Last year I moved to Mexico City to live with my girlfriend. At first, with almost no comprehension of Spanish, I could at best incorrectly pronounce cursory greetings and point out irrelevant objects I had learned to name. Quickly, and with three hours of lessons each day, the basics of the language started to settle, until, now I can happily say I know un poco.
One of the first phrases I learnt was ¿cuánto cuesta? or ¿cuánto cuestan?, how to ask for an object, or objects, price. This simple utterance is essential for day-to-day survival, for example ¿cuánto cuesta una quesadilla? por favor. And, as long as you can decipher the numerical response, you can eat.
However, say for example you’re in a market and you want to buy a couple of pounds of huauzontle; in this case ¿cuánto cuesta? isn’t perfect, because in a market, the price of huauzontle is going to fluctuate from day-to-day. Instead the phrase needs to account for variability, so one would likely use ¿cuánto vale? which roughly means what is the value? and by extension, what is the value today? Vale opens up a gap of speculation, injecting the potential of negotiation.
The reason I mention all of this because at its core Gabriel Orozco’s latest exhibition at Kurimanzutto does something akin to this; it creates a shift from a defined value that is prescribed to us, to a value which is more ephemeral, shifting from day-to-day.
In the residential neighbourhood of San Miguel Chapultepec, behind Kurimanzutto’s facade, and underneath a steel and wood canopy, Gabriel Orozco and the Mexican multinational FEMSA have erected a simulacrum of the company’s ubiquitous chain store OXXO. Everywhere you go in Mexico City there are OXXO stores; their yellow, red and white logos are in constant competition with 7-Elevens and Extras, vying for the small sums of dinero spent on soft drinks, snacks, cigarettes and alcohol. Last year FEMSA opened an eye-watering 1,208 stores in Mexico, so one more shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise. Except that in this case a complex economic game has replaced the traditional pay structure.
Walking into the gallery you approach the front desk, here the cordial staff explain a little about the exhibition (much as any gallery elsewhere) and proceed to hand you a ‘cash’ note printed with Orozco’s brand logo of red, yellow and blue, whole, semi and quarter circles. They then explain to you that this note may be exchanged for any item in store, barring alcohol, pharmaceuticals, electronics and cigarettes. Being discerning gallery staff they silently note that you aren’t likely to have vast sums of disposable cash but still inform you that certain items on the shelves have been decorated with Orozco logos; this merchandise cannot be brought with the Orozco note; instead you’ll need to part with actual money.
Onwards, in the courtyard, the OROXXO shop sits identical to its thousands of brothers: to the left, three bright red – table, bench, umbrella – combinations sit; to the right, a set of automatic doors; and above a horizontal band of bright red perspex culminates in the store logo. Asides from the setting, the only things out of place is a vinyl quote adjacent to the door.
Nothing should be exciting about this experience. Technically I have experienced it numerous times before, almost daily, except that under these conditions I instinctively approach as if I’m examining a ‘readymade’. In Apropos of “Readymades”, Marcel Duchamp explains that his choice of object was informed by a “visual indifference”; it was following his selection that people began to treat his readymades as things to consider with. I am visually indifferent to the average OXXO, yet under the conditions of a gallery I am inclined to use it as a tool for consideration, something on which I can contemplate. And there is a great deal tied up within the conventional form of a convenience store.
Entering the store feels like stepping onto a chess board, or maybe checkers, as a piece in the game one’s movements are calculated. Outside the gallery setting I would typically go straight to the merchandise I want, take it to the counter, pay and leave. In and out in a matter of minutes. In the OROXXO I intend to see everything. I follow the behavioural norms of a gallery, up and down the aisles like an extremely cramped art fair.
