The art of reimagining the value of nothing
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.”