Surreal experience with Orozco photos

Records of impossible events

Arts: Museums, Literature

August 19, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Photography is an art of the actual and the contingent, and thus its genius for factual description renders it ideally suited to capturing the surreal juxtapositions of everyday life.

The approximately 55 color photographs of Mexican-born artist Gabriel Orozco on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington are serio-comic exercises uncovering the world's visual contradictions and conundrums.

What else to make of a dog napping in the hollow of tree trunk that curves around the animal's body so naturally it looks like the pooch is asleep on its feet? Or two images in which the artist is first shown clasping his hands to his chest, then holding a heart-shaped lump of clay in his open palm?

Orozco's images work on the same principle as a surrealist painting by Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte, which their artistic colleague Max Ernst once summed up as "coupling two realities which apparently cannot be coupled, on a plane which is apparently not appropriate to them."

For the surrealists, such visual high jinks served a serious purpose: to break down the conventions of rational, linear thought to facilitate access to the higher truths of visions and dreams.

The surrealist coupling of apparently irreconcilable elements -- like the Zen koan that asks devotees to meditate on "the sound of one hand clapping" -- is a strategy for suspending normal mental processes long enough for the mind to grasp a higher order of being.

Surrealist painters invented deliberately incongruous scenarios and odd conjunctions -- who can forget Dali's impossible melting watches or Magritte's bowler-hatted businessmen? -- but Orozco feels no need to invent such scenarios when their equivalents can be unearthed so readily by the camera.

(There is a theory that all photographs, no matter how banal, are in some sense surreal anyway; the photographic conceit that the constantly changing flux of life can be instantaneously arrested and fixed on a flat sheet of paper is, after all, a complete physical impossibility.)

Orozco's photographs are records of impossible events and improbable truths that nevertheless provoke awe and wonder, which is why they are valuable. They demonstrate that the world is a much stranger place than we imagine, and that its strangeness is more interesting and more beautiful than we know.

The show runs through Sept. 6. The museum is at Independence Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest in Washington. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Call 202-357-2700 or 202-633-8043.

For more arts events, see Page 32.

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