Robert Ortbal, sculptor
Typically, Dumpsters don't inspire thoughts of art. They're huge and smelly and, depending on one's needs, just right for diving. A new public-art project, however, casts those behemoth trash cans in new light. The Art of the Dumpster, sponsored by the Power Inn Alliance in association with the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and local businesses, commissioned 10 artists including Gioia Fonda, Susan J. Silvester, John Stuart Berger, Nathan Cordero and Robert Ortbal to reconceive our notions. Ortbal, a sculptor, approached the project with a sense of self-reflection and calls his resulting piece, the chrome-finished “The Sky Begins at Your Feet” an interactive opportunity for people to “look beyond the surface.”
It was an opportunity to work with a really large object; I'm a sculptor and have done lots of installation work—my work's varied between full-blown conceptual to more intuitively based [pieces]. It just posed an interesting challenge.
What made it challenging?
The opportunity to work at this scale with something as banal as a Dumpster—that this was work with the container itself, I found it to be intriguing. How do you transform something like a Dumpster? It's very ubiquitous. … We don't really look at them that closely. … As artists, they have the tradition of having [discarded supplies] inside, but thinking about the container itself, that was something new. … I didn't want to make it into a different world. I wanted to make a mirror to hold up to the viewer.
How did you decide on this approach?
After we were given the scope of the project, I started thinking about … different possibilities that could come from it. … I'd recently been making smaller works, and on the smaller work, the surfaces were very important me. … I see the surface as a catalyst for the work, to transform it.
Have you done something like this before?
I've worked with mirror surfaces in different instances. I'd heard about this vendor that could do chroming—this is a new process, you wouldn't [normally] get it done at this scale. That's why you don't see chrome things that are the size of a ship. It's a process [in which the chrome] goes on by being sprayed on. So I went back to the [Power Inn Alliance] and [SMAC] and talked about the possibility of doing it this way, about raising money—it's not cheap. It's more like being Christo: You get an idea, and then you start looking for the people to [execute] it.
The bottom of the Dumpster isn’t chromed.
It's just the exposed Dumpster. I ran a line across, it has a step—a kind of geometric abstraction, that comes across at a certain height and depending on where you walk [around it], might drop down 2 or 3 inches.
Why leave it exposed?
It ties in with the concept, “the sky begins at your feet.” I was interested in changing people's perception of their everyday world. When we think of sky, we think of the horizon, of looking up. We don't think of looking down to look at the sky. I don't think we perceive it that way. When we look at [the Dumpster], right about at the waist is where [the chrome line] shifts. It varies when you're walking around it; you can find the right waist height for you. You wouldn't have that if I created a perfectly straight line; I like this angle better. It's not a painting, it's a sculpture, and I wanted the body's response to it.
What do you hope others get out of it?
You know, with my work, what I'm interested in is transformation. [That's] important to me. I'm interested in metaphors, but more importantly in ambiguity. That, to me, is an interesting place. Then there's the possibility to perceive this container and what's associated with it—refuse—and just associate it with endless possibilities.
Each person will probably experience something different.
Right. When you look at a mirrored surface, it depends on what kind of attention you bring to that surface. If you're more of a narcissist, then you're just looking at yourself. But if you're looking at it closely from a painter or poet's eye, you may be aware of the surface imperfections, but you'll also see what's beyond the surface. You'll see what's next door or the traffic on Power Inn Road. When you're walking around it, you'll notice that it's wavy, that your reflection speeds up and slows down. It's like a fun-house mirror, but not quite as extreme. There's a lot of nuanced effect, but it's so simple, all I did was chrome it. The guy at the chrome place who [helped me] was like, “Now what?” And I'm like, “That's it. I'm done. I just set it up.”
You didn’t do anything else once it was chromed?
There were residual things that happened to the bottom [exposed] part: oxidized material that ran off that [gave it a] painterly effect. I could have chosen to go back in and [change] that, but they echo what's going on in contemporary painting in a way that's not self-conscious.