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Flash Art International n° 227
November - December 2002

 
 

Text von Angela Rosenberg






 

Stock - Market
art and the new economy

Angela Rosenberg
 

AERNOUT MIK, Middlemen, 2001. Courtesy Carlier/Gebauer, Berlin.

When the september 11th catastrophe forced the Nasdaq to close, the stock market and its power over us became more apparent than ever before. We all held our breaths as if our very own heartbeats had gone missing. One year later, with prospects for Western economies once again appearing dim, although for different reasons, there is substantial concern about a second massive slump, he “double dip,” that has not only brokers and investors shuddering with fear, but also virtually everyone. 
 

What a difference to when Nicholas Leeson’s manipulations drove the Baring Bank to collapse, at that time, only ten years ago, we looked upon the stock market as a venue of evil spirits, who with dubious tactics drove the secret financial forces of the world. What has happened that we now see ourselves as part of a system that we considered evil and alien to ourselves this short while ago?
 
 
 

AERNOUT MIK, Middlemen, 2001. Courtesy Carlier/Gebauer, Berlin.

The stock market reflects more than the economic situation of our society. It reacts immediately to political developments, war and catastrophes, and their economic implications with share rates falling and rising dramatically. Continuously in flux, the rates bring warm or chilly spells for brokers and shareholders, whose swift reactions may set forth spectacular developments. This game as such would be impossible without a deep trust in the economy and their leaders, and a fundamental belief in economic growth as such.
 
 

The “new economy” introduced a new quality into this game, as the speed increased with which companies floated their shares. The dot-com boom in retrospect appears to have been more of a religious exercise than a serious business venture, as not so much real but future commodities were traded; the market expanded from depending on commodities to business ideas, stretching faith ever further. Making a 
 

AERNOUT MIK, Middlemen, 2001. Courtesy Carlier/Gebauer, Berlin.

fortune appeared as easy as never before, so many followed the emerging trend and invested their money in new economy shares, following the omnipresent and ever-changing share prices on television, news tickers, and the Internet, as if it was their heart or cholesterol rate. The experts’ oracles, from Alan Greenspan and André Kostolany, to Wim Duisenberg, are still monitored with ceaseless attention, in an untiring quest for enlightenment, and the hope that the newly gained information may provide the individual investor with factual insights to allow him or her to reach greater economic heights, power and value. Yet, it is no secret, that the transparency of the current economy as reflected in the media is superficial, and, like in times of war, much of the information is only released to manipulate the market.
 
 
 

AERNOUT MIK, Middlemen, 2001. Courtesy Carlier/Gebauer, Berlin.

Online trading provided the individual with the ability to directly take part in the stock market business, avoiding brokers and middlemen and the cut they take of each transaction. But once the individual has obtained the sole power over his or her own transactions, he or she also has the sole responsibility, and at this point the system of beliefs represented by the stock market requires added attention.
 

The analogy between the art market and the stock market is obvious. A work of art is a commodity, sold directly to a buyer by a dealer, who acts as a broker on the artist's behalf. The resulting sale financially benefits the artist and the dealer. If the purchase was prudent, the buyer will profit not only from the enjoyment of possessing the piece of art, but also from the increasing financial and symbolical value.
 
 
 

Martin Liebscher, Termingeschäft, 2001. 

Nowadays many collectors invest in art as in shares, studying the artist’s profile like that of a company whose market value increase in value. Already the language of share traders has entered the realms of the art business: “blue chip“ artists are a guarantee for a safe and promising investment, while the profile of a collection is assembled in the manner of a balanced “portfolio.”
 

Web sites portray the economic success of collecting art, e.g. artprice.com which claims to be “the world leader in art market information,” thereby mimicking the look of nasdaq.com. Others, like artnet.com provide information about art linking collectors with traders.
Artists are ranked for the profitability of their work, as in the German business magazine Capital’s annual “Art Compass.” According to a complicated system of points, relating to the artists’ careers in the last twelve months, the art work is evaluated in a sort of price-prospect scheme, the winner is the artist whose work is most expensive and has had as many shows in as prestigious galleries and museums as possible.
 
