Gabriel Orozco once showed us the shape of things to come. The Serpentine’s show of his dull geometry marks him down as a square, says Waldemar Januszczak
The best-known of Orozco’s other offerings is a delightful photo sequence in which he scoured the capitals of Europe, looking for sightings of a pair of orange bicyclettes. Here was conceptual art adopting the dynamics of the teen romance. It was as if the naughty scooters had eloped, and he was trailing them. I also thanked God for the other Orozco at the Venice Biennale last year, where he was given a room to curate and succeeded in coming up with the most interesting and rewarding display at this canine feast of a show. Where most of the biennaleconsisted of pamphlets and theories, Orozco’s corner had art in it.
Imagine my despair, therefore, at entering the Serpentine, where an artist also called Gabriel Orozco was billed to be appearing, and encountering instead a ponderous, joyless, dull, fidgety and pretentious namesake who has murdered the vivid puller-off of cheeky conceptual masterstrokes I was expecting and replaced him with a compass-wielding dullard. Either this isn’t the same Gabriel Orozco or the man has had his red corpuscles removed, leaving only the white. What a depressing lower-casing of talent we have here.
The Serpentine, for reasons known only to itself, has decided to focus on Orozco’s interest in geometry. This is a mistake for two reasons. The first is that Orozco doesn’t have an interest in geometry. Sure, he likes drawing circles and semicircles, and seems keen here to draw them or paint them or cut them out on any surfaces he encounters, from foreign banknotes to used airline tickets. But repeating circles here, there and everywhere does not, in my textbook, constitute a contribution to geometry. Where are the tri- angles, where are the squares, the parallelepipeds and the rhomboids? Repeating circles is to geometry what propelling a pedal car is to Formula One racing.
The show’s focus on Orozco’s circular repetitions is also a mistake because, bluntly, circles are boring. Ultra-boring. Whether it has been painted or cut out of a yoghurt carton or frottaged off the walls of the Paris Métro, the circle will always be essentially, er, round. We have here an artist who has attempted such daring and unfeasible things in the past, who has completed such brazen and wilful creative acts. At the same Tate exhibition at which he unveiled his water-divided version of Ping-Pong, Orozco gave us a billiards table in which a ball was suspended from the ceiling, endowing the sport with a new challenge of three-dimensional impossibility. He is a games player by instinct and taste. He’s smart, emotional and cheeky. Yet here he seeks to presume he’s Pythagoras. What an unfortunate display of vanity.
On entering the Serpentine, the visitor is confronted by white things hanging off the roof. They are scruffy. Inelegant. Testicular. Examining them properly, you recognise that each individual hanging consists of a rubber ball in a plastic bag, around which has been wrapped some scrunched-up white material that turns out to be cactus skin. A caveman attempting to produce models of Saturn might come up with home-made wonky planets of this order. Orozco is from Mexico. His home-made planetarium retains a spark of non-European strangeness. Only a spark. And it’s not enough to transform the rubber balls in plastic bags into anything more vital than rubber balls in plastic bags.
Famously, Orozco has no studio. He divides his time between Mexico, New York and Paris, and in each of these places, he makes art triggered by the surroundings he’s in. In New York, for instance, he began collecting litter in the streets and transporting it home in a rented Penske truck, resulting in a grimly prosaic selection of ready-mades, included here, called the Penske Work Project. In Paris, meanwhile, Orozco was taken with the circular mural pattern used on the walls of his local Métro station, so he had a team of assistants produce pencil rubbings of the Métro mural. They are unusually uninteresting.
Thus, his art must be, and is, a hit-and-miss affair. It relies on moments of inspiration, on gnat bites of epiphany — and if the bite doesn’t come, it resorts to the good old circle to plug its emptiness and to geometrise it out of the vacuum. Are the wall rubbings from the Paris Métro more meaningful for being circular? Do the cardboard yoghurt containers deserve to be appended to the wall and arranged into reliefs, just because yoghurt cartons are round? I think not.
The reason all the ersatz Pythagoreanism to which Orozco’s art defaults when it cannot find true inspiration is so extra-annoying is that his art, when it does work, works so intriguingly. Even in this dull, dull show, there are flashes of real pictorial invention. Chief among these is a human skull that has had a black check pattern drawn onto it. It’s a spooky object: a cross between a death’s-head and a chessboard. Technically, I suppose the carefully worked-out pattern of black chequers might be described as an example of geometry, but it is the choice of the skull as the backing that makes this such a strange and resonant object. Was it made in Mexico, New York or Paris? I would stake £100 on the answer being Mexico.
It is an artwork from the heart, one from the id, wild, fantastical, rupturing and about as un-Pythagorean as an artwork can be. How can the artist who made this ever be satisfied with collecting yoghurt cartons with circles in them? Also disquieting is a creepy set of washing lines from which hang some swaying skins of lint that Orozco has collected from the insides of public washing machines in his ’hood in New York. The lint consists of human hair, woollen fabric, flecks of skin, crumbs, specks, splinters. It is made of people dust, therefore, and carries an eerie, Auschwitzian charge. It’s so light that when you walk past it, it flaps in the wind. I see here a poignant metaphor of human history, and a good conceptual joke about the purpose of washing lines. But I don’t see any geometry. Indeed, the piece strikes me as anti-geometric. Perhaps it has been included because the doors of the drying machines were circular?