‘To live,’ writes Walter Benjamin, ‘means to leave traces’. As one might expect, Benjamin’s observation is not without a certain melancholy. Traces are lost in the grand sweep of history. And, in today’s world of mass-production, anonymous spectacle and gleaming, sterile surfaces, it has become increasingly difficult to leave traces. For Benjamin, it had become increasingly difficult to live.
Yet people do leave traces in their wake: the refuse and detritus of history; the variegated remnants of daily life; or dust. A trace is ephemeral, a locus of ambivalence suspended in the unstable space between construction and dispersal, presence and absence. A trace is very little, almost nothing. But it is also an index of life.
Gabriel Orozco’s artistic practice could be described, I think, as an aesthetic of the trace. The works presented in his retrospective at Tate Modern share a sense of temporal precariousness that is far removed from the mythic aura of timelessness that has enveloped today’s world. In other words, the ‘eternal present’ that the cultural theorist Fredric Jameson diagnosed as endemic in postmodernity, a symptom of the disappearance of the subject through the ubiquity of simulacra; that is, commodified, depthless and mass-produced items that conflate time’s three horizons into an indissoluble ‘now’ (think Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes (1980)). Orozco’s works, however, are provisional. They are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time.
The paradoxically titled Yielding Stone (1992), for instance, consists of a black lump of plasticine formed in the weight of the artist’s own body. The work is rolled onto the street where this highly malleable and greasy material absorbs whatever residue it encounters. Yielding Stone registers what would usually vanish without a trace, like a memorial of the ephemeral. Indeed, one might literally describe the work as sedimented history. Combined with its amorphous shape, this has led commentators to read the work as evocative of the archaic or the primordial. In addition, its processual nature has tended to be understood in relation to post-minimal process-oriented artistic production.
I would argue, however, that these interpretations are slightly off the mark. In a seminal work like Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage’s Automobile Tire Print (1953), for instance, where the tires of Cage’s Ford were covered with black household paint before the truck was driven over a long sheet of paper, marking it with tire tracks, the process is still very much result-oriented. The process is teleological.
So there are two fundamental differences here. Firstly, Yielding Stone does not mark the external world but is inscribed with it. Put differently, the work inhabits the world but is also inhabited by it. And secondly, unlike Automobile Tire Print, a ‘happening’ that took place only in the moment of its occasion, Yielding Stone awaits its future actualisation. The work demonstrates its processual character but it is a process that does not foreclose the possible scope of the future. The work is immanently open-ended. It forecloses closure.
To me, then, the impressions of the past form only a part of the story. What seems of greater importance is that the work does not so much summon up the primordial or the archaic as what is yet to be. If the work is nostalgic it is not because it harks back to some idealised past but because it is nostalgic for the future. Yielding Stone is in a perpetual process of becoming. Even as it sits on the gallery floor, isolated and quiescent, it is weighed down by gravity and absorbs the dust on which it rests. One might also say that it is marked, every moment, by the sensation of time.
The enigmatic materiality of this artwork is echoed in Lintels (2001). Here sheets of lint – the grey stuff leftover in the filters of drying machines – have been hung on several rows of washing line, as though Orozco was hanging his dirty laundry in public. Beyond this bathos, what is of interest is the transience of the material used. Lint is made of human hair and dust, which is made of dead skin cells, as well as fluff. This is the detritus of quotidian life, the stuff we would rather forget about, infinitesimal traces of our own mortality. When compressed in the filter the material is held together, but only temporarily. Pablo Picasso once wrote that ‘art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’. This work, however, will return to dust. The air must be full of it. Like Yielding Stone, a work conscious of its temporal essence, Lintels internalises its own impermanence. Construction becomes inseparable from dispersal. The artwork, then, is just a hiatus. Like life.
In this light it is interesting to consider a work on paper entitled Finger Ruler Drawing (1990). Here Orozco draws a vertical line using a ruler and a pencil. As his hand moves downwards he encounters resistance from the finger used to hold the ruler in place and traces its outline. This process is repeated countless times as though a moment of amnesia preceded each attempt. That said, every line is slightly different so that what we are presented with is a variable form of invariance. In a somewhat absurd gesture Orozco is, paradoxically perhaps, making something new of repetition itself.
Yet, as with Lintels and Yielding Stone, the latter of which could be understood as a surrogate of the artist’s body, Finger Ruler Drawing is only indirectly evocative of lived experience. If the sculptural works mentioned above distort and open up time it is not because they represent the past or the future directly, which would only result in a form of idealism or utopianism. Similarly, in Finger Ruler Drawing the contour of the finger is an index of life, true. The Cartesian line is interrupted by the body. But the body itself remains absent. And this inference of presence from absence is suggestive of a broader social condition of disenchantment and reification. Indicative, that is, of the complete superficiality of a totally rationalised society, a society in which information proliferates but meaning is lost, a society where the only thing that remains of the self is a negative impression. So there is something melancholy here too, a feeling also induced when one encounters Yielding Stone and Lintels.
Indeed, it is noteworthy that there is a pronounced absence of the human figure in nearly all of Orozco’s work. In the Tate retrospective the only artwork in which the body is included is a pair of photographs entitled My Hands Are My Heart (1991). The images depict the artist squeezing and then releasing a lump of brick clay in his hands in order to form a heart-shaped sculpture. This intensely handmade object is exhibited nearby. To be sure, the emphasis is partly on procedure and gesture – the ‘act of creation’, the humbleness of which contrasts with most of today’s monumental and overly-produced sculpture. Yet even here I would read the two negative imprints of hands as indices of an absent body, traces of distance and alienation from the material world.
