Marco Antonini: One Abstraction for Another

Art and Money. Yesterday and Today.

by Marco Antonini

Introduction (Ash’s Stash)

In the early Spring of 2011, after having followed the work of his then Bushwick-based exhibition space Fortress To Solitude, I invited Guillermo Creus to participate in NURTUREart‘s WE ARE: a Summer program that featured 10 different week-long projects by a diverse cast of artists, curators and organizations. He proposed to present three artists he had been keeping an eye on: Nadja Verena Marcin, Sarah Frost and Ash Sechler. Sechler‘s contribution to the show (titled Red Herring) was a stack of one thousand one dollar bills of his own money. The stack presented itself as a rather diminutive object, compact in size and irregularly textured because of the different color and condition of each individual note; it rested on our gallery floor exposed to dirt and wind gusts and –most importantly– totally up for grabs. Sechler signed a waiver releasing NURTUREart from insurance obligations on the piece. Red Herring was intended to be a materialization of financial risk: at the current state of his finances, $1000 was the most Sechler could have afforded to lose.

A few days after that meeting, the Guggenheim revealed its plans to present Hans Peter Feldman‘s one hundred thousand dollar Hugo Boss Prize award in the form of a gallery installation made of exactly one hundred thousand One Dollar bills. I received the Guggenheim’s press-release early one morning and immediately thought about Red Herring. One detail caught my attention: Feldman’s considerable stash was going to grace the storied walls of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece pinned to the walls and guarded by Guggenheim security staff as capital “A” artwork. We were all amused by the coincidence and immediately understood the ups and downs of presenting Red Herring just a few weeks after Feldman’s closing date. I personally felt that it would be hard to avoid some sort of comparison with such a highly visible and spectacular installation. The upside, of course would be that of braving the superficial assumptions that many would have made about our show while holding on to the superior value of Sechler’s idea. To my eyes, Feldman’s gesture was paradigmatic of strategies reiterated over and over in contemporary art. Shock-value gestures that are not only empty and irrelevant but conceal (reverting the biblical idiom) a sheep in wolf clothing.

Soft Cash/Hard Cash

As with all works concerned with powerful subject matter and materials, money-related or currency-based artworks often miss the spot. There are a series of reason for this failure, but I would like to discuss at least a couple of them. Firstly, it’s honestly hard to re-shape (whether actually or metaphorically) something developed in form and meaning throughout the entirety of human history into something “else.” Decontextualising, tweaking or otherwise recasting actual currency is hard. Historically, money has developed a myriad of awesomely designed and conceptually charged forms and shapes: a web of signifiers (ripe with all sorts of symbolic and iconographical subtext, ranging from the pompous to the ridiculous to the mysterious) resistant to infiltration and manipulation. Furthermore, money in its visible forms can hardly be disencumbered from its universal symbolic power. In Kathy Siegel and Paul Mattick’s words, money exists to represent the social character of productive activity in a form ownable by individuals”. In fact, currency-based exchange can be understood as a form of organized religion. Once we have established that (e.g.) a British Pound does not circulate as a sterling unit weighing exactly a pound, we are in a grey zone were faith is absolutely necessary. Believers have been indoctrinated to the existence of an equivalent “solid” counter value to the worthless paper and alloy bits they trade for centuries. The roots of this belief, anyhow, could dig much deeper at times when financial transactions were largely based on goods and tangible product exchange. In a present of global financial crimes and transactional economies, money as a symbol is more than ever under close scrutiny , but dealing with it can be even more tricky, considering how fast and inexorably physical currency is disappearing from our lives.

