by Alexandra Kadlec
Art rarely provides answers, but rather questions, confronts, and challenges its audience. Often, it is done subtly – and at other times, it is in an emphatic, booming voice. Such is the case in Money to Burn, a videotaped performance shown as part of Oliver Ressler and Gregory Sholette’s co-curated exhibition, It’s the Political Economy, Stupid, currently on display at Gallery 400. Staging the atmosphere of the exhibition, Dread Scott’s video piece, just one among a dozen others in the internationally focused multi-media exhibition, depicts a performance that appeals to passersby on Wall Street in lower Manhattan, with the shout and query, Money to burn! Does anybody have any money to burn? With each repetition, Scott draws out syllables in various manners, his intonation not unlike that of a city vendor hawking scarves and sunglasses. Intermittently, the artist plucks a bill—a single, five, ten, or twenty—from the many that are clipped to the front of his black button-down shirt, and sets it aflame with a lighter.
Scott’s question conveys a two-fold meaning, resonating across personal and political lines, and blurring them in the process. In the immediate moment, he wonders if anyone walking by can spare some cash to incinerate – yet, on a far more consequential level, Scott also asks: can these same people—or could any of us—part with even a small amount of our personal assets during a prolonged era of financial downturn and uncertainty? (In case you are wondering, by the end of the forty-minute performance, Scott burned a total of $250.)
More questions arise while contemplating this and other works in the exhibition. What mode of artistic expression has the power to go beyond simply capturing our attention, and incite meaningful response? Does the artist persist in the role of activist, or can we adapt the form for change beyond our own viewing experience? If so, how? In the case of Money to Burn, we are led to consider dubious government decisions based on a profit-driven financial system, as well as our short- and long-term prospects for recovery out of the 2008 economic crisis. A play between sobering subject matter and irony as vehicle is deployed liberally throughout other parts of the exhibition. Even its title—a variation of The economy, stupid, Democratic political consultant James Carville’s slogan of choice for the 1992 Clinton campaign strategy—adds a layer of satirical nuance to our contemporary reading of the phrase. Recalling an earlier time of recession, it affirms, by inserting the word political, that the economy and our government remain inextricably tangled up in a mess worthy of artistic protest.
Two other videos on display, Homo Homini Lupus (Filippo Besta) and The Bull Laid Bear (Zanny Begg and Oliver Ressler), capture irony in a different – but no less critical – response to the exhibition’s theme. In the latter, U.S. economists and activists explain the slippery relationship between the banking industries and American and European governments. Yet, they do so against the backdrop of a hand-animated bar scene, a lighthearted aesthetic choice that appears to mock the weight of their statements. Other scenes portray financial bigwigs as bears, wolves, and dogs receiving sentences in fictitious criminal courts. The subliminal message is that, outside of these cartoonish lands and out here in the real world, the politically powerful aren’t always listening and big money isn’t always facing repercussions.
Besta’s work adapts a more sinister tone, painting our human tendencies as savage rather than civilized. Homo Homini Lupus depicts wolves sparring over a flag in a barren landscape, illustrating an “every man for himself” mentality as well as the inhumanity inherent to a profit-over-people economic system. In Ira Rosenberger’s Espiral – A Dance of Death in 8 Scenes, we witness a backstory of the current international crisis, as a man resembling a mime—clad in black and with black and white paint covering his face—spins and twists passionately outside an Austrian banking institution. A narrative covering the past century of Austrian financial history flashes along the bottom of the screen, recalling the media headlines we are inundated with daily. Like the mute dancer, we as viewers are powerless to protest the injustices of economic realities occurring without our assent. Whether expressed through provocative requests, cartoon drawings, a beastly tussle, or a silent ballet, the anti-capitalist sentiments of the organizers and work included in It’s the Political Economy, Stupid are made known explicitly. How we respond to this message, one of personal and collective disillusionment with the status quo, is up to us.
It’s The Political Economy, Stupid runs through December 14, 2013. Exhibiting artists include: Zanny Begg and Oliver Ressler; Filippo Berta; Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson; Julia Christensen; Paolo Cirio; Noel Douglas; Field Work; Yevgeniy Fiks, Olga Kopenkina, and Alexandra Lerman; flo6x8; Melanie Gilligan; Jan Peter Hammer; Alicia Herrero; Institute for Wishful Thinking; Sherry Millner and Ernie Larsen; Isa Rosenberger; and Dread Scott.