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  • Christian Hain

Time is Money is Art: "Cash on the Wall(s)" of Berlin Volksbank Foundation Kunstforum

(Berlin.) Who in and out of the artworld would deny that we live in decidedly materialist times? It's not different in Berlin than anywhere else in streamlined Western society: The ties between art and money that have always existed in some way or another, get closer by the day - it's just another business after all. The old-fashioned northern European Protestant attitude of hiding away your wealth as much as you can (this is not America!) never applied to a bank's art collection either, so it couldn't come as a surprise when we learned, that even Berlin Volksbank operates an exhibition space.

Only in name reminiscent of certain "Republican" countries e.g. in the Far East, and not exactly "Bailey's Buildings and Loan" either (are It's a Wonderful Life references even legal outside Christmas season?) Volksbanks - yes, indeed: sounds like Volkswagen! but literally means: "People's Bank" - are independent, customer-owned, and non-profit (though not fundamentally averse to taking risks on the financial markets) institutions that you find everywhere in Germany.

Volksbank's Foundation Kunstforum resides in a grey and dirty part of Western Berlin, nestled in between hideous 1960s architecture, a busy highway and almost cosy Lietzensee pond. This spring, they show Cash on the Wall and no, that's not about Johnny's collected tour posters, but "Art and Money". Passing by the windows of a "Kids' Workshop: Make Your Own Money!", we wondered whether some years hence, a master forger will look back and get all sentimental about this, "non scholae discimus…" (more Latin proverbs incoming, better watch out!). These windows already belonging to the foundation, we followed a possible fellow art lover approaching with much resolve - but no, not the exhibition space, only an ATM next to it. Upon closer inspection (slightly disconcerting that bank customer), the ATM turned out to be an artwork in its own right, or halfway to it: Apart from the usual graffiti, there's a blue panel surrounding it, inscribed with terms that designate money in German slang (think "dosh", "bucks", "dead presidents", &ct.). A label on the wall poses the question "ATM or artwork?" without identifying any artist other than "the ATMs inventor John Shephard-Barron", it further cites the - readymade's? - provenience as a loan from Volksbank Berlin (oh yeah, left pocket, right pocket, we know that game, don't we…?), thus it's usually not found here - or should it be a "permanent loan"?!

Stepping inside, the lady behind the counter is of Asian, possibly even Chinese, descent which made us smirk, China and Chinese art flippers being a major factor in the ever increasing monetarization of art (even though the craze of every sleazy cornershop extending its business to the Middle Kingdom has slowed down a little compared to, say, a decade ago - maybe because everybody's there already?!), serving the world for an example how both arms of materialism, capitalist and socialist, can "dialectically" work hand in hand to strangle individual liberties and competing systems of meaning. What? Ah, ok, you've stopped listening and still complain about that "racial profiling", well, I don't care. She seemed nice, and what's wrong with a little bit diversity created by differentiation (it only ever is)?

Let's get in medias res, the show starts with banknotes in different shapes from Warhol's Two Dollar Jefferson to Beuys' Kunst=Kapital ("Art= Capital") but also lesser knowns, Christin Lahr donating a cent daily to the Federal Ministry of Finance (and, if her art is selling, much more yearly, less voluntarily - A cent a day won't keep the tax inspector away), Annett Deppe with a cash origami titled My Last Shirt referring to a popular saying ("the shirt off one's back"), or a supersized 500,- Euro bill made from glass by Gerd Sonntag. Already at this point we realized, that there were more works, and the exhibition space much bigger, than anticipated (seeing more than you hoped for, who could say this about his bank statements?).

Roughly, most works in Volkbank's treasure vault fall in either of the following categories: There's artists designing their proper bank notes to create an artificial currency, often with links to a more or less elaborate backstory and even broader performance or social experiment, ranging from a 1990s collective in Berlin's Mitte district whose highly inflationary "Knochen" ("Bones") were even accepted in a handful of stores to Horst Hussel's Mekelenburg Räterepublik. "Räte" (Counsellors') "Republics" were short-lived German red-Socialist entities forming in the final days of World War I, and this fictional one's supposed to survive until today, depending on paper money just like everybody else. I honestly didn't get the work description mentioning a "100 year old republic founded in 1918" which would only make sense if the artwork dated from 2018 - alas, it doesn't: It's from "1992-1998/2010"!

Hussel called his banknotes "Mekels" (no: that's not "Merkel", although her roots lie in Eastern German "Mecklenburg" region), and they don't look really authentic, but as a whole, his art is impressive.

You could say, some artists in this category don't work fundamentally different from their peers who win a competition to design "real" (because being accepted as such by all relevant actors) money.

