“Contemporary art” is a commodity, no doubt. The value attributed to the art commodity largely surpasses any connection to the materials used or the amount of labour or time performed by the artists. Art contains an intrinsic quality of mystery, an auratic unknown that pervades the objects and shapes the perceptions, transforming these objects into something transcendental from what they are in their material existence. We can wonder about an apparent suppression of Marx’s law of value when art is the subject. Diedrich Diederichsen identifies three factors that determine this supposed suspension of these laws: autonomy, desire and authorship.1 Autonomy because of the exceptional role of art in bourgeois society, desire since art is regarded as a force refusing to fall in line with the coerced consistency of life, and thirdly because it is demanded that, unlike the rest of the realms of life, it should be full of meaning. As Marx recalls, “Value, therefore, does not talk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.”2 Art transforms; from the material transformation per se, produced by the artist’s gesture, to the particular setting under which it is presented, and also on a more abstract level, conveying ideas. Transformation through labour is imperative to the creation of value; but other variables play a part, and they contribute to the social hieroglyphical character of a product that Marx refers to. We live in the symbolic capital and immaterial work era, where intangible variables add value to commodities, and contemporary art is the perfect ground for the market to operate and speculate. Big corporations are art sponsors, art fairs generate millions in revenue, openings are lavish parties, and still, there are interns working for free and many artists struggle to make a living without a side job. What, in fact, constitutes the exchange value of the artwork? Besides the artist’s intervention, there is to consider the whole economic system in the art realm: galleries and dealers creating artists as brands, investment desires and market fluctuations. Transactions aims to question the production and reception conditions of artworks, and the influence of capitalist mechanisms in the realm of art.
In this exhibition, the artists’ approaches vary from resistance, to subversion, irony or critique by revealing the state of things.
The first piece we encounter is Panther Opera (2017), by Ali Fitzgerald, a drawing made specifically for this exhibition and drawn directly on the wall, lowering exponentially its marketability. The drawing portrays an artist as protagonist, in a wild environment, where critics and corporate individuals, who speak incomprehensible languages, appear in the artist’s path, and the artist becomes eventually a wild animal.
In the room, one can feel the smell of chocolate, it’s The Art Collector, by Jérémie Mabiala & Djonga Bismar, artists from the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC), a collective of plantation workers founded near Lusanga, in Southern Congo. Using the “Creative economy” market, it aims to improve the economic position of its members and their communities. The history of chocolate is deeply controversial, bringing echoes of colonialism, worker exploitation and corporate dominance. The chocolate used in this sculpture consists partly of beans from plantations which were property of the Unilever Group until 2009, a corporate empire that is ironically a big art sponsor.3 The sculpture was produced with the carving knowledge of the Congolese plantation workers and the original sculptures were 3D scanned and sent to Amsterdam, the largest cocoa port, where a confectioner made the casts from solid chocolate. The cocoa travels the world and with this project it aims to bring something back to Congo, for a chance, not only symbolically through the artwork and raising awareness on the plantation workers conditions, but also in material terms, since the transformation process from the raw material to the chocolate sculpture raises its value immensely. The CATPC reinvests the profit from the artworks sales in self-owned agriculture production in Congo, trying to find an alternative to the multinational domain and exploitation. The same collective also presents the video From the Plantation to the White Cube, about the strategies of resistance in plantation zones.
Entitlement, from Joshua Schwebel, consists of a printed contract hung on the wall, in which Schwebel rents to another artist – Jonas St. Michel – his space in the gallery, allowing St. Michel to show in this exhibition instead of him. This action points out to the seminal role of money as criteria for what is visible or not to the public, power imbalance and competition stimulation, at the same time playing with the notion of “opportunity”, so widespread in today’s labour culture.
St. Michel shows three photographs of his BANDANEIRA series – The Street Sweeper, Boy and Kitten, and Day Labourer (Mooring rope) – the name of the series comes from a group of remote Indonesian islands (The Bandas) where the project was initially conceived. These works address the complex relation of the photographic image’s representation through alterity or exoticism. The characters are posing, in a vacant scenario, in activities that could be – or not – their daily ones, creating in the viewer a detachment, a sort of estrangement, since there seems to be something odd about the people portrayed, creating a staged environment, with an identifiable person to be seen.
“Pulheim digs” is a slideshow showing of a performance by Michael Sailstorfer in 2009/ Sailstorfer was invited by the cultural department of the city of Pulheim, where he buried 10000€, in the form of fourteen 10gr and fourteen 20gr gold bars. In a press conference, Sailstorfer announced the project and invited people to dig and “find their fortune”. On this occasion, the value is a direct one, using gold, the exchange rate par excellence.
In the same room, we find the video recording of Pilvi Takala’s performance, The trainee, in Delloite, a consultancy and auditing firm. The artist worked for one month as “Johanna Takala” in the company’s marketing department. She undermines the established dynamics in the company, instead, she decides to do “brain work”, sitting on a chair without a computer, or riding the elevator the whole day. People in the office start to perceive her presence as unbearable. Takala, instead of “working harder” than everyone else, like many previous interns probably did in the firm, does the exact opposite, she does apparently nothing. The artist tells the colleagues that she is thinking, and she is, at the very least, questioning the office norms of behaviour, productivity and communication applied to interns, and workers in general. If she had no tasks assigned (as it is often the case with internships), but was sitting behind a laptop, her actions would be accepted, since they would resemble office work, but sitting and thinking deeply offends the productivity obsessed work culture.
