The Ghosts of Muralism

Luis M. Castañeda
Jan 25, 2013 9:18PM

Absent yet ever-present in Damián Ortega's Controller of the Universe are the ghosts of two mural works by Diego Rivera. The first mural is Man at the Crossroads (1934), commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller for Rockefeller Center in New York, which positions a laborer operating an ambiguous machine in the center of a composition that pictures vignettes of a world driven by the clashing forces of fascism, capitalism and socialism, and also transformed by technology and industrialization. This mural was famously destroyed on account of its inclusion of Lenin as part of this politically charged image, in the context of backlash against Rivera's otherwise popular work in the United States. Rivera completed and installed a second version of it titled Man, Controller of the Universe at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City (See it here: http://www.usfca.edu/uploadedImages/Destinations/College_of_Arts_and_Sciences/Student_Academic_Services/Summer_Reading_Project/images/rivera.universe.jpg). Ortega's work plays with the memory of these murals' 'ghosts' in several ways. It replaces the solid walls on which the imagery of these murals rests with the void of the room where the found objects hang here. It replaces the heroic laborer in the center of Rivera's compositions with a conspicuous absence, and it places the objects that facilitate labor at the center of his work instead. Perhaps, Ortega is inviting us to think about the place that artists and laborers occupy in a world that may not appear to be as ideologically divided as the one Rivera saw, but where seemingly invisible forces continue to shape the course of history.

Luis M. Castañeda
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