The art of reimagining the value of nothing

Sunday 26/02/2017
Migrants 2015 from Zero exhibition by Hady Sy. (Courtesy of Saleh Barakat Gallery)

Beirut - The extent to which money has become ingrained in daily existence is a curi­ous thing. A simple piece of paper can represent dif­ferent things in people’s lives. For some, it may signify wealth, privi­lege and power while the lack of it can result in a series of obstacles.
Although money has occupied an important role in society, equat­ing it with the concept of value is a trickier task. Monetary value can be considered but what of the ethical value of money?
Value is a fundamental idea of Lebanese-Senegalese artist Hady Sy’s solo exhibition Sifir (Zero). Composed of an array of elaborate mixed media photography and in­stallations at the newly launched Saleh Barakat Gallery, Sy scrutinises the socio-political role of capital and the way it shapes the world at large while considering its influence in the art world in particular.
Sy deconstructs the many forms that money takes, examining themes of love, greed, corruption, sexuality, violence, division and power.
“It’s to show the genius and ab­surdity of human beings,” he said. “It’s an intellectual reflection on money in our modern society. The motivations behind that is to say what is the value of money: Is it physical or moral? Of course (mon­ey) is necessary for happiness but if you don’t have humanist and moral values it becomes a cancer.”
The work was initiated in 2008 when Sy moved to Berlin for an artist residency in the midst of the financial crisis. He noticed hesita­tion among his prospective buyers and questioned the relationship be­tween the value of artists and their reliance on financial support. “I said what is the value of an artist? It’s totally fragile, especially in tough times,” he said.
What emerged from his intro­spection was Zero Dollar, for which Sy used the US dollar bill. The glob­ally recognised currency is stripped of its value as the artist reimagined the bill and replaced its original contents with zeros. He infused an ironic element with “Truth or Uto­pia” at the centre of the bill, elicit­ing thoughts on the sinister nature of money and its tendency to mud­dle reality.
“The zero that is nothing, is eve­rything. It was very interesting to work on the (idea) of money in art, to understand what I’m doing and what I’m worth,” Sy said.
Elsewhere in the show, Big Busi­ness, a large-scale series of photo­graphs of bullet-riddled buildings, seems a familiar site from afar. Clos­er inspection reveals the intricacies of Sy’s approach to address the im­plications of financial influence. In a poetic gesture, the artist packed the bullet holes with money.
“The biggest business in the world is the business of war,” Sy said, “so that’s why unfortunately, there will always be war.”
Throughout the show, Sy offers a glimpse into an unhinged reality in which viewers are made to believe that money appears to be the ulti­mate transformative force.
Yet this authority is simultane­ously undermined whether through the reimagined commodities — such as a pharmacy logo encased with dollar bills or colourful trash bags filled with cash piled over one an­other or skeletons resting atop a pile of money made of worthless cash. Viewers are reminded of the deli­cate balance between what is sig­nificant and what is devoid of value.
Essential to this idea is another issue Sy provokes regarding the cor­rupting influence of money within the art world. There has been a notable shift in which certain net­works of buyers have pursued art simply because it is a good invest­ment. This shift has created debate among art world insiders and the public regarding what constitutes the value of an artist and an art­work. When it comes to assigning value, is it dictated by the demands of the market or does the artist have the final say?
Gallery owner Saleh Barakat said: “I was interested in this project par­ticularly because it is critical about the issue of the over-commodifica­tion and over-monetisation of art today.
“There is this tendency within the art world where art is looked upon as an asset (and) an investment. I don’t believe in that. That doesn’t mean that we are against money. Money also has a lot of advantages.
“I wanted this critical show be­cause I also believe that if art comes into the hands of people who have a lot of money and therefore (are) mostly interested in art as an invest­ment, it will take (away) the power from the hands of the passionate people who defend art for its cul­tural value.”
Barakat continued to clarify that “the difference between the people who are passionate about art is that we need patrons to support artists and artistic movements. (Mean­while,) the investors are people who only look at the monetary value, so for them if something is going up they buy it, once it starts to go down they sell it.
“Art should be sustained, this is not how it should be treated. We cannot only be interested in the art that is a good investment.”