Chuck Kleinhans looks a lot like Karl Marx. Sometimes he even sounds like him in the seminars he teaches at Northwestern in Marxist theory and modern culture. But in Marx: The Video he’s the mute stand-in for his unfashionable look-alike–more like Harpo Marx in a coma. Often bedridden and outfitted in a billowing nightshirt, Kleinhans is the key prop in the latest video project of Laura Kipnis, a Chicago artist. It seems that the brains behind Communism was tortured by a skin affliction: carbuncles. After Marx’s mother died, and during the writing of Das Kapital, the rotund thinker endured nasty boils which he detailed in 30 years of correspondence with his collaborator, Friedrich Engels. (“This second Frankenstein on my hump is not so fierce as the first,” he once noted.)

Armed with feminist theory and free-form comedy, Kipnis exhumes this weighty corpse, pursuing analogies between Marx’s physical body, the body of his philosophy, and the body politic. In the 19th century, Europe erupted into violent upheavals; but during Marx’s lifetime history failed to unfold as Marx might have wished. Kipnis suggests that his body hysterically mirrored the revolutions that misfired around him. In the video, styled like a postmodern lecture, a comely trio of drag queens (the Marx Sisters?) rub in the point with choruses of “His body just erupted!”

Communicating the unexpected comes easily to Kipnis. Raised in Chicago, she went to art school in San Francisco, where she experimented with slide projectors and audiotapes. She says she once created a work so “confrontational”–she declines to give any details–that it appalled visting critic Yvonne Rainer, the avant-garde feminist. In a generous gesture, Rainer redirected the young artist to the Whitney Museum’s studio program, where Kipnis first encountered the New York video art scene. She was never drawn to video for video’s sake, however–it just seemed a more efficient and popular channel for her views than slides and tapes.

Kipnis bills Marx: The Video as “an appropriation of the aesthetics of both late capitalism and early Soviet cinema (MTV meets Eisenstein) to reconstruct a Marx for the video age.” She is deeply immersed in theory, yet is equally devoted to entertaining her audience.

In her video Ecstasy Unlimited: The Interpenetrations of Sex and Capital (1985), Kipnis suggested that capitalism turned sexual liberation into a new opiate of the masses. Although packaged with comic touches, this tape is pretty didactic, concluding with a long “Bibliography.” A Man’s Woman (1988) has more plot and less dogma: it’s a straightforward story of a TV news reporter investigating the assassination of a right-wing antifeminist. In this video, Kipnis wanted to discover the appeal of women like Phyllis Schlafly to women. Similarly, instead of damning Madonna, Kipnis says she wants to study the apparatus of her popularity. And then borrow from her.

Next on Kipnis’s agenda is a project with a wider distribution than Marx: The Video is likely to have: a feature film backed by the producers of My Beautiful Laundrette. It will be a conventionally designed movie about a movie director and his influence over women. This woman director, just entering the mainstream, believes there’s a dearth of political art that exploits popular recipes. In her mind, “Boring labor documentaries are the substance of left culture, which is starved for entertaining left media.”

Marx: The Video will be followed by The Illustrated Essay, a lecture/screening by Chicago artist Vanalyne Green on feminist video, Saturday, April 20, at 8 at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee. Admission is $6 ($4 for students and RSG members). For more information, call 666-7737. Reservations are suggested.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.