Luis Felipe Ortega / The Order of Things

María Virginia Jaua
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For Sergio González Rodríguez

I would like to make a confession: the city of the nineties that historians of Mexican art evoke is a city that does not exist, that is to say, she never existed. If her name has come down to us, loaded with potent and nostalgic images, it has been thanks to the artists that walked through her during those years. It was they who inhabited her historic center or her periphery; it was they who happened to go into markets as if into a fantastic world; it was they who anticipated her ebullience and her transformations and who understood—by wandering aimlessly—that the city proposes another kind of writing. Better yet, that she is herself the writing of an aleph—multiplied and infinite.

Let us remember that Mexico City, during the ten years comprised by what is called the decade of conceptual art, was barely recovering physically, psychically, and emotionally from the trauma of the 1985 earthquake that reduced a vast part of the city to dust and ashes.(1)

Even if it may seem paradoxical, the peak of activity that ensued in the art scene was caused—at least partially—by the enormous quantity of energy liberated after the telluric movement. I wonder if it is possible that the shudder coming from the entrails of Earth and the tragedy may have activated and attracted, from other territories, numerous artists, such as Melanie Smith, Francis Alÿs or Thomas Glassford, but also a great number of Mexican artists—Eduardo Abaroa, Daniel Guzmán, Luis Felipe Ortega, and others. Probably, the answer lies in the question.

Even though the purpose of this text is not to establish genealogies or to conduct a historiographical study, perhaps we can begin by declaring that all those artists had something in common: they were the authors of the same fiction. That is, they took part in the same writing—the writing of a Mexico City that will continue to be evoked in books of History and Art Criticism despite having never existed.


Were the writer Sergio González Rodríguez (2) still with us, he might have

agreed: all artists that produced their work in such a turbulent and shifting time for Mexico (3) could not have been summoned by the idea of a generation but rather by a savage drive, a detective instinct that led them to explore the city, to penetrate into its most remote corners. In other words, they established a true relationship to the city.

Time and again it has been said that the calling of art in that era was conceptual. There is evidence to suggest that in Mexico art was strongly influenced by the late avant-garde and that it derived into Conceptualism well before the nineties.(4) Nevertheless, I believe that art in those years bore the imprint of Situationism rather than Conceptualism. I suspect Situationism to be the most influential artistic movement in the path of recent Mexican art, which has also maintained its own characteristics.

Such a heterogeneous community of artists—like the one that emerged during that period in Mexico—might have shared another feature beyond their date of birth or their geographical space: their yearning for artwork to fulfill the promise of its dematerialization—a promise broken so many times before.

Many artistic expressions that surfaced at that time in Mexico tended to rebel against the production of “objects” and beautiful things. A large number of works have come down to us and can be known in the form of documents and recordings, photographs and video, and even through traditional oral storytelling, thanks to the memories of some authors, viewers or witnesses. Other works have been irrevocably lost in the vast collective unconscious of the city. The “work” was not its record but rather the experience, and the trace of those experiences must have remained stamped somewhere in memory. Later, after many of the artists enjoyed success, the records finally replaced the artworks and, in many cases, became pieces of great value.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that these artistic expressions reached a peak in Mexico right at a moment that preceded a radical turn in art, which turned into a solid system economically, politically, and institutionally. This transformation, in the order of symbolic production, was brought about by several causes—from economic liberalism (which resulted in open markets and the signing of the free trade agreement with Canada and the United States) to globalization and the height of capitalism and its interest in controlling the economy and the market of symbolic production. To these we must add the acceleration of technological change, which has since provoked huge transformations in every aspect of life, especially in the construction of subjectivity.

Art is strongly connected to subjectivity—this has always been the domain in which art is called to either advance or resist. That is why artists, insofar as they are clairvoyants,—even if they are not aware, even if they do not know how to be one— anticipated this mercantile turn by which they would ultimately cede a part of their power to the numerous intermediaries(5)  who, since then, operate in the cultural industry—not without an anticipatory resistance that is nostalgically evoked today and that, as it often happens, equated to an irreparable and foretold collapse of art in its own trap.

