This past Thursday, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) hosted a screening of Mexican artist Pedro Reyes' film/puppet/performance project, Baby Marx. Only about 20-odd people showed up to the screening, which was a shame. Reyes' project was smart, funny, and politically poignant.
Though Baby Marx might be extremely politically relevant, its lessons are masked in comedy, a rather unintentional comedy of errors brought on by the protagonists, Karl Marx and Adam Smith. The fathers of opposing economic theories are recast in Reyes' piece as old-timey chums who continually teeter-totter between love and hate after being revived in the present day. That they are puppets who occasionally exhibit sentience beyond the hand that controls them is part of the charm, as are the mannerisms of the puppeteers.
Reyes' work might already be familiar. Last December, ICA opened Reyes' Sanatorium, a 2011 project based on participatory/performative modern affliction of urban living like stress, loneliness, and dependencies on technology and social media. The work was a continuance of the artist's interests in the human condition and conflict resolution sought in a middle-of-the-road manner. It debuted at the Guggenheim in 2011 and has since evolved.
In Baby Marx, which began in 2008, one can see Reyes' evolution aesthetic as the project has continued to grow into a series.
"I also believe that the complexity of history and the world economy should not dissuade people from overcoming their fear to deal with the subject," Reyes' says about Baby Marx. "The project is therefore thought of as a means to provide economic and political literacy, using dialogues with excerpts or paraphrases of the historical figures' main ideas. This is how puppets can be useful; puppeteering has historically been the equivalent to political cartoons in the performing arts. Early ventriloquists, such as court jesters, were the only ones who could make jokes in front of the king -- the puppet would spit truths that were unacceptable from the mouth of a person."
The historical cast is rounded out by other personalities involved in the socialism-versus-capitalism debate, often to poignantly funny situations. For example, Adam Smith opens a bank in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street protest, there are fourth-wall breaks at a coffee shop, and the puppets have a complicated bromance. Friedrich Engels, often considered the cofather of Marxist theory, is referred to as "the other guy from Wham." Two examples of Reyes' comedic take on heady issues: Marx catches Smith with Lenin at the library, and Marx states "going green is the opium of the bourgeoisie."
Each vignette is strong on its own, but watching them in sequence gives you a better appreciation of Reyes' research and deep understanding of both economic models. If art fails him, he has a career as a political/socioeconomic joke writer.
But what's no joke was the low turnout to the event. The screening of Baby Marx felt more like it was "for the fans" than anything else. ICA has shown that it is heading in the right direction and, with Reyes' show, that it knows how to laugh and see both sides.
Let's hope that next time, locals will support the ICA's challenging and reflective programming simply by showing up.
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