When Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco opens the back doors leading out onto his garden, it seems so serene that you would be hard-pressed to believe you were in the middle of downtown Manhattan. Inside, the walls are covered with boomerangs, his laptop is decorated with superhero stickers, and his painting palette is filled with cigarette butts. Recently, the artist invited me to his combined studio, kitchenette, and office space on the basement floor of his brownstone to talk about his working process, how he started out as an artist, and why it’s important to habituate your audience to disappointment. Orozco’s “Corplegados” work was recently exhibited at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. It is his first exhibition following his two-year museum retrospective, which traveled to the Kunstmuseum in Basel, MoMA in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Tate Modern in London.
I always wanted to be an artist. At some point my father asked me whether I might instead want to be an architect or something like that, but I didn’t. I thought about it for maybe a month. My father was an artist. He was a painter and he knew how hard it is to make a living out of it. My mother was also a kind of artist—she was a pianist. All of my school friends, all their parents were artists, whether writers or photographers or sculptors. I was surrounded.
I started with painting. Painting as an activity is wonderful. You are standing up and you have the freedom to apply colors to a white surface starting almost from nothing. You feel free when you are painting. You feel that you are concentrating on something very particular that is very difficult, but that you enjoy doing it, even though you know that you are probably going to fail, because it’s very difficult to make a good painting.
The first time I came to New York I was a teenager. I came to see the Picasso show in 1980. I was just seventeen or eighteen and came with a good friend. We’d put our savings together and asked our parents to call an old friend of theirs to host us. We spent ten very intense days here. Ever since, I’ve wanted to come back as often as possible.
I was in school from ’81 to ’84, and then I traveled to Spain for a year and participated in some workshops in Madrid. I traveled around the rest of Europe as well. It was really a life-changing experience for me. Afterward, I came back to Mexico and began making very different work, and I think it was a bit strange for the Mexican art world.
I don’t have a studio—as in a proper studio. But I always have a space in the places I live where I can work, usually very close to the kitchen. It is often a small space, where my books are, and where I can do my drawings. It’s somewhere between an office, a library, a studio, a kitchen, a bar …
I usually have my luggage half unpacked because I am traveling all the time. For my most recent project, I wanted to have these ongoing maps that fold and unfold. The idea was to work on them over a long period of time and in different places to see how they would change. The first idea for this “Corplegados” work came to me during the two years I was traveling with my retrospective exhibition. I chose the size because it is close to the size of my body, and then I started to make these openings for the eyes and slowly each became more and more like a body that travels, that folds and unfolds like and envelope or a map. My hope was that when I showed them all together, they would reveal who I was in different moments, how vulnerable I am to an environment, and how it effects my perception of things whether I am in France, or here in New York, or in Mexico, or on the road.
Sometimes it’s very hard for an artist to see the connection among their works clearly. When you are making work you are not trying to repeat yourself, but to revolutionize yourself. One of the reasons I don’t want to have a studio with a formal set of tools or assistants is because I don’t want to always have the same operation. I like the idea of waking up in the morning and asking myself, What I want to do today? Do I want to ride my bike? Do I want to do nothing? Do I want to read? It’s raining. It’s not raining! If I keep myself open to these things, then I start to think about what is happening around me, and then I start to be more sensitive to whatever it is and I say, Oh yes, that is interesting! I try not to judge myself or analyze too much why I might be attracted to that one thing at a particular moment, as opposed to another. Instead I try to explore it and see what it is. I begin to play with it. The subject leads you to the medium, and then the medium is your way to resolve your relationship with that subject.
It can be simply an attraction to a material. For example I was attracted to that yellowish foam they use when they are constructing buildings. I always found it so disgusting, the foam they use to seal houses, the insulation. It looks toxic. It is toxic. It is so artificial. It is so disgusting and I was so curious about it. I wanted to know how it works when it expands. And so I made all of these shapes by creating molds of that material. But the same thing can happen with a puddle in the street or with the way the light hits an object or the way something moves.
My advice to a young artist just starting out would be to be careful how they produce the work, because the way you produce the work, and how you organize the system of production, will influence the way it circulates. The method through which you make things is going to make a difference in how they behave politically in the real world, in the market, in social life … even in your love life.
Trial and error is a part of the work. So that is how the “Working Tables” came about, as a way of showing off the trash or mistakes I had produced. It’s a bit like exhibiting all the little experiments with the thought that maybe someone else will be able to make use of them somehow. I think it is important to show the possibility of failure. I think it is impossible not to exhibit the mistakes.
If you make the people looking at your work sensitive to failure, and you prepare them for disappointment, and they can be disappointed and accept that disappointment, then they can follow your own process of experimentation, because, of course, it is going to be full of errors. It’s important for me to make that very clear—that I will try to fail in that sense, and I will try to disappoint in that sense—because I am doing something that is new for me.
I don’t have the authority to be disappointed about my own work because when I show it it’s not mine anymore. If I show it it’s because I thought it was successful to some degree. But the level of success of the work does not depend only on me. You send it out into the world, and it takes on a life of it’s own. So my judgment of the work should not be public, because I don’t have any more authority than you or anyone in the public sphere. I can talk about it but not judge it. I’m not saying that art speaks for itself, but an artist doesn’t speak for themselves. At some point you have to shut your mouth and let the work be judged.