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Now you see it, now you don’t

In Damián Ortega’s “Olympus, 2009,’’ every piece of a 35mm camera is pulled apart and held in position by 26 plastic sheets in two display cases. In Damián Ortega’s “Olympus, 2009,’’ every piece of a 35mm camera is pulled apart and held in position by 26 plastic sheets in two display cases. (Charles Mayer)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 12, 2010

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Seven years after separating a discarded Volkswagen Beetle into all — and I mean all — its constituent parts and suspending them from a ceiling like a diagram transposed to three dimensions, Damián Ortega made this sculpture.

It’s the same principle: Every part of this obsolescent 35mm Olympus camera has been pulled apart, the pieces held in position by 26 plastic sheets in two display cases spread out along a horizontal axis. The work came into the permanent collection of the ICA last year, not long after Ortega was the subject of a show there.

The conceit makes marvelous use of the idea of the cross-section view, and of the assembly manual. Most of us might balk at the idea of putting together a camera from scratch. But Ortega’s sculpture gives keen-eyed do-it-yourselfers at least the illusion that they, given the right parts, could make a decent go of it.

Democratizing the means of production? Ortega, who was born in Mexico City and now divides his time between his birthplace and Berlin, frequently addresses the inequities and alienation of global capitalism in his work. So that may be part of the general idea.

But as with all of his best work, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

In fact, just how much of anything “meets the eye’’ — either directly or through a camera or even in the brightly illuminated setting of a museum — is his real subject.

The camera is a device for seeing, for recording visual phenomena. But this one — made obsolete by technology and physically pulled apart — is clearly past the point of usefulness.

Its display looks like a careful exercise in transparency — every piece visible, every part’s relationship to every other part made legible. But in fact, when seen from an angle, the plastic sheets holding the parts blur vision. They’re translucent but not transparent. It’s impossible to get a detailed view of the whole camera.

Photographs, too, always show us the part, never the whole. And in society at large (Ortega is the kind of artist who is always asking us to think about society at large), the same thing goes: The political and economic mantra of the day may well be transparency, but the things that matter seem more obscured than ever.

What most beguiles me about this piece is the way the parts of the zoom lens extend so far from the camera’s body. Ortega loves toying with metaphors, and the obvious one here is that the extension of the parts of the lens matches the zoom’s telescopic potential. But perhaps it’s also a comment on our specialized and fragmented culture: The more we zoom in on any field, the more alienated from its neighboring parts that field can seem (investment bankers who trade mortgages don’t talk to homeowners; architects forget to consult builders). Of course, from the viewpoint of physics, it’s a reality: The more we home in on matter, the more we see that, at the subatomic level, matter is engulfed by space.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

OLYMPUS, 2009 Damián Ortega

At: Institute of Contemporary Art. Through Jan. 17. 617-478-3100. www.icaboston.org