And then there is the economy of it. In one hand you have a crisp Gabriel Orozco note, something akin to an artist edition – for free! On the other hand you have a sense of obligation to complete the transaction, to use to notes to conclude the performance and therefore to have played a part within the artwork. To have a piece of art or to be a piece of art. I know this will all sound ridiculously trite to anyone external to the art world (and to some within) but for someone who’s dedicated a large portion of their life to this [quasi-religious] belief system, and a good sum of money, it is a difficult decision. There’s a necessity to exchange my note for something that will be meaningful to me. I don’t want to make a choice dependent on a set value, what I know the products to be worth. Nor do I want to choose according to what we need back at the flat! The item should be something that I’ll derive enjoyment from, a Magnum ice lolly or a jar of mole (pronounced mo-lay, like olé)!
I opt for the mole. Mole (the poblano variant) is a traditional Mexican sauce (though recipes vary wildly) made from: chocolate, tomatoes, onion, garlic, chipotle, pasilla and ancho chilies, almonds or peanuts, raisins, cinnamon, cloves and ground up tortillas etc. Mole declares Mexican-ness and as a foreigner it is an exotic symbol. When I cook with it, it’ll be something special, both for its otherworldly-ness and its artworldly-ness. Better than the immediate gratification of a Magnum.
I take my mole to the counter and hand over my Orozco note, the cashier (an actual OXXO worker) enters some details through the till; it pops open and my note is placed in with the others. A receipt is printed and he stamps it with just a the hint of a smile revealing the absurdity of his profession.
Elsewhere, in the faces of other customers, it’s obvious that the store has engendered a similar reaction. Couples are checking the aisles applying their own internal logic to their consumer decision; Mexican hipsters are taking photographs of the shelves, genuinely interested rather than ironically apathetic. Even the attendants are experiencing a displacement from the norm as they chuckle to one another quietly. Whilst previously, artists like Warhol and Oldenburg have questioned the art world via convenience store systems and iconography, Orozco’s rendition feels like the completion of the concept, taking those ideas to their logical conclusion.
Out the other side of the OROXXO Kurimanzutto reverts to a traditional gallery. In a white cube behind the store, Orozco has arranged a gradient of coloured objects along the wall and on a thin shelf. Each piece of merchandise here is an artist proof of the Orozco branded products that are intermittently arranged in the store. There are 300 items in total: crisp packets, stock cubes, soft drinks, bottles of beer, clamato juice, cans of jalapeños, superglue, soup packets, air fresheners, egg cartons, oil and tequila. If I go back into the store and try to purchase one of these products I’ll be asked to hand over a hefty sum of money. Each piece comes in an edition of up to 10, and in an inversion of the usual edition economics, the price is set to begin at $15,000 U.S. and decline with each purchase to around $60.
Launched in line with the Zona Maco Art Fair (plus Material Art Fair and Salon ACME), the Orozco OXXO is an experiment in art world economics. It asks whether those with the most will be willing to part with their money so that those with a little less might share in the ownership of equally valuable (or valueless) art commodities. Within a select bubble it questions whether we can be sufficiently altruistic to abandon our personal interest in getting a good deal. Those who purchase the initial pieces for $15,000 must know that, even factoring in a steady appreciation in value, the packet or cigarettes or box of cereal they’ve brought will never be worth what they’ve spent. Maybe the pieces will settle on average at nice four figure sums, maybe even break five figures occasionally. Whatever the case, the purchasers must abandon the part of them that buys art for its investment value. They are loss-leaders inverted into human form, taking the hit so that the others might profit.
What remains to be seen is whether Orozco’s experiment can push customers past the question of ¿cuánto cuesta? and onto the question of ¿cuánto vale? to decide for themselves whether a packet of Whiskers with a graphic design stuck on, is valuable enough to them that they’ll part with large sums of money. Until the gallery releases the sales figures we just won’t know whether the show has succeed in turning art world economics on its head… if only for a short while.
Elliott Burns is an independent curator, exhibition production-er, writer, ex-artist, sometimes photographer, occasional teacher, approximate art technician, able bartender, decent cook, events co-ordinator, budget organiser, spreadsheet handler, competent admin-er, and happy copy-editor. He currently lives in Mexico City and has recently co-founded Off Site Project, an online exhibition space.
Gabriel Orozco: OROXXO at Kurimanzutto runs from February 8th – March 16th 2017.