Marx@200. Space (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Sponsored by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Carnegie Mellon University’s Humanities Center. Curated by Kathy M. Newman and Susanne Slavick. April 6th – June 10. All photos courtesy of the artists.
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Karl Marx, born in Trier, Germany and buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery, never visited the U.S. himself. Nearly a third of the 38 artists included in the Marx@200 Show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are from outside the U.S. This provides powerful global context to a show that was born from a hunch that the 2008 global financial crisis had turned many artists toward Marx in a concentrated way. Curators Kathy Newman and Susanne Slavick – Carnegie Mellon University professors of literature and art, respectively – have brought together an impressive array of visual artworks themed around the figure of Marx, his writings, and capitalism’s depredations.
The show takes the measure of the man as a distinguished public intellectual of significance to his Industrial Age society, as a wooly-bearded icon, and as a commodified figure reduced to kitsch. One of Ottmar Hörl’s controversial Marx as garden gnome statues is displayed on the frontispiece at the gallery’s entrance, a queer portal to the idea of diminishment in a world counting its losses daily, perhaps especially of human dignity.
Marx@200 is up in Pittsburgh in a particularly fraught season. The city is on tenterhooks awaiting Amazon’s decision about locating its second headquarters here. In the interim, the real estate market is on pause while would be sellers hold back, waiting to see if their retirement dreams can be ratcheted up a few notches. A barbed gentrification battle is being waged in the city’s East Liberty neighborhood where low-income housing was razed last year, an event that displaced 500 mostly Black residents. And to the north, Shell Oil is pouring $6 billion into the construction of a “cracker” plant on the Ohio River, which will further foul the region’s air (already ranked on a par with L.A.’s), while frackers close in on Pittsburgh proper.
The show’s recombinant humor and wit are countervailing forces to the gloom induced by thinking about what capitalists have in store for us all. There is an inter-relationship between racist disinvestment policies targeting poor Black people (first you blight it, then you tear it down) and a more universal environmental catastrophe as represented by “the cracker.” It is fair to say that the more you’ve been hurt personally by these phenomena, the more alive you’ll be to the jokes.
Part of the show’s value is that it functions as an anodyne, offering a measure of pain relief via its gallows humor and the opportunity for communion with others living under the pressure of capitalism’s steel-toed jackboot.
But perhaps by necessity/survival instinct at a time when U.S. college professors are coming under attack from groups like College Reform, it’s also anodyne in the other sense of the word: designed not to provoke offense. In a September 2017 talk kicking off CMU’s yearlong events in celebration of Marx's 200th birthday, Newman expressed her concern about ending up on Fox News as a consequence of bringing the art show forward. Nevertheless, the overall tone is muscular, inclusive and one of sustained inquiry, carefully walking a line so that it can fulfill what appears to be its main purpose: to be attendant to the ways in which artists are in the enterprise of what Slavick, an artist herself, calls “the consciousness industry.” But one that’s not in the service of monetary profit.
There’s nothing apparently abrasive about the monumental steel wool sculpture, the mammoth beard of Nataliya Slinko’s Crowd Pleaser; the rough stuff’s been tamed into a striking facsimile of Marx’s facial hair. The mass has been detached from the face of its grower and adorns only the ether, which is as massively distributed as capitalism itself. There’s rich irony in its exhibition in Pittsburgh, the former steel capital of the Western world – an American city existing in an elongated moment of bristle.
The beard’s main ideas are conveyed via its forms: in its molded indentations and sinuous twists the physicality of those who made the sculpture and the steel wool from which it’s fashioned are conjured; the mill laborers and artist, workers in a common creation, are poetically conjoined. All the inherent contradictions of making an object so profoundly beautiful by grappling with an abundance of steel’s swarf are raised to the piece’s sensuous surfaces.
Crowd Pleaser celebrates potential. Both of negative space and the plastic arts, and the piece’s humorous hue, relentlessly gray like the skies of the city it mirrors, highlights Pittsburgh’s gritty dot on the matrix of societal precarity with an exquisite absurdity. The absence of what was looms here, terrifyingly, and casts a shadow over the palpable beauty that could now be cusping if left alone to flower, but that may just as likely be snuffed out in a retching asthmatic petrochemical gasp.
Blake Fall-Conroy’s two contributions – Minimum Wage Machine and Factory – play with scale on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Just the sight of Fall-Conroy’s replica of Baltimore’s Wheelabrator incinerator is goofy in the same way as is the vastly reduced Stonehenge replica in the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. In the mix of “funny” it invokes how funny it is that a small group of oligarchs can spoil the atmosphere for the majority of beings. Factory spews out enough slightly malodorous fog-fluid to grab anyone in proximity by the nasal cilia. This sensorial invasion may nose you into thinking twice about what heavy metals will be waiting in your first breath on the other side of the gallery door.
In Pittsburgh and elsewhere, one of the lies of “affordable housing” is that it’s fair to tie the price of rent to an area’s median income. But as a neighborhood gentrifies, its median income increases, pushing rents ever higher. Linking rent to minimum wage makes more sense, which in Pennsylvania is a risible $7.25 per hour.
Minimum Wage Machine provides an opportunity to experience how very arduous it is to sell one’s time and labor for such a paltry sum. You can turn the crank for an hour (if your arm doesn’t give out on you before then), and see what a pile of 725 pennies actually looks like, and feel how much personal energy it consumes and how taxing it is on the spirit. While cranking you can also meditate on the likely possible futures for wage workers and their families in places where the lawful minimum wage and actual living wage are disparate truths.
The cumulative effect of the show is to incline one toward reading Marx's writings for oneself. If his critique of capitalism can inspire this much vibrancy, fresh perspectives and whole-bodied engagement, why not return to the source with fresh eyes? If for nothing more than to better understand this rude beast that devours far more than its share at any gathering it's ever at, and collectively dream how to tame it.
All photos courtesy of the artists.
Frances Madeson is the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village (Carol MRP Co., New York, 2007).