RTD offered up an old trash can. The state Forest Service sent a tree stump. The iconic clothing store Rockmount Ranch Wear was the source for a pair of cowboy boots.
Others donated skis, toys, furniture and musical instruments. One guy sent a coffin; turns out his clan decided to cremate the family matriarch instead of burying her in the ground, and so he didn’t really need it.
Coloradans far and wide answered the call to send objects — random objects — that could be part of artist Gabriel Rico’s towering public sculptures that debuted in downtown Denver’s Tail Tracks Plaza this month.
Now they are there, gathered together into five totems spread across the hardscape public park that rise as high as 17 feet off the ground. Want to know who we are, as told by our stuff? Spend a little time wandering among the kayaks, bicycles, traffic cones and bar stools assembled into Rico’s piece, titled “La inclusión de mi raza.”
That name translates into “The Inclusion of My Race,” though the work is not necessarily race-specific. The totality of objects transcends the already murky categories we use to describe ourselves and set our identities apart. Theoretically, the pieces could have been donated by anyone, of any background, and in that way multiple races are included.
Rico is going for something deeper than how we get along with each other, exploring the way humans relate to objects. He pulls these assorted things out of their usual context, and away from the common associations we have with them, and asks us to reconsider them on their own. He gives them an actual, undeniable presence in the universe, an agency apart from who owns them or uses them.
Then he adds a mystical layer using augmented reality that makes the piece fully interactive. Download an app on-site, point your phone (or one of the free, loaner tablets) at the work and other, realistic creatures appear on the screen: a mountain lion, fox, bear and moose.
Beyond that, other moving and more human-related objects become visible, beings that seem to have been animated from anatomical drawings. A skeleton walks around, as does something that looks like a disembodied cardiovascular system, a nervous system and a muscular system. None of the objects have actual skin or hair so, again, it’s race-inclusive.
If you’ve never experienced augmented reality, the exhibition offers an easy introduction. It’s a weird and adventurous treasure hunt, searching the scene for these elusive creatures. But once you locate them, you can walk right up to and around them and examine things from every angle. The technology is simple to operate, especially for kids accustomed to screen life, but there is a staffer on-site if you need help (Wednesdays through Sundays. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. but the technology works 24/7).
What you do with all this information Rico provides is pretty much up to you. A viewer can just sit back and marvel at the accumulation of junk that ascends in the air. The engineering is a small wonder, with the big objects welded together at the bottom of each totem forming a support structure that steadies the objects above. The augmented reality is not a prerequisite for appreciating the work.
But a challenge is there, if you want it, to decipher the piece, and to consider all of the things you have and whether or not you need them, or — to turn that notion on its head — whether or not they need you. After all, so much of the basic materials on display, made from plastic, metal and whatever, will be around long after you’re gone; these objects have a life of their own and a relationship to the planet and each other that has nothing to do with you.
And one facet of the artwork (and it’s just one), the inescapable idea that we may own and produce more things than we need, resonates particularly deeply in downtown Denver. The totems are close to the redeveloped Union Station and swank places like the Museum of Contemporary Art, and a nearly-new Whole Foods and tons of hotels and pricey restaurants that all seem to be serving raw seafood in a city that is far away from any ocean.
But they also exist among homeless people, in an area where drug use is common and our country’s mental health crisis is on full display. Looking at all of this discardable junk, in a place where some humans keep all of their earthly possessions in a shopping cart, brings up plenty of things to think about.
In all of those ways, “La inclusión de mi raza” is a successful piece of public art: fun and colorful, deep and disturbing, big and unavoidable and full of ambition. Gabriel Rico is one of the most sought-after artists in the hemisphere these days. His work pops up in exhibitions and art fairs across the globe. He is represented by OMR, a top-tier Mexico City gallery, and is busy enough to employ a half-dozen full-time workers in his home studio in Guadalajara, Mexico.
There is a sense of play in his work and plenty of art-history references that elevate his thoughtful constructions. It is possible to connect his methods to a list of important art movements, from collage to assemblage to every sort of abstraction. His use of found objects updates, unmistakably, the “readymades” that art icon Marcel Duchamp created in the mid-20th century. There is even a toilet among the items in “La inclusión de mi raza” mirroring the urinal that Duchamp used in his most famous piece, “Fountain.”
At the same time, the new piece is intimate, inclusive, community-driven and collaborative. It was curated by Cortney Lane Stell, of Black Cube Nomadic Art Museum, and sponsored by the Biennial of the Americas. The two Denver-based organizations have been responsible for an abundance of world-class public art over the past decade.
“La inclusión de mi raza” is, in a sense, what you make of it. For some, it will be a pile of trash, for others a reflection of who they are and what they have. But it is an opportunity, for everyone, to see this city from a different — and not necessarily human — perspective.
If you go
“La inclusión de mi raza” continues through Nov. 13 at Tail Tracks Plaza, 16th Street between Wynkoop and Wewatta streets. Info and interviews with the artist online at blackcube.art or biennialoftheamericas.org.
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