In today’s economy, finance has elected a series of totally abstract instruments to phonemes of a new insiders-only code, a language of exploitation that travels over invisible networks, determining the unstoppable accumulation of fictitious capital. Benedict Seymour has recently compared this non-existing value to a feedback loop in which “an anterior process of valorization and expropriation remains necessary (…) in order for these claims on value to be made good, supported and sustained.” In this context, the aforementioned requirement of an unconditional belief in currency value has become increasingly unacceptable. Seymour’s sonic metaphor extends to encompass a larger reflection on the relationship between the developments of the financial world and avant-garde art in the post-50s. Apart from such specific concerns, I would agree that it was in that period that cutting edge artistic research and the corporate world started to share an interest in deregulation and flexibility, experimenting with new forms of dissemination for their “products” and determining the dematerialization of their core values. The influence of this dematerialization on the way artists perceive money, art and their respective meaning and value led more of them to investigate currency in their work. The most interesting among such investigations tackle the meaning of money; its influence on our lives, its role as an entry point to the abstract reality of the financial world and the mechanisms that make the preservation and development of its very existence possible.

Hand-Penned Checks and Burning Millions

As usual a precursor among all precursors, Marcel Duchamp created a hand-penned Tzanck Check to pay his dentist (Dr. Daniel Tzanck) as early as 1919. [Image] The check was created with the cynical intention of circumventing financial conventions and procedures thanks to an added “value” that, although technically art world -specific, could have been easily converted into monetary gain. As a matter of fact, the check immediately acquired value, far over its initial denomination, bringing Duchamp to eventually buy it back at an unspecified price. Another prescient example is Yves Klein’s 1959 checkbook for his Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle. Klein’s checks toyed with the idea of selling invisibility but, as in Duchamp’s case, it was the artist’s own aura that was being appraised and sold. It should be noted that Klein’s notes actually did promise a form of payback (although immaterial) and were attached to an elaborate ritual involving burning the check and tossing gold in the river Seine. As an artwork, the Tzanck Check was emitted as a self-sufficient object that did not suggest more than what it actually was, apart, of course, from the perspective appreciation of its value. In this sense, Duchamp’s creation was and is very close to the fictional reality of contemporary currency, created and destroyed in shady meeting rooms by Federal Reserve executives and farther removed from reality than a graciously and meticulously hand-penned note.

Ten years after, another ground-breaking artist would investigate money in an art context in a radically new way. Robert Morris’ Money intervention at the “Anti-Illusion” exhibition at the Whitney Museum (1969) simply required the museum to invest the budget available to Morris and pay him back at the end of the show. The significance of this investment was multiple as Morris was producing a quintessentially conceptual, hard to commoditize “piece” while also taking advance of the Museum’s financial means to gain a quick and sure revenue. Morris’ Money can be ascribed to similar semiotic and institutional investigations developed by Michael Asher, Robert Barry and Maria Eichhorn; it uses money (in the form of an invisible and unspecified “investment”) to probe the organizational structure of art institutions. It is a way of extending artistic practice outside of its confined fields of action, an interest that is shared by Cildo Meireles’s Zero Dollar (1978-84), Zero Cruzeiro (1974-78) and Zero Centavo (1974-78), in which he combined the notions of counterfeiting and valuelessness, indirectly investigating the nature of money while openly addressing the possibility for an artist to create a “circulating” artwork to be effectively disseminated outside of art world sanctioned precincts. Zero notes resemble actual money but are completely removed from the rules and regulations of currency-based exchange. Meireles’ fascination with money and his solid understanding of its symbolic power and semiotic potential (strongly tied to his interest in the socio-economical context of late sixties Brazil), is also evident in an earlier work, Money Tree (1969), a stack of one hundred folded Cruzeiros sold for the price of two thousand Cruzeiros. Money Tree emphasizes a slippage between the currency’s raising value as an art object and its mere monetary value, bound to diminish inexorably because of -then rampant- Brazilian inflation. Using rubber (one of Brazil’s primary exports) bands to secure the small stack, Meireles adds to the piece’s complexity, locating it at the juncture of culture, geopolitics and global commerce.

