Baby Marx

Lenin Puppet. Pedro Reyes. Baby Marx Installation. Walker Art Gallery, 2011.

It seems that each time I’ve managed to make it to the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis, it’s been between major exhibits. My recent visit was no different. The Nan Goldin photographs were in the process of being taken down and packed up and the Ellen Lupton co-curated exhibit Graphic Design: Now in Production was installed and ready to go, but blocked off and inaccessible. This untimeliness was not a tragedy, though, since there were two exhibits in smaller gallery spaces at the Walker which more than made up for the missed marquee shows.

The first of these, The Parade, by Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg with music by Hans Berg, blended sculpture and animation. The room was filled with all varieties of waist-high birds, some close to reality, others monstrous hybrids, and on the walls was projected animated, clay-mation films featuring this surreal flock. It is an extraordinary installation, but one that, for the moment at least, outstrips my capacity to explain and account for its force.

Marx Puppet. Pedro Reyes. Baby Marx. Walker Art Gallery, 2011.

The other installation was by a Mexican artist, Pedro Reyes, who has transformed a room of the Walker into a production space for Baby Marx, an installation project that began life as a proposed tv pilot that would stage debates about political economy in the form of an animated adventure series featuring puppets. In the booklet that accompanies the installation, Reyes explains that the idea initially came to him before the financial crisis of 2008, but really only gained momentum with the rediscovery of Marx that came in the wake of the crisis.

Working with Japanese puppet-makers, Reyes developed the characters and scenarios for a television series that would constitute “a kind of radical pedagogy.” But despite the renewed enthusiasm for Marx, Japanese television was wary of such a series and efforts to interest HBO in it fell short. Subsequent efforts to rework the project for American television also fell short, so Reyes decided to launch the project as a feature film in progress that would use gallery installations, such as the one at the Walker, to workshop the script, develop further scenarios, and generally function “as a mobile seminar and production zone.”

The allure of Reyes’ project resides not simply in its inventiveness, but in the way that its enthusiasm, which at first seems incredibly naive (how could an animated puppet series about the history of political economy find a place on American television?), becomes engagingly infectious and its failure to find production money begins to feel like a lost opportunity and a historical injustice.

The installation had several components: a series of monitors that screened excerpts of the filmed pilot and behind-the-scenes of its production, the puppets, a giant bust of Marx, the shooting script in marker on the gallery walls, and the model modernist library that served as the primary setting for the political debates between the historical figures as well as the adventures of the young protagonists who brought them back to life in a microwave oven related accident. Reyes trained as an architect, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the library, taking up most of the room and perched at eye level so the puppets could be operated from below and filmed within, was a particular highlight.

Model, Library exterior. Pedro Reyes. Baby Marx. Walker Art Gallery, 2011.

Model, Library Interior. Pedro Reyes. Baby Marx. Walker Art Gallery, 2011.

There’s just a few things that struck me immediately about the project:

1. It draws in an interesting way on historical modes of Marxist pedagogy: puppets, woodcuts and collaborative theatrical workshops. But there is the effort to reconcile this with the historical realities of the present day: the use of digital video technology and the desire to bridge the gap between the gallery and cable television.

2. I think the title comes from a workshop-derived scenario in which Marx and Adam Smith have a baby, which represent the contradictions and dilemmas of the contemporary situation, but it also, oddly, reminded me of how all things end up in their baby form in an effort to engage an even younger audience. If it happened to the Muppets, it can happen to Marx.

3. In his notes on the exhibit, Reyes emphasizes the importance of jokes to the project. He sees laughter as ruthlessly Hegelian, as being expression of the synthesis of thesis and antithesis. But since he also specifies that laughter is something that “cushions the collision of reality with your expectation of reality.” The “cushion” here is key. It may soften the blow, but it is not meant to reconcile you with an unfair reality.

Miss Lena, the Librarian, Puppet. Pedro Reyes. Baby Marx. Walker Art Gallery, 2011.

Watch an excerpt of the Baby Marx pilot here.

My other gallery highlight of 2011 was Phil Collins’ extraordinary Marxism Today installation that I saw at the BFI Gallery in March. More on that soon, but for now it is safe to say that Marx is back and the adventures of political economy aren’t over, but being retold in a gallery near you.

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