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Orozco's playful, but serious art

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • Gabriel Orozco is one of Mexico's best-known contemporary artists
  • His work is a playful take on the urban experience
  • Star exhibits include a human skull covered in checker-board pattern and chopped up car

London, England (CNN) -- A human skull covered in a checker-board pattern; the middle third of a car removed with surgical precision; a claustrophobic elevator with a lowered ceiling.

These are works by Mexican multi-disciplinary artist Gabriel Orozco, currently on display at Tate Modern in London.

The artist is known for his tongue-in-cheek conceptual work that plays with the viewer's perceptions of everyday objects and urban life -- like the streamlined car, which from the side looks normal but viewed head-on is very wrong.

"It is true that there is one part of my work that probably is a little bit boyish," Orozco said of using games in his work, like a chess board four times the normal size, covered with only knights, and an oval billiards table with a ball suspended above it.

His playful pieces, though, are underpinned by an interest in the body and the way it moves in space. Games are just a way, he said, to try and understand the world and his own position in it.

It is true that there is one part of my work that probably is a little bit boyish.
--Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco

The skull piece, for example -- entitled "Black Kites" -- was created while the artist was recovering from a collapsed lung.

"They are two very natural materials somehow and they're both real, graphite is real, the head is a real head," he explained.

He continued: "It's about the process of thinking and perception of everything I guess -- life, death."

Less dramatic than Damien Hirst's $80 million diamond-encrusted skull, "Black Kites" is a quiet but impactful exploration of what the artist calls "an everyday material."

"All matter is social, and all matter has a political implication but I think that these are two very general prime matters that you find everywhere and it's not about anything that is fantastic or religious or something that is not real," he said.

Orozco has been described as "Mexico's foremost living artist" in The Economist and "a kind of Zorro for contemporary Mexican art" by curator Francesco Bonami, but his work isn't tied to his home country.

According to Jessica Morgan, curator of the exhibition at Tate Modern, Orozco's work deals with navigation on a global as well as urban scale.

She said: "He's continually moved in his own life, if it's a permanent transfer to New York in the early 1990s, when he took up residence there, keeping his home in Mexico, periods of time spent in Costa Rica, in Brazil, Paris -- these places very much informed his work."

"Yielding Stone," a ball of Plasticine that weighs the same amount as the artist, was rolled around the streets of Monterrey, Mexico and later New York, accumulating dirt and dust and the imprints of the city, and now sits still in the gallery space.

Installation "Chicotes," made especially for Tate Modern, is an entire gallery filled with strips and remnants of burst car tires collected from Mexican highways.

"Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe," meanwhile, is a series of photographs the artist shot while in Berlin. In 1995, Orozco rode around the city in a yellow Schwalbe motor scooter, looking for the same model, and then photographing them together.

"You can almost imagine Berlin as a huge chess board, perhaps," said Morgan.

Even in school, but right after school, I was feeling unhappy in the bubble of the studio and getting bored

"As he's moving around, he's placing his own piece, which is the Schwalbe, next to another one as he comes across one," she said.

A modern-day flaneur -- or someone who walks the city in order to experience it -- Orozco explained that he was drawn out of the studio at an early age and into the city to find inspiration for his work, often incorporating found objects in the street, or subtly altering them.

"Even in school, but right after school, I was feeling unhappy in the bubble of the studio and getting bored," he said.

He continued: "I'm also not so much like a hiking person, going to big countryside and looking at empty landscapes. I like city life, just wandering around."

The aim of his practice, he said, is to generate awareness, on numerous levels.

"Not just environmentally speaking, but in terms of geometry, in terms of gravity, in terms of social behavior, in terms of perception of everyday life," he said.

He added: "It's about generating a system or a practice of awareness that can be transmitted and establish(ing) communication with someone else."