"DIRECTIONS -- Gabriel Orozco: Extension of Reflection" at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is, in a sense, a sculpture show masquerading as photography. Which makes perfect sense, given the museum's deep and abiding affection for the 3-D.
Make no mistake: These are plain old pictures here.
Yet what they are pictures of, is, in no uncertain terms, statuary. Found statuary, occasionally -- as in the case of a dog sleeping on an impossibly vertical rock, a hanging leaf, an array of grave markers in a Malian cemetery, a clump of sheep or a patch of snow filigreed with a trace of yellow urine -- but more often than not they are made sculptures. You'd sometimes be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
So subtle are some of the Mexican-born artist's sculptural "interventions" that, on occasion it's hard to tell exactly what he's taking a picture of -- or why. The 1993 "Island Within an Island" is at first glance a rather prosaic shot of the World Trade Center towers, taken from an unscenic spot along the Lower Manhattan waterfront. On closer inspection, however, it's suddenly clear that what Orozco has done is to arrange a series of discarded wooden boards along the side of a Jersey barrier in the foreground to mimic the New York skyline.
Other examples of displacement are more obvious, as in Orozco's set-up shot of a pile of grocery-store watermelons supporting several cans of strategically placed cat food. In the artist's playful recontextualization, the repetition of the cat's face on the cans' labels unexpectedly animates everything else in the picture, even our own expectations of what art is.
To what end Orozco does this is not always clear. Sometimes the joke is more verbal than visual, and the payoff disappointing, as when he sticks a slice of citrus in a pay phone coin slot and calls it "Lemon Distance Call." Ouch.
At his best, there's a palpable sense of vertigo and disorientation that kicks in, as when he lays a clay "worm" along the gutter of a two-page National Geographic photo spread depicting an aerial view of a traffic jam, rephotographing it to create an eye- and mind-bending conundrum.
Like contemporary sculptors Dan Steinhilber, Andy Goldsworthy and Tony Feher, each of whom regularly perform subtle manipulations on such commonplace objects as soda bottles, leaves and plastic shopping bags (or like any number of so-called earth artists before them), Orozco doesn't really care whether he simply finds the sculptures as is, or minimally tweaks them. Does it matter whether he filled a flat roof with water in "Roof to Roof," or merely stumbled across a building with a clogged gutter and a lake of rain already pooled on top? Whatever the case, when he threw a pebble into the mirror-like surface from an adjacent rooftop, the resulting ripple became, if only for an instant, his own.
Whether it is through discovery or creation, the act of artmaking, Orozco reminds us, is a series of ephemeral performances that change the world. We all have the capacity for it, if only we are able to develop the eyes -- and the editing ability -- to rearrange what we see.
DIRECTIONS -- GABRIEL OROZCO: EXTENSION OF REFLECTION -- Through Sept. 6 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza). 202-357-2700 (TDD: 202-357-1729). www.si.edu/hirshhorn. Open daily 10 to 5:30; Thursdays until 8 during July. Free.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Thursday from 11 to 2 -- Continuous screenings of a 15-minute clip about the artist from the PBS television program "art:21."
July 8 at 7 -- "When Poetry Happens: The Photographs of Gabriel Orozco." Mia Fineman, research associate in the department of photographs at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and contributing essayist to the book "Gabriel Orozco: Photographs," discusses the artist's work.
July 25 at 2 -- "Photogravity." Gilbert Vicario, assistant curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, discusses the artist's work.
July 25 and Sept. 5 at 3:30 -- Documentary film screening: "Gabriel Orozco."
Aug. 6 and 13 from 1 to 3:30 -- Teen Photography Workshop: "Let's Go Orozco." Following an exhibition tour, photographer E. Brady Thompson leads a hands-on workshop in Orozco's style and techniques. Bring a 35mm camera, two rolls of film (or two disposable cameras) and familiar objects to photograph. Registration required.
Aug. 18 from 12:15 to 1 -- Education specialist Deborah Gaston discusses the relationship between Jorge Luis Borges' book "Labyrinths -- Selected Stories and Other Writings" and Orozco's work.
Aug. 28 from 10 to 2 -- Young at Art: Viva Mexico. Children ages 6 to 9, accompanied by adults, view murals at the Instituto de Mexico, followed by a tour of the Orozco exhibition and a mural-making workshop. Bring lunch. Registration required.
Sept. 5 at 2 -- Curator Phyllis Rosenzweig conducts a tour of the exhibition.
For programs requiring advance registration, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; call 202-633-3382 (TTY: 202-633-8043); fax registration form (available at www.hirshhorn.si.edu) to 202-786-2682, attention Programs Department; or mail form to Programs Department, Smithsonian Institution, P.O. Box 37012, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, MRC 350, Washington D.C. 20013-7012.