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Beetles, beyond the sum of their parts

A three-part work by Mexican artist Damian Ortega uses the VW Bug as the medium to explore the aspects of man and nature, industry and culture that make up his message.

October 30, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — IF this isn't where Volkswagen Beetles come to die, it's surely where they come to reproduce.

You see them all over this manic metropolis, their bulbous bodies scurrying around like scarabs gone berserk. Most visible are the hundreds of green-and-white VW taxis, their dashboards piled with little plastic statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe and St. Jude to keep robbers and kidnappers at bay. Other Bugs are family vehicles, offering cheap transportation to Mexico's urban lower-middle class. Small but fierce, they elbow their way past buses and zip around lumbering trucks.

On a mild autumn afternoon here recently, Damian Ortega stepped into the cobbled streets of the picturesque Tlalpan district, where he keeps his art studio, and hailed one of the ubiquitous VW cabs. To Ortega, the homely little "people's car" is more than just a cheap way of getting from A to B. It's the quintessential Mexican Every-car for the quintessential Mexican Everyman, a stalwart voyageur that ventures out each day to do battle with monster traffic jams and noxious air, like some sort of modern, metallic Ulysses.

It didn't take seeing Disney's "The Love Bug" to make Ortega ponder the almost mystical attachment that some Mexicans feel toward their Beetles. The artist was born in 1967, the same year that Volkswagen opened a manufacturing plant in Puebla and began churning out its distinctive cars. Arriving at a time when working-class Mexicans were striving for upward mobility and the country was swelling with nationalistic pride and student unrest as it prepared to host the 1968 Olympic Games, the Beetle came to symbolize a nation in swift, unsettling transition. Ortega can remember when his parents bought their first VW Bug, in the late 1960s, and when they gifted him with a Beetle of his own in 1983. "I think it was the cheapest car, really," he says, "and it was a perfect car for the city and for a small family."

These disparate associations -- mythic, aesthetic, socioeconomic -- are the framework around which Ortega constructed "The Beetle Trilogy," which will have its Los Angeles debut this week in an unusual collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Gallery at REDCAT. With the humble Volkswagen as its unlikely protagonist, the trilogy traces a narrative cycle of life, death and resurrection that is, by turns, comic, heroic and oddly moving.

The first element of Ortega's three-part work is the sculpture "Cosmic Thing" (2002), a disassembled gray Beetle that is being strung from a ceiling grid in MOCA's large, skylighted Gallery A. Acquired for MOCA's permanent collection shortly after it was completed, "Cosmic Thing" exaggerates the Bug's anthropomorphic features by exploding its parts outward in space, giving it the head-on appearance of a giant insect or alien life form. Imposing and disorienting in its monumental scale, "Cosmic Thing" has put some critics in mind of an Aztec pyramid.

Giving a Bug life

THE trilogy's second and third episodes involve an extended conceptual riff on the idea of the Bug as a mysterious living entity with a will of its own. "Moby Dick" (2005) is a 16mm film documentation of an action/performance that Ortega orchestrated last summer on a surreal stretch of L.A.'s lower Grand Avenue, between the loading docks of MOCA and REDCAT. In it, Ortega stages a physical (and metaphysical) tug of war with a greased-wheel Bug attached to ropes and pulleys. Aided by four grunting assistants -- including REDCAT gallery director-curator Eungie Joo -- Ortega wrestled with the car as it lunged like a harpooned whale.

Meanwhile, a group of musicians assembled for the occasion banged out Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick," which features a legendary, seemingly endless solo by drummer John Bonham, hammering away with a monomaniacal intensity worthy of Capt. Ahab. "It was very interesting to see how strong you had to be to control the car, because they all four were red and they were sweating ... like the car had become stronger than we would think," says MOCA associate curator Alma Ruiz, who compared the spectacle to Gulliver trying to free himself from the Lilliputians' bonds. "It was really beautiful to see."

Herman Melville's novel "Moby-Dick," a story that Ortega says he has known since childhood, is a 19th century Romantic epic about man versus nature, or God, in the early decades of the industrial age. Ortega's "Moby Dick" might be described as a mock epic that interrogates humanity's relationship to nature and the divine in our own anxious post-industrial age. Edited down to about 15 minutes, the filmed version of "Moby Dick" will be projected on a curved REDCAT gallery wall that evokes the concrete sweep of lower Grand Avenue.

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