Gabriel Orozco was born 1962 in Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. A commitment to contemporary everyday reality and its observation unites Orozco’s heterogeneous practice of sculpture, photography, painting, drawing, architecture and video. Emblematic of this ambition, Observatory House (2006) in Oxacaca, Mexico, appears an implicitly utopian gesture. It retrieves the circular ruins of the second largest monument to Vedic mysticism and astronomical observatory, Jai Prakash Yantra, Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, India (1724) and appropriates them into twenty-first century Central America. Its minimalist structure recalls a Platonic spherical scheme, a recurring motif of utopian architectural aspirations. Indeed Orozco’s experiment with turning the hemisphere into a perfect sphere in a preliminary drawing Aguapracasa explicitly recalls the unrealised utopian Enlightenment visions of Étienne-Louis Boullée (Cenotaph to Isaac Newton 1789) and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (catacomb for his ideal town Chaux (1774). An Enlightenment commitment to science and rational empiricism is posited by the name of Orozco’s house and the measuring function of Jai Prakash Yantra. By drawing a relationship to the sky, theories on the sublime are inevitably invoked. However such classically utopian readings of the building would contradict the philosophy posited by the rest of Orozco’s oeuvre. Observatory House might be better understood as a deconstruction of classical conceptions of utopia. The function of Jai Prakash Yantra, originally a sundial, is immediately made redundant in Observatory House by being filled with water, its spatio-temporal context ruptured, the architecture - originally two hemi-spheres set in cruciforms - severed in half, the public building made private and represented for the art industry as a two-dimensional image or a small-scale model, denying the building’s possibility for ‘contemplative immersion.’ Orozco insists ‘I didn’t want my house to be utopia.’
The word ‘utopia’ has become, it seems, profane: confused with ideology, meta-narratives, and universal normative claims to be thrown out, like a muted baby with postmodernism’s murky bath water. The idea that architecture could enact major social change, indeed that any utopic space could be staged, ought be added to the list of descriptive obituaries featured in Orozco’s series of large prints, Obit (2008). However, considering the semantics of ‘utopia’, which comes from a neologism of the Greek ‘no place’ (οὐτόπος) and ‘good place’ (εὖτόπος), it might be asked why the concept is any less accessible today, than it has been historically. What might be called for is a semantic distinction; a stripping of the ideological baggage attached to the word ‘utopia’ and a new articulation of it contextualised within recent epistemological shifts. It will be the attempt of this paper to suggest how a rearticulated understanding of utopia might be understood to manifest in the twenty-first century, looking primarily at the work of Orozco. Inverting the usual understanding of Thomas More’s ambiguous pun to posit that ‘no place’ offers the ‘good place’, I will look at how Orozco explores ‘no place’ throughout his work in pursuit of his ultimately visionary ambition of transforming reality. How, through methods simultaneously subversive, redemptive and humorous, Orozco offers an enduring utopic pulse, salvaging the utopic baby, with both its ludic redemptive laughter and its wailing call to attention, that something, somewhere is still wrong.
“Impossible Utopias is an original and elegantly-written meditation on the political potential of Gabriel Orozco’s subtle body of work. Starting out from a close reading of Observatory House, a lesser-known work by the artist that also doubles as his holiday home, Lily Cole develops a persuasive account of the momentary utopias that are opened up by Orozco’s playful experiments with everyday reality. In so doing, Cole also contributes to an urgent project to reassert the impossible possibility of utopian thought in and for the twenty-first century.” —Luke Skrebowski, University Lecturer in the History of Art, University of Cambridge