Christian Jankowski’s The finest Art on water, is composed of a video, about the original performance which took place in London at Frieze art Fair, and sculptures of the two boats involved. Luca Boldrini, not a gallerist but a luxury salesman offered the choice to art collectors to buy either the “normal” version of the boats, or to transform them into an artwork. In the second scenario, the one that both collectors chose, the boat would be renamed (one was named Christian and the second Jankowski) and they would receive an original certificate. The smallest would sell for 500.000€ as a normal version and 625.000€ as a Jankowski’s original, as for the second the price would rise from 65 million euros to 75 million euros. Jankowski plays with the value attributed to artworks, showing that people are willing to pay more for the same item just for the fact that it is an artwork. The artist creates ready mades on water, with the particularity that this is an item designed to be a utilitarian object and remains being so.
Even Haus am Lützowplatz itself contributed to the ironic feeling of this exhibition, as the institution signed a sponsorship contract with Ligthart enterprises, connected with the artist Theo Ligthart, and here represented through the Freimeister Kollektiv stall, a company dedicated to the production and retail of alcoholic beverages. The permanent stall is installed inside the exhibition, providing drinks for the opening and other events in the gallery, and promoting the brand. The sponsorship contract is displayed and contains several obligations for both parts such as that the artistic director of Haus am Lützowplatz and curator of the exhibition, Dr. Marc Wellman, must wear a shirt with the company’s logo at the opening. This sponsorship act is no different from the ones that most artistic institutions and museums obtain from the corporate world, pointing to a double conclusion, the underfunding of arts by the state and the corporate attempt to capitalize on the value of art and of being a patron.
Thorsten Goldberg presents us a framed supermarket receipt, from 19 December 1992, part of a series where the artist framed several food purchase receipts, selling these for their exact value. Here the artist does not add any surplus value, the price is determined exclusively by his daily needs, it is a matter of survival, suppressing needs that couldn’t be answered for in other ways.
All over the exhibition space there are fragments of Moritz Frei’s Tausche Ölbild für gebrauchtes Auto (nicht alter als 5 Jahre), a collection of ads, found by Frei between 2008 and 2014, which were published as a book by berlinartbooks and are scattered on the gallery walls. The collected ads, come only from artists, trying to exchange skills, objects or connections, and portray the artistic class as a social group in a very unusual way, but making clear their limitations, doubts and needs.
Many artistic approaches in this exhibition opt for a method of artistic creation in which the artist performs minimal actions (Schwebel’s renting of the gallery space, Takala’s apparent inaction during the internship, Goldberg’s framings or Jankowski’s boat naming) showing that physical labour is not key in the creation of value, and the artist’s intentions and concepts are the determining factors. Nadine Fecht uses the inverse reasoning, to reach the same conclusion. Ohne Titel (Phantom Schmerz) is an artwork representing labour in itself, where the artist repeatedly writes “I’m feeling blue” in different variations on a paper sheet that covers the entire surface of the wall. We can feel the amount of time devoted to this artwork, one of persistence, method and repetition. Also, it demands that the viewer also performs a kind of work, as the paper is horizontal, and the words are written in a vertical position, so in order to read them, one has to execute gestures.
Santiago Sierra contributes to Transactions with a well-known work, 250 cm line tattooed on 6 paid people, the first art piece from a line of work that became one of Sierra’s trademarks: the usage of disadvantage people, paying them to perform actions or to be, as in the case of the tattoos, performed upon. The artist plays here the role of the capitalist, exploiting people in exchange for a meagre monetary compensation – in this case 30$ to have a permanent line on their bodies. Sierra himself will sell this artwork for a much higher price, exactly the same relation that occurs in everyday work relations, as the capitalist system depends directly upon the surplus value created by the difference between what workers’ labour-power produce, and what they actually receive. Sierra mimics these processes into the exhibition space, apparently going along with the system and causing distress in the audience, but in fact pointing out to the unfairness of the state of things and the overall public hypocrisy.
Overall the exhibition functions as a critical platform to reflect the contemporary art system itself, the transactions, that is the exchange of goods for money, are either the artworks themselves or the artists’ labour. The projects gathered here reveal an awareness and a will to critically resist the imposed state of things, a subject of great importance that we hope to continue to see developed.
1. Diedrich Diederichsen, On (Surplus) Value in Art (Sternberg Press, 2008), 23.
2. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I Book One: The Process of Production of Capital, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-I.pdf
3. See “Unilever Series” at the Tate Modern.
Image: Christian Jankowski
The Finest Art on Water, 2011
Video (1 x HD Cam, 1 x Blu-ray),
10 min, PAL, 16:9, color, sound, English (Stills)
Courtesy of Haus am Lützowplatz and the artist.