Casino, Mexican artist Damián Ortega’s first solo exhibition in the Nordic countries, retreads a recent survey of the artist’s work at Pirelli HangarBicocca last year. It’s the second collaboration in as many years between Malmö Konsthall and the Milan-based foundation, the first being a major retrospective of American artist Joan Jonas in 2015. Curated by Vicente Todolí – formerly director of Tate Modern and current artistic director at HangarBicocca – Casino is the first show organized under acting head-of-unit Mats Fastrup in advance of embattled director Diana Baldon’s departure at the end of the month.
The exhibition-as-casino is a pretty tiresome device. Gesturing toward the art institution as a site of risk – or somewhat more specifically, financial speculation, predatory economic practices, symbolic value and high-spectacle – seems disingenuous, especially coming from an artist represented by art-world powerhouses such as Kurimanzutto and Gladstone Gallery. It should perhaps be no surprise that a foundation run by Pirelli would devote its resources to an artist whose most recognized works prominently feature cars.
Presented under plexiglas on plinths resembling the gashed surfaces often found inside workshops, Ortega’s more modest experiments with everyday materials such as tortillas and rubber-bands read less like an inquiry into the aesthetics of daily life and more like an exercise in transforming quotidian objects into the stuff of sound-investment. In part, this is an unfortunate byproduct of the more spectacular works installed nearby, including Hollow/Stuffed: Market Law (2012), a submarine made from plastic bags suspended from the ceiling and leaking salt, and Controller of the Universe (2007) an ‘explosion’ of found tools, also suspended. The spatial relationships are clumsy, compounded by a series of posters ringing the gallery – a “visual essay” made to accompany the exhibition. It’s as though the install team was instructed to fill the galleries with as much work as possible. Overall, the presentation recalls that of a showroom floor; this is bubble-sculpture.
Indeed, most of the works on view feel profoundly dated. Even the artist’s well-known Beetle Trilogy (2002–2005) – for which he deconstructed an iconic Volkswagen beetle, literally, and interred another near the German auto-maker’s factory in Puebla – feels off in the wake of the company’s recent emissions scandal, the ramifications of which are still unfolding for Mexican autoworkers. Although some of Ortega’s early works, such as Tired Pickaxe (1997), do in some sense pay homage to individuals for whom manual labor is a back-breaking part of everyday reality, when gathered together in the same space they begin to signify not the working-class but unexamined machismo. Consider the materials predominant in the exhibition: concrete, brick, tools and cars; there is even a dose of heavy-metal music for good measure. It’s remarkably tone-deaf to the Nordic context.
Elsewhere in the konsthall, Nine Types of Terrain (2007) comprises an installation of nine 16mm film projections in which bricks arranged according to different tactical formations described by General Sun-Tzu in The Art of War are toppled in a chain-reaction of cause and consequence. Set against the rubble-strewn ‘death strip’ that once flanked the Berlin Wall, the films simultaneously remind of Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque (1969–72) and Fischli und Weiss’s The Way Things Go (1982), but with less rigor and imagination.
Simply put, Casino is a readymade squeezed to fit inside Klas Anshelm’s architecture, a stopgap measure taken in the midst of a leadership change. Ortega – a prominent international artist who, along with artists Gabriel Orozco and Francis Alÿs, is credited for the resurgence of Mexican art in recent decades – is arguably deserving of a more nuanced treatment. For audiences unfamiliar with his work, this show provides only the most superficial introduction; for those viewers already familiar with his oeuvre, it offers little in the way of insight.
However, degrees more troubling is what Casino might signal for the future of Malmö Konsthall. The show is suggestive of the populist, culture-for-all approach currently besieging many contemporary art institutions – including nearby Lund’s Konsthall, another prominent public institution in the region that has in recent months been threatened with a possible reorganization by the city into a so-called ‘House of Culture’. In the case of Malmö Konsthall, a shift towards mass entertainment would make it nearly impossible to sustain a meaningful, critical dialogue with the city’s varied artistic communities, much less the international field of contemporary art. To paraphrase art-critic for the LA Times Christopher Knight: art isn’t for everyone, it’s for anyone and there’s a difference.
Baldon’s program, while at times overly discursive, always demanded a great deal from its audience, which was neither underestimated nor pandered to. Even ill-considered – some would say disastrous – moves, such as the inclusion of Institutet’s ‘panhandling’ performance which ‘exhibited’ a Roma couple begging for money inside the Konsthall, marked an attempt to engage social and political challenges within the Öresund region, and Europe in general. In a city where nearly half of the population has a foreign background, Baldon’s commitments to incorporating a plurality of voices, and bridging the local and the international remain laudable. Her tenure is indicative of the kind of risk-taking of which Ortega’s show is lacking. It’s true what they say: the most disorienting thing about casinos is that they don’t have clocks inside. You can’t tell tell the time, or how long you’ve been gambling.