The drive to dematerialize the artwork—an exercise in criticism but also in resistance—meant success but also “failure” for the artists. The imminent and definitive turn to capitalism in all levels of production, distribution, and consumption took place not only in culture but also in subjectivity itself, that is to say, within the self. Let us say that the yearning for dematerialization constitutes the aporia in which art is trapped and which, nonetheless, confers meaning on it.


It is in this complex Mexican context, hard to summarize and to explain,

that the work of Luis Felipe Ortega comes into being. Some examples of his first works in that period may help to elaborate and illustrate the ideas I want to put forward. To this end, I have selected four artworks or, one might say, four experiences:

Remake (1994), the series The Docile Bodies (1995-1997), The Necessary Distance (1997), and Km 96 (2002).

Remake may be the most emblematic of Ortega’s artworks, both for its early acquisition by important art collectors and the number of times it has been exhibited. Created in collaboration with Daniel Guzmán, it goes beyond a work of assimilation and quotation of great artists such as Paul McCarthy or Bruce Nauman —which it indeed is—and presents a first “artistic emplacement” that will develop into the most recent works, like the one exhibited in El Eco.(6) This series of actions captured on video produces an understanding of art through the dialogue between both artists—Guzmán and Ortega—and also through the body, through each millimeter of the skin. Moreover, another emplacement is presented: the one the artists offer for the viewer, whom they somehow “compel” to look at the work with a gaze loaded with references, that is, a gaze that is not innocent.

The insistence on the idea of “remake” leads me to suspect that this piece is also related to Mexico “opening up” to the world in those years, and that the artists—remote from traditional chauvinism—are willing to be “penetrated” by the influence of other artists and movements, just as the country is opening its markets and its frontiers, both physical and mental. In a way, this artwork speaks about the openness towards the other, about becoming vulnerable. This is a risk one must take—in art as in love—to yield to the encounter and the longed for “instant.”

The Docile Bodies is the continuation of this first emplacement, and even though we also find quotations here, Ortega sheds them gradually in order to use his body with increased freedom. I would say that in this series—Trees, Parque de la Bola, and Planters—the body begins to turn into a “self” writing; the body becomes a flexible measurement of things, a measurement in the physical, mathematical, and geometrical sense, and also a linguistic sign that, as such, takes a place in space and time. That could explain, perhaps, the hint—in one of the photographs that compose the series—toward the image in which the artist is seen from behind, going through a door with a row of books upon his head that is kept in place despite the lack of a shelf to hold them up.

Books have always been the working support for this artist, but in this specific image they are suspended. Here, the artist inverts the thesis—it is not only about his body but also about the theoretical and literary corpus, the one that measures the threshold through which the artist “enters” the world.

In this photographic series, quotations or artistic autoreferentiality are no longer important, nor is a merely conceptual or “quotational” calling; what matters is the displacement of “quotation” to “location”—body-and-space, body-and-city. It is in the brushing between hard bodies—like the pot or the sphere that cannot be moved—and the soft, docile bodies molding themselves—like the skeletal structure and

the skin, but also like thought—where the immateriality of the artwork and the importance of experience reside: there lies the lived moment of docility.

The experience of such a moment makes the body docile and enables another experience—that of art. Once again, we find a potent and secret sexual content. Nothing in the artwork alludes to the act that brings together an encounter and a loving passion, and yet this relation with creative force underlies all these pieces in which the artist seems to adopt a passive role and is “possessed” by artistic drive. Without this loving passion no creative act is possible.

