Free Associations

Laurie Rojas on “Apestraction” at the Freud Museum, London, until 1 September


“Apestraction” at the Freud Museum in London shows works by the Mexican-born, Berlin-based artist Damian Ortega (b. 1967). Originally a political cartoonist, Ortega is now associated with conceptually-driven sculpture and installation “school” of his teacher, Gabriel Orozco. Often playful and spectacular, Ortega’s work is mostly driven by a curiosity about how things work. In the context of the Freud Museum the work takes an esoteric, intimate and enigmatic turn.

Like most exhibitions at the Freud Museum, the works of art are contextualized by the rooms—the juxtaposition of the works of art and the contents of the house are meant to stimulate thoughts that arise from the random associations. The space invites free-association projections and enhances the potential of interpretation for both the artist and the visitor.

The exhibition is spread throughout the house and begins in Freud’s study where two inconspicuous tree branches, The Root of the Root, 2011-13, hover at eye-level in front of Freud's desk, near his famous couch. Ortega’s branches fit well with Freud's extensive display of wooden fetishes, figurines and antiquities that were pivotal to Freud's investigations. The branches, however, do no reveal much in themselves and, without the aid of psychoanalysis, do not unleash the correspondences as did Freud's objects for the psychoanalyst.

These branches were collected from the Gashaka region in Nigeria where the rarest subspecies of chimpanzees survive. The branches are significant because they are used as tools by the chimpanzees, a discovery that challenges the evolutionary theory that humans were separated from primates as homo faber (tool makers, or working man); the discovery suggests an even closer similarity between humans and chimpanzees. In the exhibition, Ortega elides reference to this discovery with his own interest in tools and the origins of tool making.

These sticks also form part of an installation on the landing of the main staircase, suspended horizontally from the ceiling to make a double helix. Technological DNA, 2013, the largest work in the exhibition, is intended to remind us that human DNA is 98% similar to that of chimpanzees.

An early suspended sculpture of a hand-held torch, Deaf Torch (The Inner Search. Syntax), 2013, brings us back to Freud. This torch once belonged to the artist's father (another personal touch) has been taken apart and each piece is suspended in a transparent case; the pieces are arranged in such a way that the mind completes the gaps and imagines the reassembly. The Freudian references are that Freud did not believe in coincidences and, in his interpretations of dreams, light also means “the father”, thus making the torch refer not only to Ortega's father, but also as a pointer to our own origins.

In the top floor of the house, a vitrine with multiple works displays a Cyborg-like wooden hand, each finger incorporating a different tool (similar to a Swiss Army knife). In The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (F. Engels), 2013—the title of an unfinished article by Friedrich Engels—Ortega aims to connect art, Darwin, Engels and Freud, citing Engels's statement that could well serve as a summary of “Apestraction”: “The hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour. Only by labour, by adaptation to ever new operations, through the inheritance of muscles, ligaments, and, over longer periods of time, bones that had undergone special development and the ever-renewed employment of this inherited finesse in new, more and more complicated operations, have given the human hand the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini.”

Published Wed, 26 Jun 2013 15:50:00 GMT

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