Regarding Well to Enable Seeing

Lucilla Meloni
A Horizon Falls, A Shadow
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The horizon falls, it fractures, a shadow emerges. Something happens that, at least apparently, engenders a sense of instability.

 The horizon–subject of so many texts, source of innumerable images–is intrinsically linked to the gaze, whose limit the former indicates, whose metaphor it could turn into. The horizon is recurrent in the work of Luis Felipe Ortega, who writes: “A horizon is a horizon, but it paves the way to other itineraries, mostly mental but also spatial” (1).

 If we place ourselves in space and time through a point of view (in Before the Horizon [2006] a stone is suspended at the eye level of the viewer, in Inverted Horizon [2010] the room is transformed into the volume of shadow due to the graphite that covers the space, except for a luminous shaft that pierces through), then the artwork inquires about our place in the world, it triggers a reflection about perception or, rather, about proprioception: the perception of oneself.

 The Shadow Line (2004)–title of a video that pays an evident tribute to Joseph Conrad–evokes the presence, alongside the horizon, of a line of shadow that marks the passing from one condition to another, a journey of being, of presence.

 The body is a measure of space (The Docile Bodies [1995-97], Field of Action [1997]) and time: but which space and which time are they?

 The landscape is also recurrent in several works by Ortega, captured by the photographic or cinematographic eye, where it appears silent, defined by the artist as the sonorous equivalent of emptiness, e. g. “Anotaciones para una inclusión del silencio” was the name for one of his exhibitions, and an artwork of his is titled The Possibility of Being and the Insistence of Silence (2014) (2).

 Space, time, sound and silence, and emptiness are the subjects that revolve Ortega’s thought, determined to problematize these concepts, as he himself declares.

 Thus, a silent and reflective art is embodied, seemingly founded on a geometric fabric that matches in all its forms–video, photograph, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation–a phenomenology of the world and tries to establish an order that announces new insights and new equilibriums: “things are always about to shatter, to fracture. Maintaining a certain order is far more complex than assuming permanent disorder,” states Ortega (3).

 That order can be perceived through the prolonged observation of his work, where time–a concept that has always been used to consider art–becomes almost palpable: be it by re-traversing the dense textures weaved in graphite that embody, for example, Inverted Horizon, or be it by watching the videos, where ordinary time seems to interrupt its course.

 Works such as Macapule (2009), Catinga (2007), Xiriah (2010) or as the sonorous sculpture Possessing Nature (presented in 2015 at the 56th Biennale di Venezia in the Mexican pavilion) suggest a parallel time, in which moving images seem to regain their condition of stills, or even pictures, almost contradicting the media that contains them.

 “Another essential feature of my work is that it naturally fits into video, and in video the problem of time is permanent –it becomes observation. I think that a great part of my production has been engaged in the exercise of observing, both in my everyday life and when confronted with certain landscapes and places. In this regard, I want to immerse the viewer into the artwork by altering the time of observation, by slowing down the images or by performing very slow camera movements,” says the artist (4).

 The exercise of observation is combined with a narrative effort that is always present in his work, where from time to time a story unravels.

 The landscape–and therefore our being in the world of phenomena–plays an important role, almost as the indispensable substrate of thought, as in Six Essays… Regarding Calvino.

 In the photographic series Looking through Something that Appears to be Oneself (1998-2012)–displayed here–Ortega intervenes coastal views with strokes of acrylic painting, and by changing the photograph its singularity becomes restituted.  The views are 80 small printings that have to be regarded closely, and that in their contiguity form a totality articulated in its details.

María Paz Amaro has included this work under the concept of Atlas (5), and Report to an Academy Research Seminar on The Unknown University. Humanities Department (2011) can also be considered as such–an Atlas of Ortega’s thought. Composed by multiple articles published in Mexico in the cultural supplements of newspapers and magazines, and collected by Ortega for approximately 20 years, this artwork delineates the territory of an inner geography.

 Ortega–an artist with a multimedial biography who has been educated in Philosophy and Literature, and who has also been an author of articles and essays —is part of that generation which appeared on the art scene in the Mexican nineties, and that conceived artworks as collective and political movements. He has kept an imprint of those years, during which he was involved with various authors—among them Daniel Guzmán, Damián Ortega, Sofía Taboas—, in the foundation at Mexico City of the self-managed space Temístocles 44, and after that in Casper, a magazine.

 The act of writing translates–due to the nature of its own language–the poetic and formal references, as confirmed by the selection of work titles that offer a first reading key and that may repeat themselves with small variations –as the case of the map series: Maps (2012), Untitled (Maps with Geometric Insertion) (2013), Untitled (Comment to "Carte du monde politique-poétique") (2013), a homage to Carte du Monde Poétique (1968) by Marcel Broodthaers.