Similarly, Breath on Piano (1993), a photograph of the condensation formed by the artist’s breath on the shiny surface of a piano, can be read as a temporal marker. The work is reminiscent of Piero Manzoni’s important Artist’s Breath (1960), where the artist blew into a balloon which he then attached onto a wooden block with lead seals. The artist’s breath has since evaporated, leaving behind a limp scrap of red rubber. If Orozco’s work is more lyrical, capturing the beauty of a fleeting moment, it is also indicative of the precariousness and intangibility of the individual self. And, like Manzoni’s work, it is an indeterminate representation. As such Breath on Piano, like My Hands Are My Heart, is nothing other than an allegory of its own failure to ground the plenitude of presence.
The same could be said of Extension of Reflection (1992), a photograph of tire tracks that pass through a puddle in a series of interlocking circles. The puddle’s reflective surface is literally extended, but only temporarily. In the photographic composition the traces left behind are frozen in time but the puddles and tracks have long since vanished. Their presence in space marks their absence in time. Again, a melancholy sense of loss is inextricably tied to the creative process.
The nonappearance of the human figure in Orozco’s oeuvre can be traced to earlier works such as First Was the Spitting (1993), a four-part drawing on graph paper. Here Orozco has mixed his saliva with toothpaste and spat the frothy mixture onto the centre of the page, surrounding the yellowing stain with marks in graphite and pen. Perhaps the first thing to be said about this work is that by mixing his spit with toothpaste the artist is able to preserve and make visible something that would otherwise disappear once it dried on paper, although one should remember that the substance is also susceptible to degradation. As such the spat out toothpaste can be considered an indexical sign, a trace of the absent, like the impress of footprints on the beach.
Yet, like the synecdochal nature of the works I have considered so far, the metonymy between spit and life is an odd one and warrants closer attention. In his Critical Dictionary, Georges Bataille wrote the following definition of the term ‘Formless’, a definition that seems particularly relevant to a work like First Was the Spitting. Indeed, one wonders whether Orozco had it in mind:
For academics to be content, the universe would have to assume a form. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of fitting what is there into a formal coat, a mathematical overcoat. On the other hand to assert that the universe resembles nothing else and is only formless comes down to stating that the universe is something like a spider or spit.
In First Was the Spitting the use of graph paper – a ‘mathematical overcoat’, stands in deliberate contrast to the formless accumulation of spit in the centre of the page. This could be interpreted as a re-introduction of the somatic and the aleatory into the hard-edged, mathematical reductivism of minimalism. This in turn could be read more widely as a reaction against the increased rationalisation of life in a ‘totally administered world’, to borrow Theodor W. Adorno’s now famous expression. At the same time, however, the graphite and ink markings which expand like constellations or rhizomes around each of the stains exist in a precarious balance. Sometimes the organic substance seems to dictate the composition. At other times Orozco has drawn over the spit and replaced the graph paper’s rigid lines, ‘fitting what is there into a formal coat’.
This is arguably indicative of attentiveness to the violence of a representational economy. In other words, the awareness that the formless cannot be manifested directly without giving it shape. Once the formless – the non-identical, becomes an object of reflexive consciousness, it loses its subversive quality precisely because it is identified as formless. This, then, is something like the contradictory endeavour that preoccupied many of the Surrealists: the conscious manifestation of unconscious drives.
Except that I believe Orozco is more aware of the paradox of representing the unrepresentable than the Surrealists were. This is not only because his works undermine the possibility of full representation, although this certainly forms part of it. Rather, is it because the artist purposely produces irresolvable tensions. Another example of a work that supports this argument is Black Kites (1997), a human skull covered in a strict geometric pattern of black and white rhombi. Like Finger Ruler Drawing, here the Cartesian plane – the permanent idea, is adapted to the contours of the skull – the transitory substance. The oppositions that inhere in both these works: the organic and the inorganic; the corporeal and the cerebral; the rational and the irrational; the transitory and the timeless; and, in the case of Black Kites, drawing and sculpture (Orozco was to describe the work with the words ‘Object made image’), are products of different kinds of articulations that produce as well as negate each other, deliberately subverting simplistic bifurcations. Where exactly is the interface anyway?
Analogously, the paradoxes we encounter in Orozco’s works: variable invariance; planned fortuity; repetition and difference; the presence of absence, to name but a few, are all symptomatic of an irreducibly heterogeneous aesthetic that is not overdetermined by intentions. The works are ephemeral and oblique; they are at odds with themselves, discrediting and demystifying any claim to full representation, any claim of presence undisturbed by absence. The works invite us to think that it is the spaces in-between that matter, the liminal spaces where slippages occur, the spaces that fall outside the net of identifying judgements. The problem the works ultimately raise, I think, is this: can culture be political, which is to say critical and even subversive, or is it necessarily co-opted and subsumed by the social system of which it is a product? To me it is by carrying through these ineluctable contradictions that Orozco frees his works from authorial constraints. And is precisely in their irreconcilable non-identity that these artworks resist subsumption, resist the prevalent tendency to generalise, abstract and homogenise. In so doing the artworks offer a non-instrumentalised critique of society, opening the way for something new. The works stand for a perpetually open, yet to be determined future. It is as though the certainties of mimetic adequacy are unravelled in order to make room faith, faith in the idea that things might be otherwise.
 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Verso: 1991), p.10.
 Georges Bataille, cited in: Denis Hollier, Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille (MIT Press: 1992), p.30.
 Gabriel Orozco cited in: ibid., p.125,