 
 

SISLEJ XHAFA, Stock-Exchange, 2000. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.

Marcel Duchamp wrote in a letter to the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz complaining that “the feeling of the market here is so disgusting. Painters and paintings go up and down like Wall Street Stock.” Many artists share Duchamp’s disgust in the art market, and artists like Hans Haacke and Barbara Kruger were highly critical of the ‘secret marriage’ between art and money, making exactly this criticism a key issue in their work. Other artists, especially those linked to Arte Povera and Fluxus, tried to bypass the market by working in non-commodities work such as performances, happenings, or “dematerialized” conceptual art, which of course today is traded very successfully. But it was only by the late 1980s that dominant artistic strategies relating to economics tended to affirm or even embrace the market. Most poignantly, Ashley Bickerton or Jeff Koons emphasized the congruency of artistic and economic value, of artwork and commodity, of art world and economy.
 

So, where do the artists who are defining the arts of the 21st century stand in this matter? It seems that the interest in economics differs from both critical and affirmative approaches in its playfulness. The artists do not embrace or criticize the economy, but rather approach it as game, but with an attitude.
 
 
 

SWETLANA HEGER, Fake (Gold), 2001. Courtesy Chouakri Brahms, Berlin. 

The 1990s have witnessed a development of the stock market, that promises a share of the worldwide economic growth to anyone, who can afford it. This quasi-religious belief cannot pass without being questioned, especially in the context of the recent discourses concerning post-colonialism and globalisation, or it will end in dreadful cynicism. The stock market is a glittering contemporary motif, its power adding to its fascination, as its international accessibility and importance.
 
 

In 2000, Henrik Plenge Jakobsen originally planned to establish “Nasdaqforever.com” as a shareholder company, and to invite people to speculate in the brand, as they had done in many other dot-com companies. The difference is that Nasdaqforever.com has no inherent economic “content” beyond speculation, it is a mere projection and confession of faith more than anything else. Condensed into a painting, Nasdaq Forever (2000) is a highly ambiguous statement, departing from the notion that real art is for eternity. It raises the question what lasts longer: art or the new economy? Jacobsen says: “The fraught and failure is of course a part of the game of investing money, but the basic message is, that capital makes more capital. It’s not an ironic comment, just a diagnosis of our present society, and its obsession with money, and furthermore I do not see any alternatives, despite that it is kind of depressing to think about.”
 

In Frankfurt am Main, the city of the euro, Jakobsen installed two different stock market curves at the windows of the Dresdner Bank, referring to the economical success of Dresdner and Deutsche Bank, their immediate neighbourhood, their competitive relationship as well as their failed attempt to merge on the market. The curves for Love Affair (2001) were made from reflective silver foil, referring to the vain architecture of the building itself as well as to the stripes by Daniel Buren, who had a piece on the next floor.
 
 
 

ANDREAS GURSKI, Hong Kong Stock Exchange, 1994. C-print, 166 x 266 cm. Courtesy Monika Sprüth, Cologne.

Swetlana Heger refers to the stock market as a game for grown up’s, where everything is possible, stays open, becomes absurd, and is yet real. At the last Berlin art fair she showed Fake (Gold) (2001), at Brahms.Chouakri, a golden chart on the wall, displaying the worth of gold during one week. Though which week was not clear, as numbers and dates for orientation were missing, leaving only an abstract, jagged line, a golden drawing on the wall. As the economy dives into worldwide recession, this work goes along with the rather pessimistic and pathetic installation Fake (2001), a candle in the shape of a golden dollar sign, burning down, leaving nothing behind than smoke and rapidly vanishing warmth. But whose dollars are dwindling? Is it the few shares the artist has bought with the money she could make from her art, or is it the common U.S. dollar, the symbol for economical wealth in our society? Heger is fascinated by the idea that economical facts and share prices are obsolete even in the moment they are being published, leaving apparently up-to-date information nothing but historical facts.
 