The modest monetary values of all examples so far considered are quantitatively overshadowed by a series of grandiose projects developed by K-Foundation, the moniker adopted by world-famous techno-pop band KLF after retiring from the music scene in 1992. Using their considerable fortune, KLF members Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty enacted a series of provocations intended to question the art-world and its core values. Firstly, they awarded Rachel Witheread with a “Worst Artist of the Year” prize, doubling the twenty thousand Pounds she just received as winner of the Turner Prize. After Whiteread turned the joke on them by donating the money to artists in need, they nailed a Million British Pounds to a wood frame and tried to exhibit the work without success. Prosaically titled Nailed to the Wall, the costly artifact was in fact quite difficult to show around — mostly for insurance and security related concerns. In a final coup de theatre, they burned the whole million, in a controversial private ritual that took place on the Scottish island of Jura in 1994. The event was filmed and featured in a documentary titled Watch The K Foundation Burn a Million Quid, released in 1995. In Jimmy Cauty’s words, the gesture was “about controlling the money, Because money tends to control you.” Drummond, on the other hand, has made no secret of his own conflicted feelings, a sense of guilt and shock that apparently took him over since the burning began, as reported in a contemporary article appeared on the Observer . In an apotheosis of nihilism, Cauty tried to destroy any evidence of the performance, only to discover that the footage had been saved by one of their assistants.

Buy It Now

Art and Money, as we have seen, have quite a history. Several books and exhibitions have tackled the topic of this (according to many) unholy union, with results ranging from the celebratory and spectacular to the flat-out critical. Money as medium and topic is still constantly addressed in contemporary art and always will be. Somewhere along the path, anyhow, artists have started to show a new attitude towards the whole idea of incorporating money in their discourse. In short, they are more and more attracted by the transactional nature of money, its disappearance from the physical world and the consequences of its circulation than from its “essence.” It is possible to trace back this trend to the increasing feeling of looming financial and/ or existential uncertainty shared by my generation as well as by the post-crisis youth of today. Money-wise, we have long lost our future — or so we’re told. We increasingly look at money like it’s really little more than an abstraction so it’s quite logical to think about it as artistic material. As Daniel Spoerri has noted, in exchanging art for money, we exchange one abstraction for another. Several recent artworks well represent this state of things, exploring and exploiting the current state of invisibility investing financial transactions small and large.

The venerable Nedko Solakov was an early mover in this direction, with his video-performance The Deal. In this work from 2002, Solakov converted a small sum of money from currency to currency until it was completely extinguished by exchange rates and fees. It is a bittersweet work that reproduces on a microscopic scale the dramatic waste implicit in all major financial operations. In its own modest terms, The Deal hints to an underworld of invisible black holes, small and large voids created and sustained by the financial system itself. Solakov’s little loss mirrors the daily squandering of all humanity in its forced escalation towards a desire for materialistic accumulation that benefits the very few who write the rules. Solakov’s positive statement of refusal is echoed by Cesare Pietroiusti and Paul Griffiths’ two Eating Money performances of 2006 and 2007. Volunteering to eat Euro banknotes of the highest possible denomination (offered via a public auction and returned to the owners after digestion and excretion) Pietroiusti and Griffiths have transformed their own bodies into a conduit for a nonsensical and poetic financial transaction. Nothing is wasted in this process; because of its own remarkable security and durability features, the banknotes come out in pretty decent condition, ready to be washed and admired as sculptural remains of the artists’ surrealist feat. Eating Money is a humorous and slightly disgusting tour de force that successfully reveals our “physiological” desire for money, fear of losing it and the disturbing distance between its abstract value and physical form.

