“They was helicopters,” claimed a Midwestern farmer repeatedly on an audiotape I heard back in 1986. Who knows what he thought about being hypnotized to reconstruct his alien abduction, much less what he went through that day in his field — but if we do believe him (not that he necessarily even believed himself), then no doubt they wasn’t helicopters. No such fear of abduction in Rubén Ortiz Torres’ helicopterlike “Alien Toyz” — an exploded view of a Nissan truck turned “wicked bed” for the artist by low-rider and “radical bed champion” Salvador “Chava” Muñoz — not because it’s labeled an “unidentified cruising object,” but because it’s art (c.f., Jean Tinguely, Survival Research Laboratories, etc.) and, thankfully, it’s not going anywhere.
Art and UFOs have been an easy fit for me since the mid-’80s when I spent a few months as studio assistant to artist Budd Hopkins, a third-generation Abstract Expressionist and recognized UFO investigator. (He wrote both Missing Times and Intruders.) In the years since working in his studio while audiotapes of hypnotic sessions like the farmer’s played over loudspeakers, art’s potential as an “alien” activity (read “advanced,” “avant-garde” — or in Ortiz Torres’ words, “Duchamp was an alien . . .”) has seemed pretty tame to me. Nevertheless, the explosion of art about UFOs and alien abductions does make sense in terms of our ongoing search for any transgression that resists co-option in our cynical, “abjectified” world. What makes Ortiz Torres’ work distinct from most of the rest is its ability to stay glued to some real-world problems — immigration, racism, economic policy — without sacrificing its just-landed, “take me to your leader” position. In our part of the Earth, where “alien” is usually a derisive term used by xenophobes, Ortiz Torres makes a convincing case that we face a greater threat from those who claim to belong.
First shown at San Diego–Tijuana joint expo inSITE97 last fall (on the San Diego side), Ortiz Torres’ truck has been modified so that it can dramatically scissor itself into pieces; it’s capable at any moment of launching its side doors and/or bed into the air on hydraulic arms that enable each part to spin at a pretty good clip. The entire front of the truck also becomes a separate entity, driving away to watch its own rear end dance. We know about all of this action because the work comes complete with its own video projection, which shows a (private? secret?) “performance” in the desert. Also interwoven into the action are clips of toy model cars dancing with Mexican puppets, and, unfortunately, the requisite footage from UFO sightings, Star Wars and Independence Day. The sculpture doesn’t need any help from clichés; it’s better off just “being itself” in a form-follows-function sort of way. In other (art) words, if Charlie Ray’s recently seen sculpture of a crashed car can be read as a big gray brain struck dumb on the floor (“this is your brain, this is your brain on . . . “), then Ortiz Torres’ truck is best left both conceptually and politically as 100 percent pure energy.
RUBÉN ORTIZ TORRES:
At TRACK 16 GALLERY
2525 Michigan Ave.,
Through February 20