MEXICO CITY — The ambiguous confluence of religion, capitalism, and communism creates a playful thematic triangle in Willy Kautz’s new exhibition at El Cuarto de Maquinas, Quid Pro Quo. Despite the weight of the subject matter, the work bears the lightness of a film set, creating theatrical contradictions where Karl Marx plays the role of instigator and protagonist within a décor painted Communist red, gilded with gold leaf like a religious shrine, and lit up with neon like a nightclub. With this exhibition Kautz, a prolific Mexican curator, is using his ongoing Jippies Asquerosos (“dirty hippies”) project to investigate the nature of making and curating art in the 21st century, when the boundary between creators and organizers is being steadily chipped away by the chisels of digitalism.
At irregular intervals, since 2005, Kautz has staged Jippies Asquerosos in different iterations and within different spaces, always with a common thread of arguably serious subject mater, often juxtaposed with lighthearted or even comic references to cinema and nightlife — especially trance music. Despite long pauses between projects, two elements recur in each new iteration of Kautz’s experiment in curation: the same red neon sign spelling out Jippies Asquerosos and a fog machine, which, in the present instance, tweak the tone of the show toward the mystical and playful. The project as a whole is overtly theatrical, suggesting that art — as much as the show’s thematic triumvirate of communism, religion, and capitalism — is full of pageantry.
Here, El Cuarto de Maquinas’ shiny new gallery space is divided into three sections, reflecting the three aforementioned themes. The first gallery, the most formal, is adorned with a series of seven golden wood blocks hung like paintings and titled “Quid Pro Quo I,” “Quid Pro Quo II,” etc. The main gallery space leads into “Ver la Madera por el Árbol” (or “To See the Wood for the Tree”), an installation in which Christmas trees, fog, and neon light blend into each other, creating an atmosphere akin to that of a twisted nightclub. Finally, an animation featuring the image of Marx, “Cinemarx,” rounds out Kautz’s convoluted amalgamation.
The aesthetic of the exhibition suggests the showiness of a catholic cathedral, albeit one flanked by walls painted bright red. Quotations from Marx’s critique of capitalism take the place of religious texts in the series of wood blocks covered in gold leaf and carved with key passages like: “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” The show includes similarly self-referential punch lines hidden in every piece; its title, Quid Pro Quo, was also taken from Marx’s theory of use and exchange value, but, ironically, today the Latin phrase is used in creative industries as code for free labor.
The conglomeration of forms Kautz has arranged in the T-shaped gallery alludes to the commodity fetishism that rots religion, politics, industry, and art. Communism, a system intended to achieve optimal equality, becomes atrophied by self-professed demigods (Vladimir Lenin, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-un, or Marx himself); religion, a promised means toward immaterial fulfillment, gets bogged down in pageantry and material riches. Kautz blends all this together into a maze of contradictions and clever nods at adulteration. He highlights the Sisyphean nature of our quests for immaculate knowledge, ridiculing the promise of endless progress.
In the animation, Marx is likened to the jolly, white-bearded Santa Claus, whose modern image, as Kautz pointed out to Hyperallergic during a walk through the show, was developed by Coca-Cola. The analogy between Marx and Coke’s quintessential, capitalist Santa is implied without any direct comparison. Nearby, red ornaments adorn a small grove of Christmas trees from which the fog machine ominously puffs clouds of dissipating smoke that the adjacent neon light catches, coloring the air red and leaving behind the specific stench of fog fluid, like the residual potential energy from a party. Finally, as the fog from within the browning Christmas trees dissolves into the red light of the neon “Jippies Asquerosos” sign, the last wisps of artificial mist are pierced by a projector beam casting Marx’s animated image on a wall painted gold.
The animation is the final iteration of a collage from which Kautz extrapolated the entire show. It shows Marx on stage in an empty auditorium, belting out “The Internationale” anthem to a non-existent audience. The beam from the projector cuts through the residual fog like lasers in a nightclub. The projection becomes sculptural and the anthem becomes a sort of trance, repeating over and over again. Since its composition in the middle of the 19th century, “The Internationale” has been adopted by socialist, anarchist, and communist movements, and was later chosen as the official national anthem of the Soviet Union. Here, however, the optimistic hymn falls on deaf ears, bouncing off crimson walls and gilded surfaces.