 The artwork never ceases to problematize the present; thus, it is always, in a certain way, political –as the images that moved slowly upon the pond in Possessing Nature: meticulous details of Venice and Mexico City, a city “traced in line with colonial ideas and with the strength of political and economic power, with an arrogance that has been systematically repeated” (6). So was the map revisited in Untitled –a world map from before the territorial divisions brought by historical causes.

 From the titles, the world of relations that Ortega has established with philosophers, artists, poets, and writers comes into view: subterranean links and connections that have contributed in one way or another to shape or nurture his conceptual world, relations that appear sometimes as homage, sometimes only as evocation.

 The title of the video The Exterminator (1993) borrows the title of William S. Borroughs’s Exterminator! (1960) Whereas Untitled (Model) (1999), a sculpture in the context of an public action that takes place in a supermarket, refers to Merda d’artista (1961) by Piero Manzoni but flipping its sense the other way around.

 Report to an Academy. Research Seminar on The Unknown University. Humanities Department—where articles and essays by many authors and from various fields of thought are to be found, (that is from Antonin Artaud to Claude Lévi-Strauss, from Jorge Luis Borges to Guy Debord)—can be read, as Alexis Salas suggests, as a self-portrait (7).

 A self-portrait can be conceived here as a place where multiple voices meet and converse, as a work that turns an unceasing relation with alterity into a constitutive fact, as a piece that attests itself to the idea of artwork as something that is inherent to the historical path of art and other forms of thought, to which–let us say– another tile, another suggestion is added.

 On this occasion, the walkthrough of the exhibition is presented as a journey founded upon different, yet related, moments. It begins with two pictures of the series Horizons (2013-2017)–composed by ten pieces but potentially in progress–that can be read almost as a poetics manifesto.

 Like a black and white photograph, ink and pencil compose the transformations of light; in the series, imaginary horizons succeed one after another, rising from ephemeral limits, unstable places, and silence—settings where anything may still happen.

Even if the work alludes to the oceanic landscapes by Hiroshi Sugimoto—a picture of the series is called indeed Untitled (Horizon for Sugimoto)—in its differences, repetitions, and variations on a theme, it is also a remote echo of the many Rouen Cathedrals painted by Claude Monet. 

Immediately thereafter we are immersed in a sort of  memorial: the 43 modules that compose Long Night in the Present (2016) are dedicated to one of the most dramatic pages in the history of contemporary Mexico. On September 26th, 2014, several students of the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, in Ayotzinapa–a rural college commissioned to train teachers for elementary education–had been organizing themselves for a demonstration that was to take place in Mexico City when the police attacked them. The immediate effect was the assasination of three students, the wounding of other five, and the disappearance of 43 young men. These 43 students are victims of enforced disappearance and their fate remains unknown (8).

 Ortega pays tribute to these visctims discretely, almost whispering, with abstract paintings whose subject is only evoked in the title but remains unsaid –paintings that recount not only absence but also a form of terror. The multimedial artist chooses to represent this abyss of injustice through painting, a formal choice that once again evokes the thought of Gerhard Richter, who outlined the distance between photographic depiction and pictorial representation of a single dramatic theme, recognizing in the latter the possibility of turning horror into grief. “The photograph provokes horror, and the painting–with the same motif–something more like grief,” said Richter referring to his Baader-Meinhof (1988) paintings (9).

 At the center of the exhibition, between the pillars, Landscape and Geometry III (for P.P.P.) stands out: one more landscape but this time purely mental and evocative, one that occurs between emptiness and fullness, between the lightness of threads woven in space–as the stroke of the pencil upon the sheet of paper–and the forcefulness of colored volcanic rocks that symbolize fireflies –weightless and luminous.


This work is indeed inspired on the article by Pier Paolo Pasolini “‘Il vuoto del potere’ ovvero ‘l’articolo delle lucciole,” published in the Corriere della Sera on February 1st, 1975. In his text, the Italian writer condemned the disappearance of fireflies–as the result of the poisoning of air and water–and read in it a metaphor of the transformation of Italy, of the disappearance of the farming and preindustrial civilization caused by the homogenization that, in turn, is produced by industrialization and by the power of consumerism.


More topical than ever in a time of globalization, Pasolini’s thought resonates in the artwork and is transformed into a poetic fragment, a memory flash, and an imaginary territory.


Double Exposure (Expanded) (2012-2017) is the rewriting of Flowers (1998) included in the catalogue Peter Fischli, David Weiss: Musée D'art Moderne De La Ville De Paris (1999). It is an example of reinvention of images created by another author: “I learned very much from these artists, so intervening one of their books revealed a way to pay homage to their work and to recognize myself in their procedures, and also to generate a meticulous process of observation. I worked ten hours a day for three months to intervene that book. This is how I was able to know each millimeter of Flowers,” declares Ortega (10).