Luis Felipe Ortega is an artist that cannot be understood without the reading of many writers from the second half of the twentieth century. Literary references in his work are multiple and diverse, ranging from Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze to Samuel Beckett, not to forget Mishima, Borges, Calvino or Kafka. But even if clear references to linguistic and literary materials exist in his artistic work, their presence occurs almost always in a non-place of language. This is the case of The Necessary Distance. There, the artist himself admits explicitly referring to Borges. Yet, even though Alighiero Boetti came to mind when I first saw it, that initial impression paved the way for another reflection.

The Boetti twins go hand in hand; they are accomplices of their own movements. On the contrary, in the image we see the artist approaching a park bench in order to sit besides himself; and the “same-other” artist, without noticing the impending arrival of his “double,” gets ready to stand and leave. What happens there is what Foucault would call a heterotopia of “self”,(7) that is to say, the representation of the impossibility to reunite words and things in the self.

Another possible reading is that the distance in this work is not a “necessary” but rather a “compulsory” condition regarding oneself and regarding the artwork. Such distance is the one so hard to establish as a first step of criticism and also—why not?—as a first act of non-belief in the faith that sustains the artwork and the assumed “self” that creates it. Maybe all of this explains why the work is still unsettling. Furthermore, there is an ontological question that underlies the shortfall of language, its non-place, its limit or impossibility.

Ortega evokes the non-place in many works where the main element is the horizon. The horizon is the non-place par excellence—a horizon of expectation. What or whom do we expect? We might see a hint to Beckett here but also to the line, the drawings, and the ideograms of the I Ching—the answer of the oracle is expected in the form of a line. All of these elements take part in the work of this artist, and even if the horizon as rendered in other pieces does not appear in Km 96, I would like to refer to this work. Km 96 does not correspond exactly to the nineties, but I still think it has some of the same energy and the same idea that throbs in the horizon.

Km 96 is a video in which Ortega recorded an electrical storm in Southeast Mexico. Let us say that, with each flash of lightning, the “effect” of a capture camera is produced in our eyes, and for an instant light and darkness reverberate. In this manner, depending on the intensity of the lightning, we might see more or less clouds, more or less tree outlines, more or less depth and sharpness in the nocturnal landscape of the spectrum.

Lightning produces, in the eye that perceives it, a hypnotic effect, and storms in the jungle can be one of the most fantastic and thrilling experiences of nature. Curiously enough, even though we can see the storm is intense, the effect it has on us is a soothing one. I would even say, faced with this dramatic spectacle, one experiences a kind of “peace.” The sense of calm might be enhanced by the soundtrack, belonging to the real sound of crickets, frogs, and all the insects and jungle animals that are heard during the night, except on this particular night the thunder is missing. There is no rumble to hear, only life breathing, unalterable.

Km 96 was projected for three days inside a trailer container—apparently derelict—adjacent to a park in Mexico City. By sunset, in the peak of splendor of the horizon, the viewers, the passersby with their dogs, and pretty much every person who walked by and had a little curiosity was able to peek into the projection of this spectacle of nature. At that time, this was an unusual way to exhibit the piece—today due to insecurity and violence it would be impossible. This work, along with the way in which it was exhibited, summarizes and exemplifies much of what was produced during those years in that imaginary city.


Being an artist interested in literature and books, Luis Felipe Ortega has authored a few of his own, two of which I will refer to. The first one is titled Six Essays... Regarding Calvino and dates from 1999. It is an artist’s book he edited with the support of the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. One might say it is an enquiry into nature, the body, experience, creation, and the practice of thinking about art. As Abraham Cruzvillegas pointed out,(8) the book offers the reader a virtual conversation and is built upon ideas of an immeasurable nature (reedbed, wave, tree, soil, mountain, sea) translated into images that Ortega opposes to certain settings. The book also shows ways in which one can escape nature or take shelter from it (stair, house, path, hut, train, lifesaver, building). The journey described by the artist and his gaze in going back and forth between culture and nature is more eloquent than the antagonism he poses.

