Erick Beltrán

Erick Beltrán’s “Serie Calculum” (Calculum Series)—“an essay about the concentration, the density and the creation of value,” as he puts it in the gallery press release—is a curio collection, compiled by the artist between 2006 and 2008. Because it refers back to idiosyncratic and arbitrary findings, a Wunderkammer such as this is meant to produce amazing and surprising effects. And since its premise is one of subjective categorization, it is also a way of actively generating provisional theories about our classification of the world and our writing of history.

Apart from a few large maps and a slide show, all the works in Beltrán’s series are small objects, semantic machines of a sort that develop narratives about the construction of value. One of the most striking is Plusvalía (Surplus Value), 2008, a diminutive die fabricated in Barcelona that, we discover, is actually made of human bone found in Colombia—perhaps belonging to a victim of guerillas, the mafia, or paramilitaries, one might speculate. A color photo shows the bone that is the origin of the die, and a text in two parts explains how a Colombian NGO is working on having the remains of unidentified people declared cultural heritage, and gives the definition of the word player while raising questions (in Spanish) such as “Can cheating become the game in itself?” and “How do you rig a die?” In spite of its unassuming appearance, the bone die belongs to a class of transgressive works that looks at us from the other side of death. The work is tiny but so laden with fateful significance that it seems impossible to roll. Yet its shock effect is complicated by its dissection of the logic of surplus value as a fatal game.

Other works also reflect Beltrán’s life as an itinerant artist, each being a spin-off of a journey or a previous project. Concentración (Concentration), 2008, a photo of the artist’s finger and a finger-shaped bar of Chinese ink from Beijing, refers to the myth of King Midas, but could also be read as the artist’s implicit acknowledgment of his indexical powers. At the end of the gallery, three blackboards with flowcharts and diagrams traced semiotic spheres of exchange, alluding to an economy of collective objects of knowledge rather than a market governed by the fetishization of artistic intentionality.

The show’s semantic busyness was something you had to take or leave. It was an excess of sources and references that were not meant to gel into a whole, and it further connected—among other things—rare New Zealand stamps, the French Situationists, iron branding in the Old West, Confucianism, and binary codes. Beltrán’s condensed narratives make for a Benjaminian 
social history that shows how
 words and things are connected 
in images that are at the same 
time playful and political—that 
is, subject to historical incompleteness. “Serie Calculum” is 
not a Marxist take on history, 
then, because it clearly transgresses economic value and operates with a much more inclusive
 concept of production. Thus 
Oráculo (Oracle), 2008, presents
 nail clippings that ostensibly
 belonged to Rasputin, were “borrowed” by the artist from an exhibition in London, and are now displayed as a poor and appalling relic underneath the Russian monk’s photo and farewell letter. Here, what is being allegorized—religious or mystical valorization—is almost overpowered by the indexical signifier, the physical remains of the infamous monk. When Beltrán leaves things open or opaque in this way, lack seeps in, absurdity overturns pathos, and reality collapses like a deck of cards.

Lars Bang Larsen