Like many other Londoners, I first heard of Jorge Otero-Pailos with his knockout The Ethics of Dust show in 2016, in which he applied, pulled off and displayed an absorbent latex panel across an entire wall of Westminster Hall. Under that spectacular medieval hammerbeam roof, the Spanish-born, US-based artist confronted us with the layered debris of centuries of our history. An unforgettable sight!
Five years later, Otero-Pailos is showing in London again, digging into some more recent history. A large sculpture in Regent’s Park is joined by eight smaller ones at Holtermann Fine Art. They’re all made from sections of a security fence that previously surrounded the US embassy in Oslo, Norway.
The backstory of this fence is a microcosm of broader political trends. It was installed earlier this century in the wake of 9/11, in the midst of the dark paranoia of the War on Terror and all of its knock-on effects on embassy security. The fence surrounded an architecturally important building, designed by Eero Saarinen - midcentury master of swoopy furniture (like the iconic Tulip chair) and monuments (the Gateway Arch in St Louis).
When the aesthetically-pleasing embassy was listed as being of historical importance, the fence was excluded from the listing. By that point, it was just an embarrassing Bush-era hangover. The bulldozers moved in in 2019, and Otero-Pailos, his eye as ever on history, reclaimed broken sections of the fence as monumental sculptures.
So here they stand in a smart art gallery in London, fragments welded to black metal bases. They form surprisingly elegant curlicues, shadows of which play on the walls thanks to clever lighting. Looking closer, I fixated on the flaking paint on the fence, a particularly hideous and numbing shade of dark grey.
To fully enjoy Otero-Pailos’ work, you need to know the back story. These pleasing metal shapes take on the weight of history, once we know where they’re from. Just as an ugly rectilinear fencing can become a pleasing swoopy sculpture, a swoopy sculpture can become an important totem of history - as well as a work of art. All it takes is the artist. And the viewer.
Jorge Otero-Pailos: American Fence is at Holtermann Fine Art (London). 17 September - 31 October 2021