The night the artist collective Gabinete H-E’s exhibition opened at the Mistake Room, a line of men, all members of the collective, stood in the back of the gallery, their hands extended through holes in a tall temporary wall. It was like they were in pillories. They had masks on and papers in their hands with typed translations of poetry by Spanish anti-Fascist Leon Felipe, written in the voice of a jaded revolutionary. “Hear now friends! The revolution has failed.” “Everything is like a prison system.” Felipe’s words, spoken in Spanish, served as the soundtrack for Una Avanzada del Progreso (2016), a video projected on the same wall the men stood behind. That video showed members of Gabinete H-E in costume, laboriously exhuming a casket full of keepsakes.
In the back of the space sat two other costumed collective members, one wearing a rubber mask and the other goggles and a hat. The man in the goggles had a hand-held camera that he used to follow visitors relentlessly. The camera stayed trained on me for as long as I was in its range, feeding footage onto a wall across the room. Suspended from the ceiling, right above the costumed men, was a neon sign that announced “Destroy All Your Humanity.” In general, the mood that night could be described as aggressively mischievous.
Gabinete H-E, only two years old, is made up of eight Mexican artists: José Luis Sánchez Rull, Esteban Aldrete, Cristian Franco, Bayrol Jiménez, Edgar Cobián, Emanuel Tovar, Enrique Nuño, and Daniel Guzmán. The group is having its Los Angeles debut because Paramo Gallery in Guadalajara partnered with the Mistake Room in downtown L.A., as part of the L.A. space’s new effort to give international nonprofits a local platform. According to the press release, Gabinete H-E’s current show is about their previous shows, “a kind of symbolic un-burial of some of the remains from their past projects.” Resurrected objects “reveal a renewed dialogue within myths that the collective has created.” Luckily, this pomo narrative—art reflexively about itself—does not accurately describe the show. The work doesn’t actually read as self-involved.
A video playing in the corridor between the lobby and the gallery shows the collective performing in a funeral home. A triangular, gold-painted stage set up inside has A VACATION and DEATH carved into its side. A few members of Gabinete H-E dance and sing on that stage, while others—all dressed in tan jumpsuits, chained together, and wearing fabric bags over their heads—carry large abstract paintings into the funeral home one at a time. They have to squeeze past audience members as they stomp in and out.
Just inside the main gallery, photographs, part of a series titled “Viaje al final de la note / Atrocidades mayors y atrocidades menores,” show the collective involved in some sort of covert plotting, which is both very intense and comically inefficient. They sit in a boardroom in one image, and form a human chain in a tranquil courtyard in another, holding each other up beneath a sculpted gray hand protruding from a white wall. The hand isn’t that high, so if they’re trying to grab it, their effort is overblown. Another photo shows two men, one fallen and one squatting, in an austere white hallway as a third man in a jumpsuit and mask looks at the camera.
The show contains a lot of other objects: drawings on a wall, an awkward animatronic sculpture of two skeleton heads asking for money, brown ceramic intestines. These objects feel like props, however, there merely to enhance the photos and videos in which the collective performs power plays and taunts death.
Earlier this summer, just a few miles away from the Mistake Room at Ghebaly Gallery, the French artist Neïl Beloufa installed a video in which impeccably dressed international politicians made absurd war plans. That video, so well composed and heady, confirmed that politicians were recklessly self-serving while suggesting that gallery art could be at once radical and tasteful. Gabinete H-E’s show hacks away at that notion of the tasteful radical through ungainly performances, photographs, and costumes that conjure prisons, martyrs, state surveillance, and iconoclasm. “Destroy all humanity” is an extreme, unattractive, thing to say. To want or try to do it would be entirely immoderate, but certainly a blow to the status quo. The show works because it revels in such charged, incautious propositions.