Created in the period in which Ortega came into contact with Brasilian Concretism and with Max Bill’s work–and after spending some time in Brasil–, the work is composed by 40 pieces. Over the photographic reproductions of Fischli & Weiss, the artist painted numerous small rectangles that, as Cauê Alves points out, resemble expanded pixels that integrate structurally to the preexisting image.


We may add that this interweavement founds other register in the body of the original, as if the geometry of the small rectangles, recurring and arranged, kept the chaos of natural forms at bay.


Since Ortega has woven—following a fabric of elective affinities—a constant dialogue with artists and thinkers both close and distant throughout his career, in Double Exposure (Expanded) authorships flow like the warp and the weft. 


The gaze–oriented towards that which he retains as exemplary in contemporary art–is documented in Remake: the video produced in 1994 with Daniel Guzmán, in which the artists present once more performances that were enacted in the sixties and seventies.


In recent decades the practice of remaking has reasserted itself in visual arts, music, and cinema, but in the nineties—and in the specific Mexican reality—this work suddenly came to be characterized by its originality, and by so doing it remained historically as a starting point for similar experiences(11).


For young artists, the reconstruction of historical performances originated from the reading of descriptive texts: it was an interpretation mediated first and foremost by writing. This process of translation was accompanied by the rejection of temporality inherent in remakes, where the figure of the contemporary performer revives an artwork wrapped in an aura due to the nature of the medium itself, consecrated to unreproducibility. Moreover, in this case, performances were shown in a monitor, distanced from the original.


Presented for the first time in 1994 alongside Temístocles 44, Remake revisits performances by Terry Fox, Corner Push (1979); by Paul McCarthy, Face Painting (1972); by Bruce Nauman, Self Portrait as a Fountain (1966-1967); and a work by Ortega and Guzmán: Boca (1992).


A few years earlier, in 1991, Ortega and Guzmán had written a series of texts that analyzed various creative and theoretical fields, and it was in this effervescent cultural atmosphere that the video Health Report took shape, a video composed of two parts (12).


At the center of the action we find the body: a body that affirms itself as a plastic object, as a metaphorical territory, and as a place of (political) action.


In the first part, titled Intransportable, the camera captures Ortega lying down on a city street near a wall–and the indifference of passersby. The second action, Feed Him(Self) with Care, presents both artists seated at a table–one of them spoon-feeding the other; the latter will finish his meal as the video unfolds.


Salas finds in this reflection on human condition, interpersonal relations, and the vulnerability of being, a reference to Samuel Beckett’s poetics. The ingestion of food, says Ortega, is also a symbolic translation of the intellectual and creative nourishment with which young artists fed themselves frenetically, attracted by everything that was not included in institutional syllabi at a time when their determination to withdraw from State control was strong.


This debut work did not lose its currency in the development of Ortega’s research: the relation principle was already established as an essential one, symbolized by food and by public space, as exemplified in Intransportable.


The city will play the lead years later in Possessing Nature, and this will allow the artist–who is mindful of Walter Benjamin’s reflections, and of the situationist and surrealist experiences–to outline an individual body that by moving, gazing, and filming, engraves upon itself the past and becomes a social space.


Sights, understood as a sort of doppelganger, an alter ego, are at the core of Looking through Something that Appears to be Oneself (2001-2014)—80 small photographs with acrylic painting insertions.


This work consists of a series of stills filmed during a trip to Brasil that bear witness to an existential journey, rather than a spatiotemporal one. Placed side by side, they compose a great visual picture of which each single fragment appears to be a detail. Here, the theme of landscape is magnified and subjectified by pictorial intervention, for painting adds an ulterior point of view to the photographic hic et nunc. The small scenes, extrapolated from their contexts, isolated, and fixed, suggest a particular moment of conscience.


As in Possessing Nature, the concepts of trace and journey, so dear to the artist, are intersected. Also as in Possessing Nature, images, even when fixed, flow slowly before us: to understand this work, such “exercise of observation” referred to, by Ortega, must be enacted–which is an exhortation to regard carefully, profoundly, so as to enabling seeing.


The exhibition ends with the video Altamura (2016), which is performed as a counterpoint of the two Horizons ((2013-2017) pictures situated at the beginning. Once again, we stand before the representation of the horizon and of sights that become places of thought, out of which the conversing voices of Kurt Cobain, Jean Genet, Truman Capote, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, and Pier Paolo Pasolini emerge.


The camera movement–that indicates the presence of the body holding the device–unhurriedly films the coastal panorama of an island made up of sand, bushes, and ocean, where the only thing that suggests human presence is a boat that comes into sight at a certain point (13).


The color sequences move past slowly, stop for an instant, go from color to black and white, and turn dark. In this solemn movement, time–the time of the shot and the time of our gaze–and space are expanded, so the scenery can only be regarded attentively–detail, again, becomes fundamental.


