Gabriel Kuri opens consumerist exhibit at ICA

by Andrew Doerfler / Beacon Staff • February 9, 2011

Sidney Dritz, Beacon Correspondent, contributed reporting

The pieces in Nobody needs to know the price of your Saab, the first U.S. solo exhibit from Mexican-born artist Gabriel Kuri, do not actually contain any reference to Saab automobiles. But the collection, which debuted at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Feb. 2, does offer a fresh take on society’s fixation with price and material value.

After viewing Kuri’s show, its title — an actual slogan from a Saab ad campaign — comes across less as a rejectionist statement and more as a concept to consider.  Kuri wants us to question the role of material value in our lives but not necessarily dismiss it outright.

“I think of myself as making affirmations, not criticisms,” Kuri said at a session before his exhibit’s opening. He explained that his statements on consumerism are “not necessarily celebratory,” but are also not judgmental.

Take Kuri’s triumvirate of 10-foot-tall tapestries — hand-woven by Mexican artisans — depicting three copies of a credit card receipt (for the customer, the vendor, and the intermediary). The piece’s name, “Trinity (Voucher in Triplicate),” might initially evoke the familiar denunciation of consumerism as a fanatical religion.

But Kuri explained that the work’s relationship to the Holy Trinity lies solely in the subject’s function — it examines the idea that each piece would be powerless without the other two. Despite such commentary, the literal icons shown in the artwork are significant to Kuri.

“Something always grounds [my pieces] back to a more familiar experience,” he said.

And familiar objects — such as receipts, parking tickets, miniature shampoo bottles from hotels, shopping bags, and financial newspapers – are plentiful in the collection. To Kuri, these items reflect the idea that acts of consumption make up some of life’s most significant moments. Through the exhibit, such residue of transaction gains its own relevance by depicting a “trail of life.”

The sculpture “Column 2009-2010” most literally follows this trail — and in a personal way. The piece represents the sum of Kuri’s purchases for an entire year: two vertical metal rods grounded in a concrete base lance through a series of his receipts and deli-style “take a number” stubs. These simple slips of paper — which most people immediately discard  —  end up conveying Kuri’s rising journey through life.

Kuri’s concern for familiar objects, though, doesn’t mean that his show discourages unfamiliar realizations. His work concerning statistics, in particular, highlights the complexity of situations that charts and graphs often fail to acknowledge.

The sculpture “Untitled (Double yellow wrapped outside-in bin),” for one, portrays a mutilated three-dimensional pie chart, each section separated from the others and filled with the packaging material in which the sculpture was transported to the museum. The image reminds viewers that every chart’s information has a backstory by connecting the story to the graph itself. “Overlapping statistics (blind olives eyelid)” similarly challenges the rigid interpretation of information: Various materials — plywood, glass, roofing — are cut precisely into rectangles but arranged sloppily atop each other, suggesting that seemingly straightforward information is often more complicated than a bar graph can portray.

Kuri doesn’t appear to believe, however, that we’re always fed information insufficiently.

In “Recurrence of the sublime,” three avocados in a bowl are wrapped in newspaper, a common ripening technique — the fruit appears to be thriving off the information.  Likewise, “Untitled (Diario económico/Economic Diary)” depicts three stacks of moss slabs intercut with financial journals, demonstrating the importance of awareness of the economic world despite its paradoxical and frustrating elements.

Kuri’s collection serves as a reminder that even though society might be too concerned with material value, one’s own path of transaction does tell a story worth examining. In other words, nobody needs to know the price of your Saab — except for you.