Damián Ortega's extensive use of salt in his latest exhibition of sculptural work at White Cube makes for an interesting choice of material, chosen by the artist for its transformative and metaphorical qualities. It is laden with ancient, historical values which have been pervasive throughout world culture, and as a medium, it has a fluid malleability transforming from almost solid to almost liquid states, whilst never quite being either.
It was therefore the sculptures that were most connected with salt in this way which first drew my attention. Hollow/Stuffed:Market Law in the lower galleries is awesome - it's one of those artworks that releases an aesthetic wave within the viewer simply through its installation. Ortega was inspired by an image of a submarine being used to smuggle cocaine in South America and the materials he employed to create this piece bring out, and touch on, the far reaching issues of the drug trade. This installation consists of a 'submarine' constructed from food sacks filled with salt, hung from the ceiling at an angle, fully occupying the gallery space. The tilted angle gives the impression that the submarine is diving: a small hole has been made at the front end so that a continuous stream of salt falls into an ever increasing conical pyramid on the ground.
Ortega inserts many dialogues in this piece, not least of which is the notion that no matter how apparently sophisticated and secure structures are, they are still vulnerable to the smallest of deficiencies. The falling salt lost through the hole signals that eventually the bags will deflate and the submarine will become nullified, and that complex political narratives of greed and corruption will override the simple needs of day-to-day life for others. This is a notion that is surely as reflective of the current global economic crisis as of the drug trade. The embedded ideas of transience in a kinetically dynamic artwork are especially brought to life by the ever-growing pyramid of salt on the floor, resonant of sand timers: time is running out, Ortega seems to say.
The other works, Preserved accompanied by Petrified, both reflect on photography and the freezing of the image. Preserved focuses on the shadow of a fallen bicylce created by switching an overhead spotlight on and off. The duality of the bicycle's existence is brought out by Ortega's positioning; there is the physicality of the actual bicycle on the ground and the ethereal shadow, the other self. Ortega has then traced the outline of the shadow in salt, and as the title alludes, preserved it. This action comments on our digital age, the notion of the widely replicated and preserved image that takes a part of ourselves and preserves it - an action that has become so ubiquitous now, that it occurs irrespective of whether we wish to keep a special moment forever preserved in memory or, in the case of some Facebook moments, not. Petrified has similar connotations: a series of concrete casts of cameras ascending in historical periods to end at the iPhone camera. However, in Petrified, Ortega has petrified the camera, a creator of images, into stone. This suggests not the preservative qualities of salt which are malleable, but the historical narratives which pin notions and ideas into place without room for the shifting of shadows.
Less impressive is the main exhibit on the ground floor, Congo River. Here Ortega has placed used tyres in a pile, occupying a large part of the gallery space and drawn a line down the centre in salt. The gallery text suggests it has connotations of colonial repatriation, fear of the unknown and of the other; unlike the other works in this exhibition, these narratives seem to have become too densely embedded to
enable the viewer to make such a connection. My overwhelming sensual response was actually through scent rather than vision as the concentration of tyres created an intense smell of rubber. In itself, this was evocative of the processes of industrialisation and gave rise to an attendant sense of overconsumption, as the used tyres formed yet another heap of hastily-consumed and discarded materials. However, this artwork lacks the aesthetic assault on the viewer's senses that the others provide and that viewers have come to expect from Ortega.
Overall though, this is an exhibition worth visiting: Ortega's abilities to see the expressive qualities resident in the simple material of salt has allowed him to transform day to day objects into texts of social and political dialogues.