From flow charts pointing to ongoing growth to the made-up architectures on the face of euro banknotes, the task of visualizing capital is as difficult as it is contestable. But what role do the visual arts play in this game of representing or demystifying or mythologizing money – Marx’s ‘general abstract equivalent’ conflating image and reality – as per one’s political point of view? This is a particular concern of the post-yBa art world, with its slightly alternate version of market economics, forever affected by funding cuts and wise to the corporate malfeasance poisoning the fount of philanthropy. Strictly calculated, autonomy is not really a luxury of today’s art – whether it has ever been is another question.
‘Homo Economicus’, a two-part exhibition in Berlin and London curated by David Bussel, took a conceptually conservative yet politically radical approach to these conditions by piercing the veneer of ‘economic realism’ – the naturalist representational plane upon which Adam Smith’s ‘Economic Man’ finds himself marooned by history. At MD 72 in Berlin, this amounted to classical objects, photographic documentation of live performances and video works reflecting the conflicted or exploitative practices of artistic labour. A looped video of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece) created its own rhythm of productive industry, visually manifested as the slow growing-out of the artist’s hair over time. Bernadette Corporation’s 1996 biopic (or ‘internal corporate propaganda’), The BC Corporate Story, enthusiastically fused video graphic gambits with brash ’90s fashions. Asserting self-aware narrative primacy via collective ‘indoctrination’, the apolitical cool of younger generations of artists is unmistakably indebted to them. In another video, Nine Gross and Conspicuous Errors (1976), Art & Language collaborate with The Red Krayola, declaiming such lyrics as ‘language belongs to the managers’ over the top of guitar riffs. And the infamous allegory of Untitled (2003), in which Andrea Fraser – a self-professed creation of the 0.1% – recorded her hotel encounter with a collector, was nicely reprised in a set of still images.
The London leg of the exhibition, at Cabinet, was ultimately more abstract; absent of any sensual bodies, it was also much drier in tone. Devoted to the exchange and flows of capital, the show was dominated by diagrams and works on paper. Intricate schematics by Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, titled Assemblage #5 (The Enigma of Capital) and Assemblage #4 (Nights of Labour) (both 2010), are difficult to follow but cohere at breakthrough moments when frenetic notes form a portrait of 19th-century social reformer Frederick Douglass or become readable in block letters: ‘CRASH / BOOM / DISEQUI- / LIBRI- / UM’. Pavel Büchler’s The Idea Crossed My Mind and I Set to Work at Once (2009) sets another sentence in florid calligraphic script, ‘The impact of industrial production upon artistic practice,’ leaving the viewer to ponder his unspecified conclusions. Perhaps the most successful work is Zachary Formwalt’s 2009 video In Place of Capital. Tracing an economy of images from London’s Royal Exchange – a mid-19th-century photograph is strangely un-peopled, as traffic was too swift to be captured by prolonged exposures – to JP Morgan Chase’s loan collateral claims on Gouden Bocht’s 1685 painting The Bend on the Herengracht, Formwalt unpicks the contiguous if uneasy relationship between art history and capital finance.
The only piece to straddle both exhibitions was Long Live and Thrive Capitalism (2011), a banner by Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor. Adapted from a Romanian slogan (‘Long live and thrive socialism’), the original-language version was displayed in Berlin. This piece of fabric – a provocation of neoliberal policy as much as an expression of Eastern Europe’s socialist exhaustion – quite literally tied Bussel’s two exhibitions together. Berlin, a city which arguably has the highest concentration of ‘multinational’ artists today, was clearly a deliberate choice for revisiting avant-garde positions of the recent past; London’s veneration of abstract global finance depends, in part, on the cultural capital of its museum collections for ethical justification. Because of its decoupled structure and relatively small scope, ‘Homo Economicus’ was a desirable reminder of the various forms of expression which socially conscious art can take to deconstruct or resist decidedly artificial economic conditions. As a curatorial experiment, it provided an active consideration of what the work of art in the age of occupation could possibly be.