Dead Money

For his contribution to the Cologne Art Fair in 2008, German artist Christian Jankowski set up Kunstmarket TV, a live stream of two presenters offering art works for sale in the format of a home shopping network. The presenters were actual telesales experts and the works were by prominent contemporary artists such as Liam Gillick and Yoshotomi Nara. The items were presented one by one, the screen covered in the overloaded, visual barrage of TV shopping channels: crawl texts, flashing telephone numbers, non-stop audio commentary and, most important of all, the price floating in a bright red rectangle.

The odd thing about the work – currently playing a prominent part in The Financial Report, an exhibition at Artspace in Sydney – is how easily contemporary art fits into the format. While the shock of Kunstmarket TV comes from its mix of high-culture art and the low-brow world of cable TV consumerism, it ebbs away fairly quickly as you wonder why someone hasn’t already done this for real?

The Financial Report is a playful exhibition. Curated by Mark Feary, the emphasis is on a good-natured conceptualism that attempts to engage with the ironies of the art world and its relationships with the art market and between artists and patrons, and the vexing question of whether any of the work in the show has any actual “real world” impact. This last issue is, for me, the most problematic aspect of art that attempts to take on capitalism as it’s manifested in either the art world or the wider frame of international finance. The question is simple: what’s at stake? And what does it matter?

New Zealand artist Dane Mitchell sent two identical letters to Auckland galleries in the guise of a pensioner who had inadvertently dropped a $20 note into the galleries’ donation boxes rather than the $5 he had intended to give. The letters were simple: could he have a $15 refund? The smaller gallery wrote back advising that there was no $20 bill in their donation box but the larger public gallery sent a cheque. Mitchell’s work raises an interesting question about the value for money offered by government-funded galleries such as Artspace and whether, as taxpayers, we might all have a claim for a refund.

Dennis Beaubois’s Currency [2011] ups the ante considerably. Beaubois converted a $20,000 grant from the Australia Council into a pile of crisp $100 notes. He then offered the cash for sale via auction house Deutscher Hackett, where it sold for $17,500, or $21,350 including the buyer’s premium. The work includes the documentation of media reaction to the event, from the befuddled panellists on TEN’s The Project discussing their mutual incomprehension and hatred of the “so-called art work”, to a bemused David Koch on Sunrise interviewing the artist above a news ticker that includes such items as “Eight killed in Baghdad blast”. Beaubois’s work is rich with cruel ironies and the complicity of each player in the story of the work’s execution, from funding body to artist to auction house director to the buyer to the news media – all of whom played their part in “unmasking” the value of the work. Yet the work is presented as matter of fact: this is how the world works.

Perhaps if the artists in the exhibition had used their own money their work would have more bite. Andrew Liversidge has melted down $1 coins into sculptures that are hardened pools of gold worth thousands of dollars. They look magnificent and their value, like all currency, is now just an idea waiting to take shape.

I guess if Liversidge ever finds himself down on his luck he can always sell the gold, but the K Foundation has no such option. Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, the two musicians behind early-90s band The KLF, decided to become The K Foundation, an anti-art duo with the aim of exposing the hypocritical workings of the art world. After having their proposals to exhibit bundles of cash in various art galleries rejected, they decided instead to burn £1m.

Watching the video is like watching a snuff film, you can’t quite believe they’re going to do it – but then they do: they burn the profits from their music careers as a gesture against the art world. And the art world doesn’t care. The video of the event plays out on a tiny TV screen at the end of one of Artspace’s darkened galleries. The flames flicker in silence, reflected in the cold slag of Liversidge’s dead money.

Published as Art takes on capitalism: but what’s at stake? The Guardian Australia, August 2013

©Andrew Frost 2013

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