not decorate the skull, they map it, the distorting into kites as the graphite pencil diamonds fall across the complex surface of the skull. The Chuck Close distortion in the postcard image reads this an object that cannot be mapped in 2 dimensions, I am a sculpture that can only be experienced as real, the skull smiles grimly. Black Kites operates in the most effective mode of artistic expression; ambiguity. While the work speaks to me of the gothic and the memento mori of the decorated skull, it also tells of art’s attempt to map and understand what it is to be human: the desperation of Patrick Bateman as he plunges his hands into the corpse of another hooker, the childish decoration of found bone, or the waving checkered flag that signals the end of the final race. As a child, my parents once bought me a gift from Italy, a small bag of crudely decorated coloured balls, painted in modeling enamels with the colours of the Sienese Palio, basic, simple, tourist knick-knack, yet each marked with hand of the artist. Black Kites connects these impulses, producing a folk-art digital map of the structure that lies below all humans; simple, direct and supremely subtle.
The obvious connect, exactly tens from Black Kites years on, would be with Damien Hirst’s For The Love Of God (2007); and again, the comparison between the works can only be instructive. The usefulness of Hirst as a visual culture construct is that he is a truly bad artist, trite, un-imaginative, deeply conservative, and so his incredible success is both unsurprising and an illumination of the poverty of creative expression of our times. His genius is his approach to mirroring those times. Hirst’s diamond encrusted platinum gee jaw tells us how we live now, but contrasting his carbon gemstones with the graphite diamonds of Black Kites (and how can we say that one work did not influence the other? I can imagine Hirst standing in front of Orozco’s work and thinking, surely I can say this better?), we can see how Orozco asks how we live at all. If you want to know understand the visual culture of the early C21 (a noble and usual impulse, but easily satisfied) look at Hirst, if you want seek to consider our human existence, look at Gabriel Orozco. One is temporal, the other eternal.