Definitely not inviting for participation are Andreas Gursky’s images of stock exchanges, showing anonymous figures in whirling harried action. Tokyo Stock Exchange (1990), Singapore Stock Exchange (1997), and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange dyptich are huge arenas for complex mass spectacles. Presenting these masses and the ornamental value of the individual in the frenzy of a stock exchange, the images represent not the individual’s intentions, worries, needs, or responsibilities, but rather today’s technological banking. A force of united commuters, the human machine keeps the business rolling, no matter what, even with the depressing and totalitarian quality of mass organisation, evident in most of Gursky’s work.
 
 
 

HENRIK PLENGE JAKOBSEN, Nasdaq Forever, 2000. Courtesy Wallner, Copenhagen.

Also teeming with people but painterly and abstract, Martin Liebscher’s panorama photos of stock exchanges turn the images of day-to-day business into dynamic renderings of expressionist quality, thereby producing a helter skelter version of a Las Vegas gambling mall (Panoramabilder, 2001). Quite in contrast to this work another piece of his looks more precise: Liebscher’s rendition of a forward exchange, located in a large office space. In this piece, he has actually taken up the role of every single person by digitally duplicating himself for his latest panorama photograph Termingeschäft (2001). Performing every action necessary to present a convincing full stock-market cast, Liebscher engages in every action imaginable in the scenario, every one of his dozens of self-portraits is frantically busy, on the phone, yelling orders, bearing a variety of expressions from excitement to exhaustion, desperation or on the brink to suicide. The scene refers to Stanislaw Lem’s futurist story of a man in space, trapped in a time loop, and thereby producing endless copies of himself, thereby repeating the same event again and again.
 

Another one man stock exchange is to be witnessed in Sislej Xhafa’s video Stock Exchange (2000), showing a performance in the railway station of Ljubljana. The artist, a sole performer in a black suit, improvised a routine of stock-market movements, producing a complete stock market situation, reacting to the sign board that announces the trains arrivals, departures, track numbers etc.
Observed casually by only a few passers-by, the performance is hysterical — no stock exchange without stocks. Even if conceived as mere data, passengers and trains make statistics, producing a sarcastic comment about bureaucracy, and the difficulty to establish an actual functioning economical system in the countries of the former Warsaw pact. 
 

Also set in a small and strangely neutral stock market venue, Aernout Mik’s video Middlemen (2001) confronts us not with the economic reality but with carefully constructed fiction. Actors play the character of the middlemen, witnessing the last fading twitches of a dying stock exchange, probably the hours after or before the inevitable ultimate crash. Middlemen employs the hermetic atmosphere of the stock market as an absurd setting to stage a beautiful ballet of existential uncertainty in dysfunctional structures of power.
 

“It’s interactive with culture, insofar as stock markets are a manifestation of the collective unconscious of a capitalist society.” According to an old stock market lore, the lengths of womens’ hemlines are affected by the Dow — the worse the market, the more leg is shown. Nancy Paterson’s Stock Market Skirt (1998) plays with this myth that skirt length is an economic indicator. She produced a party dress with a hemline that rose and fell according to up-to-the-minute data provided by computers monitoring the fluctuation of stock prices. Indeed users could affect the skirt by trading a stock in whatever company her software was tracking at the moment, and be rewarded with some more delicate skin.
 

Today’s artists are fascinated by the dynamics and rules of the stock-market, as the stock-market has become an institution of public interest. Mainly a success of the media coverage in the last couple of years, magazines and TV shows focusing on economic issues, making them comprehensive and reasonably transparent, the stock-market has become a crucial character in our popular culture, like a film star, or a politician the stock-market attracts hopes and fears but also dreams of wealth and projections of power. 
 

These artists playfully transcend the abstract subject matter of the stock market into something that is referential to the individual, with an impact on society. So it is not entirely without sarcasm, that they prove that contemporary art in today’s art market system is not only of a coherent economic value, but of a symbolical value, too.

Angela Rosenberg is a critic and art historian based in Berlin. 

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