MEXICO CITY — A scene from a grotesque flesh ritual is acted out in the main gallery of Raúl Ortega Ayala’s Food for Thought, a show revealing humanity’s incredible capacity to consume. It might ruin your appetite, but beneath the drama there are layers of subtlety and nuance in the video works and installation. The works, which span the top floor and the basement galleries of Proyectos Monclova, are part of the same series but comprise distinct projects dealing with consumption and food in two different ways. The artist connects consumption habits to ceremony, debauchery, and the decline of society.
The video works on the top floor deal directly with food culture through a style of artistic-anthropological study, which marks the culmination of three years of research for Ortega Ayala. Three videos are accompanied by two small paintings tucked into the corners of the installation, leaving the main gallery mostly dark. Amid the darkness, three warm floodlights illuminate “Babel Fat Tower” (2010), a contemporary nod to Pieter Bruegel’s masterpiece. An actual tower of lard, the sculpture emits a subtle stench as the lights heat the glistening pile, which is intended to melt down over the course of the exhibition. The metaphor isn’t exactly subtle, but the stinking pile loans a meaty materiality to the cold video installation nearby.
Alongside the large video projections, the small paintings don’t call attention to themselves. They are inspired by foie gras and stuffed pig, except that the overfed animals in these images are represented by human hands making shadow puppets, and they allude to another motif that echoes throughout the show — the performance of food. They also reveal the painter in Ortega Ayala. This painterliness reemerges in the videos, where the artist frames human figures in compositions reminiscent of a Rembrandt, emphasizing the fleshy body and packing the frame with a tangle of limbs and saturated colors.
The pair of projections in the main gallery space make up the two-channel video work, “Tomatina-Tim” (2016). On one screen, Ortega Ayala films the annual La Tomatina festival in Buñol, Spain from above, its many participants dissolving into a sweaty mass of bodies covered in blood-red tomato juice and flesh. Despite the festive atmosphere and the zealous roar of a thousand drunken bros, the drama turns dark and sad when the tomatoes run out and the crowd disperses, leaving people strewn about, sitting or lying in the wet trash. The noise of the crowd dies down and a woman’s scream is identifiable amid the din. Then we see her on the screen, surrounded by a throng of shirtless men trying to rip her shirt off — apparently part of the tradition of the festival, as seen during the peak of the tomato mashing madness, but the assault and the woman’s desperation are palpable.
On the opposite screen, a hotdog-eating champion and professional gurgitator named Tim sits down casually to a pile of a few dozen hotdogs at the famous restaurant Nathan’s, smashing them into his mouth two at a time and soaking the buns in water so that they slide down his throat more easily. This training routine of excess epitomizes something pathological in our culture of consumption, where satiation is never possible. Part of Ortega Ayala’s intention is to underline the ridiculous pointlessness of these ceremonies, whose only purposes are indulging gluttony and celebrating excess — how appropriately and sickeningly poignant. The festival of debauchery and wasted food in Spain bears the markings of an ancient pagan fertility ritual, but there is no higher meaning here, as Kim Córdova points out in the exhibition text. Are there traditions of excess, or does gluttony itself fill the void left by a lack of tradition?
Another video on view, “Untitled (Cheese Rolling)” (2017), documents the flailing, tumbling, tangled participants of the now world-famous festival in Gloucestershire, England, where participants race down a steep hill in pursuit of a tumbling wheel of cheese, resulting in a variety of totally avoidable blunt trauma injuries. The slow motion video shows the martyrdom of the townspeople willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of decontextualized tradition.
There is a deeper metaphor about ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ suggested by Ortega Ayala’s work downstairs. In the main gallery, a very strange scene awaits. A feast has been prepared, based on a vintage image of a buffet at the Windows on the World restaurant, which served clients atop the North Tower of the original World Trade Center. This powerful evocation of September 11 gave way to a shared meal during the exhibition opening, the spread surrounded by vitrines of images and newspaper clippings documenting the cleanup of the collapsed skyscrapers. The meal’s moldy leftovers remain on display in the gallery. In the vitrines, Ortega Ayala traces the material of the felled towers to companies in India and China, which purchased the twisted metal as scrap steel in order to make new buildings, housewares, or maybe even weapons. The common practice of recycling scrap steel is suddenly complicated by tragedy and the enormous, all-encompassing cycle of destruction and construction.
In Food for Thought, Ortega Ayala attempts to connect modern practices of gluttony with their possible origins in tradition or ritual, but the result is an expression of some primitive desire of the flesh to get drunk and dirty. The image of the mythical tower turned into an homage to lard alludes to our corrupted best intentions to reach toward the heavens. The artist portrays modernity, through the recycling of an unimaginably destructive tragedy, as the evolution of our attempts to clean up the mess from the trial and error of building (and rebuilding) civilization.
Raul Ortega Ayala: Food for Thought continues at Proyectos Monclova (Colima 55, Roma Norte, Mexico City) through June 10.