The second book is Report to an Academy. Research Seminar on The Unknown University. Department of Humanities .(9) The title already contains a postulate on the relation that Ortega has with teaching and learning. The nod to Kafka is evident, and so is the irony. A criticism underlies this serious work; it is a criticism towards educational institutions and their enormous flaws, towards the passivity of students, and also a self-criticism full of humor: let us remember that in the short story by Kafka, the monkey-man delivers his report to the academy with the purpose of telling his story. This story can be summed up in the idea that freedom is impossible and unattainable for humans, so only one “exit” is left: art.

Unlike Six Essays... this second book is a “de-artisted” artist’s book, since we cannot find in it any aesthetic will, not even images. Artistic creation is limited to cutting, compiling, and binding texts taken from a variety of cultural supplements and magazines of the time pertaining to different topics: literature, philosophy, cultural studies, art, music, and other humanistic disciplines. Beyond criticism, this book pays homage to a technology that flourished in the eighties and nineties, and that was essential to any student: photocopies. Now obsolete, this technology is a basic condition for understanding the pre- internet era, and many artistic manifestations of political art in Latin America were possible thanks to photocopies.

The books are not considered as artworks; nevertheless, both could be deemed—at least in my opinion—the perfect example of Ortega’s trajectory as an artist. The first volume attests to the journeys of the author through geography, nature, and the city; the second one compiles the travels of his intellect, the unmoving journey within a room. I think they might be two sides of the same coin, just as the unfolding of the two Ortegas: the one that arrives and is on the verge of sitting, and the one that is ready to leave towards that exit marked “art,” like Kafka’s character. In a word, we can conclude there are two Luis Felipe Ortegas: the avid traveller full of adventures and the tireless reader. 


1.Unofficial figures put the number of dead in the earthquake up to twenty thousand people.

2. Mexican journalist and writer (1950-2017). His loss is irreparable. His enquiries into the deaths and disappearances in Ciudad Juárez were helpful to Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño for his novel 2666. Exquisite essayist interested in art, González Rodríguez had an incomparable knowledge of Mexico City and its nightlife. In his own manner, he was a “savage detective.” He may be the writer with more influence on the recent generations, for his sharpness as well as for his commitment with Mexican reality, his interest in art and literature for young people, and his good-natured spirit.

3. This period goes from the 1985 earthquake and the electoral fraud orchestrated by the PRI in 1988, to the Zapatista uprising in January of 1994 and the murder of the presidential candidate in March of that same year, and to the PRI— which had remained 70 years in power—losing the election in 2000.

4. Art began distancing itself from the object, especially from painting, in the sixties and seventies with the work of several art collectives-a period referred to as the time of “the groups”—and through many works that already included actions, performances, publications, mail art, and collaborative work—in many instances, anonymous. Some of these artistic strategies— many of them taken from Fluxus were implemented again in the nineties, and the last avant-garde, Situationism, Minimalism, and conceptual art were added to the equation.

5. In Mexico, cultural policy has traditionally been a State matter, in the French style. In the nineties there were few art galleries and almost no private museums, except for Fundación Televisa. The art exhibited back then in museums and galleries was dedicated for the most part to painting and rarely to photography. In the nineties, without entirely abandoning public policies, Mexico embraced a liberal and private system similar to the one in the United States of America. It was then that collectors, curators, gallerists, art dealers, agents, critics, museum directors, managers, and producers burst onto the scene. Today, culture in Mexico is still financed—albeit to a smaller degree—by the State. Still, the involvement of private capital is rising. It was also in the nineties that cultural institutions and markets opened to different artistic manifestations.

6. Regarding the Edge of Things. Museo Experimental El Eco, Mexico City, 2017.

7. In The Order of Things Foucault states: “Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they secretly undermine language, because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy ‘syntax’ in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite to one another) to ‘hold together’.”

8. See Abraham Cruzvillegas, “Seis ensayos... a propósito de Calvino,” El ojo breve, Reforma, February 9th, 2000, p. 3C.

9. Published by the artist, LAST / De- siré St. Phalle in 2011.