MEXICO CITY — Two artists who couldn’t be more opposite — blue-chip celebrity superstar Anish Kapoor and the Cuban magician of minimalism Wilfredo Prieto — have solo shows currently on view in two of Mexico’s most distinguished contemporary art spaces, the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) and Kurimanzutto Gallery. While these shows look like each other’s antitheses, they have more in common than meets the eye. We are faced with the uncomfortable truth that both artists are creating distinct forms of nothing and emptiness — one through the brute force of classical beauty and the other through poetic, temporary gestures in detritus.
Kapoor’s shiny macro productions are created to extract the maximum number of “oohs” and “ahs” from laypeople who go to museums in search of beauty, escape, and satisfaction. The city rolled out the red carpet for the Indian-British artist, who cheekily commented to starry-eyed reporters and paparazzi during the exhibition’s press preview that he has “nothing to say as an artist.” The museum proudly advertised the fact that three container ships loaded with 562,500 kilograms (~1.24 million pounds) of art crossed 8,697 kilometers (~5,400 miles) of ocean to arrive at the MUAC from Southampton, England. That’s a hell of a lot of nothing. Precisely 1,500 square meters (~16,150 square feet) of lavish nothing, filling the main exhibition spaces at the museum with dead weight and static energy. The exhibition is anticlimactic at best. Its saving grace is how dramatically it contrasts with Prieto’s invisible gestures in the gallery.
True, the same people who ogle and rubberneck at Kapoor’s imperialist occupancy of the MUAC will likely wonder who left trash in the gallery at Kurimanzutto. Through their comparison, a counterintuitive and skewed relationship with elitism is brought to light — conceptual art that you need an MFA to “unpack” and elite artists pandering to the masses with sexy luxury objects. Still, Prieto will always foster the more interesting conversation, eliciting critical feedback from even the most innocent viewer. At least his version of nothing has a lot to say about impermanence, and with much less commotion. His forms are direct and succinct — no bullshit, no beauty.
Considering this dichotomy, it’s a slap in the face for viewers when Kapoor says he has nothing to say as an artist. Today, we can conceptualize anything, as Prieto consistently demonstrates. So why doesn’t Kapoor want to participate in the dialogue? Perhaps his work doesn’t spark critical discussions about its conceptual relevancy because it has none, as he claimed, but there’s plenty to be said about the function of maximalist art. Kapoor’s work is perfectly suited for investment bankers’ colosseum-sized living rooms, made in the same poor taste as yellow Lamborghinis and other gaudy “luxury” baubles.
Forgetting Kapoor’s dismissal of his work’s philosophical, theoretical, and conceptual implications, if we consider them objectively, the works can be centerpieces for any number of critical conversations. The artist’s signature mirrored domes and cupolas hark back to baroque art‘s awesome classical forms, but also make the viewer the subject of their own distorted reality. Using the appropriate language, Kapoor’s maximalist, neo-baroque monoliths could be framed as a critique of the market, purposefully pushing the limits of capitalism into the realm of aristocracy. The use of pigments throughout his body of work — at its best in pure form, as small and delicate sculptures — references his Indian ancestry and the history of globalism through the trade of dyes and pigments from Asia and the Americas.
Meanwhile, what is the value of Prieto’s work, since it clearly isn’t material? He destroys any sense of preciousness in his artworks, but there is a play between delicate and solid forms. In one piece, a thick piece of rope is juxtaposed with a steel rod of the same dimensions. Another work is simply a stone wrapped in silk; elsewhere, an orchid wilts and dries in a tiny noose. Even though these and other moments are poetic and allude to beautiful material contradictions, the show frustrates traditional value systems — Prieto makes us realize how attached we are to capitalist and imperial constructs, where value is inherently materialistic. Still, the pieces in the show are too solid and static to be entirely illustrative of another way of thinking beyond the four walls of the gallery — except for the literal gesture of extending the exhibition out of the gallery’s front door, where a continually diminishing dusting of pulverized coins was thrown into the street. These hidden gestures allude to a porous exhibition space, but remain restrained by the gallery’s gravitational pull. The potential for Prieto’s line of thought includes living and dynamic new creative systems beyond static forms and spaces.
Viewers fluent in contemporary art may feel obligated to say they love Prieto’s work in order to maintain an aura of understanding and sophistication, but there’s nothing to love. There are things to think about, though. Things not unlike random amalgamations of everyday objects we come across casually. Why do we need the artist or the gallery to illuminate the street-level poetics we encounter just by living in the world?
Kapoor doesn’t offer much to think about, but lots to lust for, many shiny, sensual objects that call attention to our poverty — forms that are entirely out of context and inappropriate in present day Mexico. Still, lines to enter the MUAC are long and people file past the grotesque monoliths, snapping selfies in the mirrored surface of the nothingness looking back at them.
Wilfredo Prieto’s You can’t make a revolution with silk gloves is on view at Kurimanzutto Gallery (Gob. Rafael Rebollar 94, col. San Miguel Chapultepec, Mexico City) through August 20. Anish Kapoor: Archeology, Biology is on view at the MUAC (Insurgentes Sur 3000, Centro Cultural Universitario, Mexico City) through November 27.