The voices that intersect with the soundscape–created by Mauricio Orduña–talk about human condition, about the drama of writing, about stolen dreams, about politics, about times, and about death, and in the unfolding of the plot they repeat themselves and chase one another. The video ends with the words of Jean Genet: “Je répondrais comme Saint-Augustin à propos du Temps: J'attends la mort.”


Altamura makes explicit all the thoughts in Ortega’s research–that is to say, the question regarding human condition.


On the inauguration day, the performers Claire Aveline and Christian Montout, both in black, pointed with their strides, their bodies, and their voices the steps that would take us from Long Night in the Present to Altamura. They recited phrases taken from Céline’s masterpiece Voyage au bout de la Nuit until their reading was superimposed on the author’s voice. In this identification and spatiotemporal syncopation, grief without redemption is posed as individual and social fate (14).


Yet, in this awareness, there is no renunciation. The artist invites us to reflect upon this condition in order to reign over it because art–he says–is a platform, a support to reflect about oneself.


Having a duration of approximately 19 minutes, this work also suggests the pressing need of the artist to redefine time: the time of gazing and the time of hearing.


The slowness–opposing what Conrad defines in The Shadow-Line as “the modern spirit of haste”–comes in deliverance to reconquer an existential dimension of one’s own and to reject the ideology of consumption and consumerism of gaze–the last ramifications of that world of consumerism already condemned in the seventies by Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose voice returns to the video in order to pronounce his famous accusation: “Il vero fascismo è proprio questo potere della società dei consumi che sta distruggendo l'Italia.”


The artist declares that he wants to offer the viewer the possibility of accomplishing, in the act of regarding Altamura, an experiential journey. Indeed, to really see Altamura, and all the other works as well, one needs the will to pay attention, to offer one’s own time–the ordinary one and the one of the conscience.


1. Luis Felipe Ortega in L. F. Ortega, Before the Horizon. Mexico City: Marso / Turner, 2015, 101.

2. The exhibition was held in 2013 at the Marso Gallery in Mexico City. The catalogue, curated by Sofía Mariscal, contains texts by Tatiana Cuevas and Luis Felipe Ortega.


3. Luis Felipe Ortega in L. F. Ortega, Before the Horizon, 11.

4. “El ejercicio de observación”, interview with Luis Felipe Ortega by Lucilla Meloni. 7, 2 (2015).


5. María Paz Amaro, Tres formas de sostener el mundo: los atlas de Gerhard Richter, Luis Felipe Ortega y Alex Dorfman. Mexico City: Centro de la Imagen / Secretaría de Cultura, 2017.


6. In “El ejercicio de observación”.


7. Alexis Salas, “Neither Here Nor There”, in L. F. Ortega, Before the Horizon, 32-33.

 8. There is an ample bibliography on this appalling story. The investigation carried out by the government pointed to the collusion of several officials––who instigated the attacks––with the Guerreros Unidos cartel, who are said to have killed and burned the remains of the young men. Nevertheless, human rights advocacy groups have provided compelling evidence that refutes this official version and insist that the students continue to be victims of enforced disappearance. This means they were forcefully detained or abducted by individuals or groups belonging to the state or acting on behalf of, or with the support of the government with the explicit intention of avoiding they be located. Until now the investigations conducted by the Mexican government as well as by independent human rights groups, such as the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have been unable to confirm the whereabouts of the students.

9. Gerhard Richter in Hal Forster, The First Pop Age. Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

10. This work was exhibited for the first time at the Marso Gallery, in Mexico City, in 2013. The beautiful artist’s book by Luis Felipe Ortega was produced by that same gallery and Fundación Jumex. For Ortega’s statements, see “El ejercicio de observación” at


11. Remake was acquired in 2001 by the Centre Georges Pompidou. Among its most recent displays are the following: Strange Currencies. Art and Action in Mexico City, 1990-2000, curated by Kaytie Johnson at The Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia, 2016; and Le immagini reinventate, curated by Lucilla Meloni at the Centro di Arti Plastiche, Carrara, 2017.


12. See Alexis Salas, “Neither Here nor There”, 25.


13. For further analysis of the work, see: María Paz Amaro, Altamura. Filmar desde las entrañas. Conversación con Luis Felipe Ortega en torno a la pieza de video Altamura, in, October 9th, 2016.


14. The performance is closely related to the work by Luis Felipe Ortega Regarding the Edge of Things, which was presented in 2017 in the Museo Experimental El Eco, in Mexico City. In the museum space, redefined by powerful plastic interventions that had altered the structure of the building, the viewers struggled to recognize the artwork in which they were immersed. The reading of Samuel Beckett’s Company unfolded along with the movements of a couple of dancers and the performing of a guitar player. In this manner, the work coincided with the reading of the story.