Art review: Puppet regime

  • Article by: JESSICA BAKEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2011 - 2:42 PM

Karl Marx and Adam Smith are the contentious kingpins of a novel project on display at the Walker.

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Pedro Reyes, right, talked with puppeteers Marc Berg and Janaki Ranpura.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Despite the name "Baby Marx," the Walker Art Center's new exhibition is anything but a small project.

The U.S. premiere of Mexican artist Pedro Reyes' work fuses several components: visual art, puppetry, improvisation, documentary filmmaking and political satire.

On display through Nov. 27 are 18 handmade puppets, each portraying a historical character. Stars of the show are the fathers of socialism and capitalism, Karl Marx and Adam Smith.

"There are a number of political conceptions out there where historical figures are misquoted, but very rarely do we check on the original sources," Reyes said. "For instance, if you read Marx, you understand that what was going on in the Soviet Union was a lot different than his original ideas, or what's going on in capitalism is a lot different than what Smith said. These authors are almost always used as puppets themselves."

Although the puppets -- and a puppet-sized public library, complete with handmade desks, chairs, books, copy machine, coffeepot and microwave oven -- have been installed for viewing in the Walker's Perlman Gallery, they are far from idle.

Designed with the help of a Japanese puppetmaker, the pieces were originally shown at a 2008 exhibition in Yokohama, but Reyes intended them not as museum pieces but as characters in a TV series. He filmed a pilot episode of "Baby Marx" in Mexico City in 2009, then decided that a documentary format would be more conducive to mixing history with comedy.

He started working with a film crew and Twin Cities puppeteers on the documentary early this month.

In the plot, Marx and Smith are brought to life when disgruntled economics students put their textbooks in a microwave oven that, unbeknownst to them, is magical. Books go in, economists come out.

"It's a comedy where the two characters, which represent the two ends of the political spectrum, have endless arguments," Reyes said.

He hopes it will become a radical educational tool that will teach people about economics in a way that won't also put them to sleep. He compares the humor to other satirical entertainment like the Onion or Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show."

"As you see with current events in the world, like the roller coaster of the financial market and the riots in London, the general public is very interested in politics and the economy," he said. "We can find a source of entertainment there."

For the first week of the exhibition, which opened Aug. 11, local puppeteers and a film crew joined Reyes on the set -- the Walker, itself -- to create new scenes that will be shown on screens in the exhibit.

Finding the cast has been a balancing act from the get-go, because, "the people who knew about the economy were not funny, and the writers who were funny didn't know about the economy," he said.

Local puppeteers Marc Berg, 23, and Janaki Ranpura, 34, were hired after a round of auditions, particularly because of their ability to improvise, with Reyes' guidance. Berg plays Marx, and Ranpura plays Smith, as well as a slew of other characters such as Friedrich Engels, Joseph Stalin and Bernie Madoff.

In one scene filmed in early August, Marx and Smith sit down for a snack at the Walker's Garden Cafe. Marx has quite a bit of cookie left and Smith has none.

Smith demands the cookie, arguing: According to your ideas, if you have a lot of cookie and I have no cookie, you should give me some. Marx retorts: Well, according to yours, you should have worked harder to purchase your own cookie, and then you would have had the whole thing.

"A lot of blood has been shed for these ideas," Reyes said. "The puppets are allowed to say things that would be incomprehensible coming out of a person's mouth. It's very therapeutic."

Reyes' hope for the puppets' future? "If they became as popular as SpongeBob, that would be awesome," he said.

  • BABY MARX

    When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Wed. & Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu. Ends Nov. 27.

    Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

    Admission: $6-$10; free on Thu. after 5 p.m.

    Info: 612-375-7600 or www.walkerart.org.

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