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In a side gallery off the Guggenheim’s main spiral, it looks like a tide of water came and went, leaving behind piles of bricks, wood, and detritus ripped from their original contexts and tossed into disarray. It’s not unlike certain parts of the New York City area, post-Sandy. The difference is that in the museum, the scrabble is neatly arranged into a rectangular patch of floor and organized by color in a rainbow gradient only slightly darkened by mud.
This is Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco’s “Sandstars,” a collection of objects excavated from the sands of Isla Arena, Mexico, a wildlife preserve and mating ground from which the artist famously removed an entire whale skeleton that he covered in graceful graphite lines for his piece “Mobile Matrix.” Though “Sandstars” was made far before Sandy and in a vastly different climate, the work brings immediately to mind the ravages of natural disaster in a city, and in particular an art community, still reeling from flooding.
Rather than the pain of sodden canvases and destroyed archives witnessed in Chelsea and other neighborhoods over the past week, however, Orozco’s artifacts, ranging from lengths of driftwood to construction helmets, glass bottles, and worn-out buoys, inspire in the viewer — well, I’m not sure what, exactly. An admiration for the artist’s ability to get a lot of people to dig for treasure, perhaps? A well-balanced sense of color and shape?
Orozco’s careful composition, with lines of empty space between each disparate object, and his slow arc of color, shifting from dark browns and washed-out whites to bright oranges and greens, bring to mind nothing so much as the popular Tumblr Things Organized Neatly, which is pretty much what the project is, and seems content to remain (in fact, the piece was recently posted on the blog).
“Sandstars” might be favorably compared to I Spy books, but it inspires a similarly superficial kind of aesthetic pursuit. It’s an entertaining diversion to hunt around for funny objects like a giant, rusted sphere that looks like a mine or the remains of an axe with the head still on, but that doesn’t make for a particularly enriching experience. Nor does the provenance of Orozco’s finds deepen their meaning, except perhaps in the context of the artist’s own career, as a kind of self-hagiography.
The self-consciously genteel arrangement removes some of the objects’ weight and power, making them less relics of mankind’s impact on the Earth than souvenirs of a day at the beach. They lack the pathos of Orozco’s early photographs, which also feature found objects appropriated into an artistic dialogue, but come with a palpable edge of frustration and a desperation to be heard and make an impact on the world. See his “Pinched Ball” (1993) or “My Hands Are My Heart” (1991).
The “Sandstars” array is part of a larger exhibition at the Guggenheim called Asterisms. The other works in the show include a rehearsal of the same idea on a smaller scale — a collection of odds and ends found at an Astroturf field by the artist’s home in Chelsea — as well as an object-by-object photographic typology of the installation, both of which suffer from the same problems. It’s all more Pinterest than powerful.
Gabriel Orozco’s Asterisms runs at the Guggenheim (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 13.