Art, Movies, and The Heisenberg Effect

Last Sunday at the Hirshhorn, I saw a great documentary about one of my favorite artists. Juan Carlos Martin followed Gabriel Orozco around the world for three years, filming and taping the meandering artist's creative process, his installations, and the art world's reactions to his work.

To my eyes, apparent slightness is one of the most powerful aspects of Orozco's work. Martin's film reveals the intensely sustained effort Orozco's effortless-looking art requires. Weeks of tedious fabrication in a small Mexican hamlet translates into an unassuming beachscape in a German museum. The objects exhibited in The Penske Project turns out to be the tip of the iceberg of searching, alteration, and driving in the rental truck that gave the show its name. "When I'm enjoying the process, I know the result will be OK," Gabriel's voiceover explains.

With palimpsest voiceovers and interviews, raw camera movement and editing, and a marked lack of self-importance, Martin's film is a standout in the deathly boring artist documentary genre. (Think talking academic heads, the artist walking on cue, and endless tracking shots through an empty museum.) But this light-n-lively touch has its drawbacks, and they still bug.

My biggest complaint is the missed opportunities. Several importnant exhibits and projects from during the filming were omitted, which is understandable, except when it means not making obvious, illuminating connections to events that made the cut.

One example: the film opens with footage Gabriel shot for the film when Martin couldn't come with him to Rome. Orozco's camera goes behind an apparently antique statue to reveal its base is actually a hollowed out box of German foamboard insulation. From one angle, the appearance of substance. From another, the artifice revealed. This precise idea permeates Orozco's show at the Philadelphia Museum, where foamcore mounted photo models of his own iconic works are propped up on little brackets. The show's there, the skull's there, the curator's there, but the show's core idea--which was already introduced in the film--goes unmentioned.

The artist's voluminous archive makes several tantalizing appearances, but there's no mention of how, why, or when some of its pages turn into works of art themselves. I've got some of these on my wall right now, so I'd really like to know. The process? The lines between life and art, work and art, film and art?

Martin is so determined to not even attempt interpretations of Orozco's work, I'm doubting now, wondering what was the point. Even though I know some of the point of the art, I sometimes felt like the film was its own justification, a convenient excuse for Martin to tag along with his globe-roaming buddy. ("When I'm enjoying the process," he says...)

Ultimately, though, its the filmmaking process and its potential effect on Orozco and his own work that I'm fixating on. Footage he shot of himself? No problem, it's explained as such in the voiceover. It's what goes unaddressed.

During the time of the documentary, Orozco made his own group of videos for a show at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam [I've written about them before. They're AWESOME.]

Images of distant plane contrails which feature prominently in Orozco's videos are also interspersed throughout Martin's film. Yet the exhibit--and Orozco's videos--don't get a single mention in the film. I can understand if Martin wants to avoid the solipsistic problems of having his documentary morph into another of Gabriel's works.

But it's not him I'm wondering about, it's Orozco. Did the documentary crew and camera by his side inspire or influence his own video work and his vision? Did it inform his process? To what extent are these works--and any works that were made during filming--by-products of the filming itself? Is there some art world version of the Heisenberg Effect at play, where scrutiny and attentiveness invariably affect the art? I've gotta dig around on this one.

Gabriel Orozco screensagain at the Hirshhon on Sept. 5th and is preceded by a gallery talk from Phyllis Rosenzweig, who curated the Hirshhorn's current Orozco exhibition.

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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first published: July 30, 2004.

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