BY George Pendle in Opinion | 03 JUN 09
Featured in
Issue 124

The Numbers Game

The intertwining of business, finance, art and numerology

BY George Pendle in Opinion | 03 JUN 09

In the recently released film Knowing (2009), Nicolas Cage plays an astrophysicist who stumbles upon a list of numbers written down 50 years earlier that seem to predict future catastrophes. What follows this discovery is a remarkable condensation of every pre-millennial and post-9/11 anxiety to have wracked both psyches and celluloid in the last decade. Planes crash, terrorists plot, numerological and Kabbalistic warnings abound, sinister children utter sinister non-sequiturs, and the world rushes towards its end in a hyperactive maelstrom of eschatological mania, environmental disaster and alien abduction.

Yet despite ticking every box in the horror/ghost/disaster movie checkbook, Knowing is a strangely old-fashioned film, rooted firmly in the grandiose paranoia of the heyday of George W. Bush’s presidency, when The Da Vinci Code (2003) ruled the bestseller lists and the Total Information Awareness (TIA) and ECHELON digital interception programmes were revealed to be spying on communications worldwide. If our apocalyptic appetites have become somewhat jaded over the last ten years, and our concurrent paranoid fantasies weakened – perhaps aided by the installation of a new President of the United States – how has this affected our appreciation of the work of that master of the paranoid zeitgeist, Mark Lombardi?

Lombardi’s delicate pencil drawings charting the tangled web of power and influence behind governments and corporations have always been as much about reportage as art; in fact, they are the purest of political artworks. This was never made clearer than when FBI agents famously travelled to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art following the attacks on the World Trade Center to view his drawing BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972–91 (4th version) (1996–2000) in the hope of picking up some leads. It’s true that Lombardi’s vaulting arcs and looping lines are visually striking. Looking at them is like looking at a celestial chart, or a medieval etching of the music of the spheres. But in the years immediately before and after his death in 2000, such pieces as George W. Bush and Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens (5th version) (1999) seemed to be, primarily, of immediate political importance.

Now, with the paranoiac grip of the last decade somewhat loosened, and the actual events on which Lombardi’s art was based rapidly receding into the past, the emphasis of his work has changed. Although he was inspired by the information design of Edward Tufte and Nigel Holmes, Lombardi now seems to differ from them in one important factor – his brilliantly detailed drawings actually make things harder to understand, not easier. Looking at the endless miasma of names, institutions and locations, his charts are more about obfuscation than revelation. They are a conspiracy unto themselves. As the design critic Michael Bierut says of Lombardi in his book 79 Short Essays on Design (2007): ‘like Rube Goldberg devices, their only meaning is their ecstatic complexity; like Hitchcockian McGuffins, understanding them is less important than simply knowing they exist.’ Lombardi’s drawings are like a pointillist work, best viewed from afar. From a distance you can see that a system has been revealed, but the closer you get to it the more invisible it becomes.

By contrast, the political message of Hans Haacke, Lombardi’s forerunner in revealing society’s secret systems, is still very much at the forefront. This could be because Lombardi tied himself to current events that must inevitably become dated, while Haacke’s work is aimed at contemptuously biting the perennial hand that feeds him – the art world itself. Haacke’s most notorious mauling was delivered with Shapolsky et al: Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), which was created for his solo show at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In photographs, charts and data sheets Haacke revealed how the museum’s trustees had personal and professional links to a New York slum landlord. Unsurprisingly, given the art world’s vampiric fear of light being shed on its business activities, his show was cancelled six weeks before it was due to open.

On Social Grease (1975) further revealed and mocked the links between business and art, consisting of six magnesium plaques each engraved with a different quotation from businessmen and politicians concerning the validity and importance of the arts to business practice. Exxon’s plaque quoted a spokesperson saying, ‘Exxon’s support of the arts serves the arts as a social lubricant. And if business is to continue in big cities, it needs a more lubricated environment.’ While companies have since co-opted a more critical vocabulary in talking about their patronage, Haacke would argue that their intent is still the same – art as a means to a financial or self-aggrandizing end, nothing more.

It is possible that the world’s current financial predicament is the reason for the lessening impact of apocalyptic and numerological mysteries like those on display in Knowing. Becowled Knights Templar wielding broadswords and prophesying doomsday have largely been replaced by pinstriped financiers wielding credit default swaps prophesying unemployment. Rivers are running red, but solely with debt. The stakes are much lower, but they have also become much more real. The money trails of corruption which Lombardi and Haacke’s work painstakingly follows appears to be leading in all directions. Forget asteroids colliding with the world or aliens taking over the planet. In this post-paranoiac dawn, as Nicolas Cage’s character whispers in Knowing, ‘the numbers are the key to everything.’

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.