The Stuff of Life

Artists challenge assumptions about our daily lives in a new exhibition at the Tufts Art Gallery
OrtaWater-Fluvial Intervention Unit installation by Lucy and Jorge Orta
OrtaWater-Fluvial Intervention Unit, 2005, by Lucy and Jorge Orta. Photo: Alonso Nichols
September 25, 2012

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It takes more than a few minutes to make sense of the puzzling sculptural mash-ups in the American premiere of Food-Water-Life, a new exhibition showing at the Tufts Art Gallery through Dec. 16.

A frenzied tangle of hoses, their nozzles aimed helter-skelter, curves wildly around water cans and a life-size canoe. These “Mobile Intervention Units” require you to walk around them, move in close and then back away in search of some kind of meaning.

Parachutes descend from the ceiling, bearing incongruous packages: one with pots, pans, knives, forks and other cooking utensils, the other a collection of stuffed toys. What kind of rescue mission are they on?

Working from the Paris studio they opened in 1992, husband-and-wife artists Lucy and Jorge Orta have been goading gallery-goers with such visual puzzles in exhibitions across Europe since 2005. Food-Water-Life is an extension of their individual work: Lucy focuses on disrupting assumptions about the role of clothing and habitat; Jorge illuminates mythical sites and architectural icons from around the world.

The exhibition at Tufts comprises more than 15 sculptures, 10 drawings and a video in service of the Ortas’ stated goal to help change people’s attitudes and habits and activate debate on the availability of food, water scarcity and what values shape our society.

Their work extends beyond the provocative assemblage of gallery objects. In 2007 they erected 50 tents on Antarctica, covering each with sections of flags from many nations. They called the installation Antarctic Village, saying it represented how life might begin anew on this frozen continent, which the 1959 Antarctic Treaty declared a global territory off limits to military or commercial exploitation.

The food section of the Food-Water-Life installation at the Tufts University Art Gallery. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The flag the Ortas created for their imagined village now flies over the Aidekman Arts Center, on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus, and replicas of the flag have replaced the six flags representing the U.S., Tufts University and the Fletcher School that are normally flown in the courtyard outside the Fletcher School. The Antarctica flag is a kaleidoscope of nations where “the edges blend, symbolizing belonging to a larger common identity,” the Ortas wrote in a book that accompanies the exhibition. “This flag should become the flag of the new world community.”

Visitors to the Tufts exhibition can participate in the couple’s Antarctica experience. You can get a passport declaring you a citizen of Antarctica—1,000 are available at Tufts, out of a total of 10,000. Your name will be added to an online database developed by MIT that the Ortas plan to eventually share as part of a presentation to the United Nations.

The collection of objects at the Art Gallery, called “Antarctic Village—No Borders,” evokes the expedition with a series of survival kits: life jackets festooned with the tools of an emergency rescue mission are mounted on the gallery walls. The aforementioned parachutes are dropping supplies to this new society, one the Ortas envision as combating barbarity and poverty and protecting human dignity and the environment.

The Ortas have said that their work demands that we stop and rethink how we eat and drink, and what values we choose to live by.

The water cans and hoses that populate “Storage Unit” ask us to consider water purification and accessibility. In “Mexican Kitchen,” a recycled Mexican gas grill replete with cooking utensils and fruit crates asks us to ponder how a different food production system could better address issues of scarcity and waste.

The Ortas push us into new territories, literally and figuratively, writes Simonetta Carbonaro, a consumer psychologist and strategic design expert, by urging “us to reflect on our model for human progress and development, looking well beyond the standard parameters.”

After the exhibition closes at Tufts, it will travel to Wesleyan University, Cornell University and DePauw University at Greencastle.

Lucy and Jorge Orta will speak about their work on Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 12:30 p.m. at the Alfond Auditorium, Museum of Fine Arts; the lecture is free and open to the public.

The Tufts University Art Gallery, located at 40 Talbot Ave., Medford, Mass., is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information call 617.627.3518 or visit http://artgallery.tufts.edu.