“Ancha es Castilla” or “N’importe quoi,” the names for Sergio Caballero’s Black Box video piece at the Hirshhorn, kind-of sort-of translate to “Anything Goes” and “Whatever” in English. In it, a fingerling potato, a piece of something that might be eggplant, and some choreographed clumps of trash act out the plot of The Exorcist. It’s like a horror flick directed by the Brothers Quay, the excelsior stop-motion animators, but produced by Shingy, that AOL “digital prophet” guy; it’s a dark poem written by Nathalie Djurberg, the Swedish video puppet artist, but illustrated by Tyler the Creator, L.A.’s enfant terrible.
In other words, Caballero’s work is high art that lands low. The Spanish artist favors cheap, fugitive materials: lint, hair, foam, cardboard, fabric, food, and other stuff. But the misfits are only the half of it: The video’s transparency, the artist’s disdain for art-world preciousness, mark “N’importe quoi” as low in the way of Dieter Roth or Joseph Beuys.
Or maybe it’s low art that aims high? Insofar as a video starring garbage can be straightforward, “Ancha es Castilla” or “N’importe quoi” is extremely legible. It follows a nuclear family distressed by the daughter’s possession by a demon, over the course of a 25-minute movie broken up into a bunch of short episodes or vignettes. A mostly DIY endeavor, it owes as much to Lloyd Kaufman or Roger Corman as it does to any video-installation artist.
One real surprise: It’s funny! “Alegría is at a rave… she has been possessed by Beelzebub,” says the father, a cigarette-smoking wad of junk who only wants to go to the bar. (Caballero voices several of his sculptural subjects.) “And how do you know it’s Beelzebub?” asks the mother, a sprouting potato. “Wikileaks,” he responds. (Canned laughter.) On repeat viewings, I was never the only person in the Black Box chuckling at its bizarro sizzle.
Repeat viewings are absolutely warranted. The sets—dark, dead forests—may be a reference to Goya’s black paintings; anyway, they help to frame the work as grotesque. For a video whose stars appear to be held together by gum and shoelace, the staging is quite intricate, featuring cutaways that allow Caballero to move his puppets throughout without interrupting the action. The direction and cinematography may serve silliness, but n’importe quoi. It works in a visually captivating way.
The emerging artists from around the world who show at the Hirshhorn’s Black Box rarely deliver stoner absurdity. At first glance, Caballero’s video looks risky. Pull any string—literally or metaphorically—and the whole thing might fall apart. But watch “Ancha es Castilla” or “N’importe quoi” closely and it’s clear how careful, maybe even conservative, the piece really is.
At Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Jan. 3, 2016. 700 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 633-4674. hirshhorn.si.edu