Others take cash for a mere material, a canvas, a support, something lost and found, and use it as a starting point for further production (sounds almost like a gallery's daily business, doesn't it?), thus replacing an existing, given, value with a new and potentially higher one, from that same Horst Hussel drawing over 1920s inflation era banknotes to today's Berlin market heavyweight Alicja Kwade with (as usual) highly aesthetic works such as Euro coins turned into cog wheels, and Ingrid' Pitzer's Money Cake, a Gugelhupf cake sculpture from shreddered Deutschmarks evoking that Indian Greenpeace CEO (or something…): "…you will discover, that you cannot eat money!" but also Marie Antoinette's ingenious problem-solving skills: "The people got no bread? Let them eat cake instead!" (the original wasn't a limerick). This smart and open artwork doesn't necessarily presuppose, everybody would need money, it's not our daily bread but an extra, not even the icing on the cake, but something else - and yet, would not a world without cakes be a poorer one in every respect?

Pitzer's not the only one to have shreddered Deutschmarks after the Euro's introduction twenty years ago: Victor Bonato did the same and put the remains in transparent plastic suitcases calling this The Work's Wage, possibly waging war on capitalism like so many well fed artists do. Swissman Uli Fuechser in 1976 cut valid banknotes and used them for collages that are as pleasing to the eye as his correspondence with Swiss authorities about the destruction of value is amusing. Please recall me, what was the name of that band again, who literally burned a million dollars sometime in the Nineties? Some say, all contemporary art is about the same…

All these works are slightly old-fashioned, they rely on the existence of physical money which is a dying breed, digital transactions being much better controllable by authorities. Celebrating yet another renaissance these days, gold is an even more conservative value, but Albrecht Fersch's installation/ongoing project Opus Magnum seems quite clever. Art being a special sort of philosopher's stone, the title references the alchemist's cookbook, and for the past three years, Fersch has been collecting packagings of products whose brandname mentions "gold", then calculated their hypothetical value were they really made from that material. We noticed a little mistake here: that "Ritter Sport Gold Treasure" chocolate bar weighs 299g but the artist only noted 2.99g - I wouldn't exactly trust him with any financial advice. One more observation: If that grocery store receipt is in any degree representative for his shopping habits, Fersch could be a heavyweight artist in more than one sense.

Further, there's - well: "cheap" word plays, even Daniel Spörri falling into this category, when in 1968 attaching a water tap to a box of cash, "liquid assets"… amid more money talk: In 2016, Caroline Weihrauch finally realized, that grammatical gender is something else than biological sex, presenting the astonishing insight in the form of Die Bank - no, that's not "die, banks, die!", but "the bank" is grammatically "female" in German and certain other languages.

Artists may also take a more political stance: Let it rain, Helge Leiberg's street arty/cave painting-like stick figure dancing in golden showers (Money Rain, 1994) alludes to the Berlin wall and what German unification was really for, including the grotesque decision to change worthless GDR play money 1:1 to Deutschmark. In a similar vein, but much later, our contemporaries Dragqueen on Elmstreet, no: Elmgreen and Dragset - sorry, I always get that wrong, and I honestly adore the Scandinavian duo! adorned an authentic piece of the Berlin wall with an ATM and put it in Hamburger Bahnhof museum, at Volksbank Kunstforum we get a photograph of this. When in 1986, a bank (not the Volksbank!) commissioned Reiner Schwarz with a series on money, his drawings turned out too critical and poverty-related to be published and given to loyal clients as intended. The times, they are a-changing: today, "anticapitalism" sells best.

Finally, there's the art market, Lee Mingwei's Money for Art (1997), which we've seen in the Korean's recent retrospective at Gropius Bau: The photographic diary of an experiment, giving cash origamis to a variety of people, a student, a barmaid, a manager, a homeless guy, … and documenting what they'd do with it as time goes by. Some got spent, one got stolen, and those who kept it, among them the homeless man - well, maybe they heard something about the ever increasing value of art.

Christa Sommerer&Laurent Mignonneau's The Value of Art - Sheep's Head with a drawing and a light sensor causing the work to add an entry to a printed receipt every time somebody stops in front of it, cites "sheeple" conspiracy rhetorics and might not be fully thought out: Claiming, attention creates value in art sounds odd, the most visible of all being street "art" (or only graffitis) and industrial design, decorative patterns, that don't earn the artist much if anything at all. It needs to be the right type of attention, not simply anybody's but the right persons' (well, maybe that's why Sommerer and Mignonneau are artists, not gallerists… thinking of antisocial media's "influencers" on the other hand…)!