A work by Romanian artist Ivan Moudov uses actual Euro coins as the vector of an immaterial exchange, surpassing their nominal value and transforming them into the props of a joyous and surprising trick. Romanian Trick (2008) [Image] is a private performance that can be staged by Moudov at any given time for an individual “client” who pays a variable sum of money to learn a street trick from the artist: the way to separate the exterior copper ring of a One Euro coin from its central nickel core. For this little tutorial, Moudov requires a payment to be immediately reinvested in artwork for his collection. In this way, value circulation and exchange and the creation of a cultural “surplus” all happen inside the art world and, to a certain degree, follow its logic. What’s even more interesting is the use of currency in its most obsolete form as a mere tool in the operation, a signifier that doesn’t really contribute any actual value if not via the enactment of its own unforeseeable destruction. The theme of money destruction is indissolubly linked to that of its disappearance and re-emerges quite literally in Caleb Larsen’s diminutive $10.000 Sculpture (in progress) (2009). In this work Larsen installs a single dollar bill acceptor (of the kind commonly found in snack vending machine) on an empty white wall. The device literally “eats” currency, accepting and depositing it in an invisible security box. For Larsen, the device “is a continual charity, or more cynically, a form of panhandling. It asks for money, and offers nothing in return.” The artist’s apparently straightforward attitude towards easy profit goes hand in hand with an artwork sale contract stipulating that the money collected by the piece is not to be considered as part of the work’s market value. In short, the money collected by $10.000 Sculpture (in progress) is to be considered mere material, producing artistic value only during the fleeting moment it takes to “activate” the piece.

These examples add to the contemporary discourse on money-related artworks and what Olav Velthius has described as “Imaginary Economics” while also signaling a shifting interest towards the processes that bring money from point A to point B, C, D and on to infinity in its constant transitional flow. This independent motion is, as many have noted, the real reason for the dispatch and displacement of goods and, increasingly, people around the world – not vice versa. Money and its independent, invisible movements are also the real reason behind mundane and dramatic political developments that shape the life of present and future generations. At a time where the interests of the seemingly all-powerful 1% that channeled this obscure energy for ages is once again coming into question, contemporary artists are increasingly called to reflect, analyze and discuss money and its fascinating dynamics in their work.

Thanks to: Sandrine Canac, Maja Ciric, Guillermo Creus, Danilo Correale, Francesca Divano, Ettore Favini, Dorian Kulla, Astrit Ismaili, Raul Martinez, Johan Norling,Veronica Valentini, Nikola Uzunowski, for suggestions and/or feedback.




1. Interestingly enough, at the time of this writing the single most popular and widely downloaded episode of the famous NPR radio program “This American Life” was “The Invention of Money.” One of program host’s Ira Glass initial remarks in the episode (originally aired on July 2011) is that, according to a businesswoman they interviewed “Money is fiction.” –

2. As far as counterfeiting goes, the trade has become more and more sophisticated along the years. Unfortunately, the idea of crime artists printing notes in the basement is now little more than a romantic fantasy; today, large organizations, most probably controlled by national banks, rule the game. The fact that one in ten thousand of American Dollars is suspected to be a “Superdollar” (a note forged outside the US with technology that exceeds the one used to produce the real notes) contributes to suggest that the collective trust in the social contract at the foundation of currency-based exchange might never be fully restored. In this context, the forgeries of a poetic prankster like J.S.G. Boggs (née Steve Lintzer, still active in the production of mostly hand-drawn, single sided “Boggs Notes”) or any other creator of alternative currencies for that matter are almost pathetic in their subversive efforts.

References for works discussed above, in order of appearance in text:

–Siegel, Kathy and Mattick, Paul: Artworks: Money (Thames and Hudson, 2004) p.15

–“an anterior process of valorization …“. originally pub. On MUTE magazine (research it).

–Tzanck Check. This powerful gesture was still outrageous 85 years after that, when it was lifted by Maurizio Cattelan, who emitted a one dollar check as a gift to one of his collectors.

–Money Tree. Zamudio, Raul, “Knowing can be Destroying”, on Part 5 –

–“about controlling the money…“.quoted from Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid –

–as reported in… the Observer. Reid, J., „Money to burn“, The Observer, 25 September 1994. — As Daniel Spoerri has noted… quoted in Velthius, Olaf, “Imaginary Economics”, 2005 NAi Publishers. p.32

–is a continual charity…. Larsen, Caleb, “The Value of Nothing” (eBook available for Free download on


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