There's still more, and not so easily put into our categories, from a hyperrealist, threedimensional painting of a safe by Lies Macula (2019) to HP Feldmann - ah, no: these golden slippers are from Anne Jud! and even one or two Russian artists: that's still possible despite all sanctions (not wanting to digress but don't you think history repeating itself after some decades almost amusing…. a Russian backed government change in Cuba annoys America who fails in the Bay of Pigs ≈ an American backed government change in Ukraine annoys Russia who succeeds in invading the Krim; Russia installing missiles on Cuba again annoys America who threatens with war but finally Russia backs down (because America withdraws its missiles from Turkey) ≈ NATO trying to get into Ukraine and thus putting a gun at Moscow's head angers Russia, but the West doesn't back down… Oh, to think there would be no war in Ukraine, if there'd only been a formal pledge, that country could neither join NATO nor EU within the next fifty years! There's no natural law saying, the West must constantly enlarge its power sphere… And now our propaganda, not least in the guise of art and culture, is embracing this as "our" war, and pushing towards a full-scale escalation with Russia, while I cannot remember Europeans being prevented from flying to the US, or consuming American embedded journalism during, e.g., the Iraq war… It's made official: EU authorities have buried the ideals of an open democracy and the Enlightment's conception of man; no longer autonomous actors, free to judge and to decide of our own we have been demoted to dependant subjects again: Literally employing Chinese tactics (the "big firewall"), European citizens can no longer access Russian news websites, authorities deciding for them whose propaganda, whose side of the story, whose "truth" they are exclusively allowed to consume. Not your war, you don't give anything about politics and especially not about some Eastern European country, longtime a Russian province - you don't want to meddle with other people's affairs, you just want to visit Saint Petersburg this spring? No chance, because "we" are everybody, "we" want to rule everywhere, "we" are the good guys and "we" - that is "our" state - decide on which side to stand and what to think: not better than the others, actually the same, but didn't we want to be different? Always remember a simple rule: If everybody around you says the same and you never meet with a different opinion - there's something wrong).

Back to business: Several video works, the most impressive of which documents Philipp Valenta counting money (2009) like a modern version of Rembrandt's Money Changer. This once again seems very old school, not least because the then twenty-two years old artist is wearing a suit and bowtie while new money, as we all know, prefers T-Shirt and sneakers (already did a decade ago). Do you really need to rely on outdated clichees? As mentioned above, new money gets harder and harder to count with one's hands, old Scrooge McDuck's pool would only exist on someone else's servers in the cloud today… But of course, there's also forward-thinking art at Volksbank Foundation, even one of those nigh-mythical NFTs (by Markus Huemer), basically an encrypted file format for digital - everythings. You could encrypt your wedding photograph in NFT, which means it can still be multiplied, but blockchain technology ensures that "the" original remains identifiable as such, whereas every copy creates a new, different, blockchain (that file's "CV"): the same in every respect but the provenience. With luck and clever marketing, enough people will believe that your photo, which could also be a video clip of some sporting event or showing a traditional artwork - no, let's make that even better: the photograph of a forged painting could be a genuine NFT!, will be worth millions of dollars (or Euros, or tens of Bitcoins). Quality rather doesn't play a role in this, the prices being paid for unknown and irrelevant artists (looking at you, Beeple) being the same as those paid for dancing apes like straight out of a late 1990s video game. Oh yeah, blowing bubbles… Old white man Warren Buffett famously refuses to get involved with anything blockchain because there's no "true" value attached to them beside human fancy. Which, on the other hand, is not so different when it comes to traditional currencies, at least since everybody's abandoned the gold standard, and even gold,… well… ever more of it being mined and hardly anything destroyed, according to the laws of inflation its value should be much less today than a century, or centuries, ago - which somehow isn't the case.

Reading the "explanation" for Via Lewandowsky's Oder so ("Or so"), 2021- a neon sign with the words "all nothing" - line break - "better all" (a case for Reddit's "Don't Dead Open Inside" sub?!), I once again didn't get a thing and have the strong suspicion, it's not different for the person writing it. Citing Wittgenstein, "The world is everything that is the case" does NOT logically lead to "If everything that is the case is the world, then everything that is the case is nothing" - unless you add a second premise: "The world is nothing". And no, "replacing any of the terms with 'cash'" doesn't "solve the riddle", at all. You might feel inclined to sit down and reflect on this. Having mentioned before, this is an albeit not huge but at least medium-sized exhibition - on two levels, nevertheless! -, there are some chairs spattered about, all covered with a paper sign: "Please sit down only in case of emergency". They don't seem particularly expensive, or antique, so it must still be to do with that flu. I was the sole visitor on a Tuesday morning and I'm quite sure, not many tourist busses stop at Berlin Volksbank Foundation.

Art and money is a topic open to a lot of different approaches, and we should be vigilant that it stays this way instead of becoming too one-sided. Politics and ideology meddling with it are much more dangerous for Art than money - which has always been needed (or in the very least "used") to finance artists. Like all spheres today being more and more under pressure of self-proclaimed enlightened ("woke") leaders owning the ultimate truths and morals, the answers to all questions, the art industry has decided that some "pecuniam olet", some money stinks indeed, and famous museums refuse to accept any more "dirty" money donations from - no: not drugs and arms dealers, or EA (a joke, your children will get), but oil companies. Great PR stunt, but never forget: Art should not be about making money alone, and never sell out to mainstream politics or morals. Immoral art is often immortal too, and this only ever refers to the morals of the day - there are no others.

Nobody and nothing is exclusively "good" or exclusively "evil", there are shades to everything, and even somebody who's done "bad" according to today's standards might have done "good" too, and earned the right to have his name on a museum plate. Yes, that includes slavers. Stop thinking digital, in "1" and "0", that's not human, nor how life works.

Cash on the Wall, 17 February - 19 June 2022, Berlin Volksbank Foundation Kunstforum

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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