BY ANDREW HURLE
The coins that appear in children’s books give purchase to a mysterious hold that money eventually gains in the adult’s imagination and from such images one can begin to appreciate some of the ways in which money is dealt with by artists. In illustrated stories the child encounters not exactly the leverage that money exerts as a medium of exchange, but rather the embodiment of value that is aesthetically entrenched in the monetary object. Comics and adventure stories show these coins being revealed in a divine stroke of good luck: a sack of gold dinars excavated from desert sand; a box discovered beneath the floorboards; a hoard gleaming seductively at the darkest end of a cave. The treasure can redress an inequity or reward an ingenuous act of kindness but in either case, good fortune is represented by coins blurred into a mass whose physical magnitude is synonymous with monetary value.
I am speaking here of picture books. The child’s understanding of money’s exchange value deepens as they learn about calculative operations such as multiplication and division, functions which yield more complex and indirect relationships not so easily communicated in images. When the value of money is pictured by the circle of the coin however, it is the graphic clarity of addition that explains wealth as something resulting from a mass of single, circular units. It’s not surprising that the pre-literate child assesses the value of money in this fashion, given that its usual method of numerical calculation at this age is to join numbers together. Any parent can tell you how easily a child can become preoccupied with the task of reciting aloud a sequential progression of integers and how little encouragement it needs to turn this into a satisfying sort of chant. Children count by stacking one number on top of the next until the ceiling of their rote learning is reached and even then they continue to invent new numbers, made to appear fantastically high, from the tangled residue of those they know. Their apprehension of wealth as an accumulation of singulars, as a result of simple addition, rather than the more complicated calculations of multiplication and division, seems to me a first step in digesting the abstraction and the anonymity of money as an entity without fixed relations. It is like learning the principles of deposit and savings as a first step toward having to deal with the intricacies and risks of investment banking.
For many people the pleasure provoked by the spectacle of money en masse persists into adulthood – well after one has learned to deal instead with its disembodied abstractions in the everyday. Its distracting presence in the imagination might have something to do with money’s peculiar status as property, for whoever has the monetary object in their hand has (more or less) a legal claim on the value intrinsic to it. This is as true of banknotes as it is of coins and so the trope of money’s exhibition can be constantly renewed and elaborated in popular culture via images such as the pirate’s loot, or the itinerant suitcase of stolen banknotes. In fact it sometimes seems that itinerancy is at the very heart of money’s theatrical allure. Other forms of personal property have a kind of moral inertia that yokes them to an owner. Cash, on the other hand, has a magnetic, almost bestial promiscuity that any single ‘owner’ can only attempt to suppress until the object is finally spent or taken from them. This lends a costless imaginative potential to the images one occasionally sees of unmarked banknotes being released into a gust of wind or falling from the back of a getaway van: that they might as easily be ones ‘own’. For most adults such a visual pleasure endures all-too-briefly before transforming itself into the idea of exchange. The volatile monetary mass becomes the mansion; or the new car; or the fantasy of freedom from the mundane routine of work, which itself has become instituted as a mundane part of work’s routine.
The graphic vocabulary of printed and stamped money is so securely established in the social consciousness that its forms are universally legible – to the extent that even when reduced to the most destitute states they can still communicate a pecuniary power. Cruz’s renderings, roughly following a principle of reductive abstraction, seem to be captivated by the tenacity of money’s visual currency, even as it is debased in her own imperfect reproductions. Her circular shapes serve as mnemonic triggers that evoke a pre-literate understanding of money’s theatrical importance as tangible matter, as a dazzling pile of treasure that has not yet been compiled into the linear framework of the ledger. In the pictorial component of her project coins are faceless discs without denomination which, in their initial stages, are patiently pencilled in outline and then rendered with a transparent wash of colour. The effect of this process is that no single circle obscures another and thus the intersection of each shape with its neighbours creates an explicit accumulation of coins, ‘deposited’ upon one another as luminescent singularities. In most of her paintings these are distributed as a weightless mass across the surface, however in some they are subject to a gravitational pull that organises them into sequential chains. The downward trail and loop of coins, while seemingly aware of the limits of the canvas, are draped across it like necklace jewellery or lanterns suspended from a criss-cross of jungle vines.
One cannot begin to sketch coins in this manner – as a series of circles – without the act of drawing simultaneously being the act of writing so many zeros. With this in mind, the circles might well remind one of the cyphers that are added to paper money during periods of hyper-inflation, a condition which typically builds to the point where exact calculation is no longer feasible and fractional amounts are replaced by the more expedient act of adding zeros to a single prefix. Stories of the monetary crisis in Weimar Germany tell of a psychological disorder named “cypher-stroke” that affected bank clerks and shop keepers whose jobs demanded maintaining a mental hold on the denotation of these zeros. Counting them became a delirious and debilitating task for anyone performing calculations in an environment where everyday transactions involved trillions and the purchasing power of the number itself was constantly shifting downward. This is one of the rare circumstances where the physicality of paper money exceeds its nominal value. Photographs of the time show banknotes being weighed on scales to more quickly estimate their bulk value, or simply fed into stoves to burn as fuel.
As things that oscillate between written signs and traced drawings, Cruz’s cyphers seem to be caught up in an inflationary trajectory that implies an underlying obsessional imperative, but never one that threatens to escalate into crisis. In fact the very act of tracing suggests a braking mechanism that works to avoid the devastation caused by Geldumlaufgeschwindikeit, or the velocity of an economy trying to catch up with the diminishing value of its constituent units. Without prefixes, the circles (if they are zeros) give an imagined view of hyper-inflation’s terminal phase in which quantities are enumerated without anchorage and finally resemble (to paraphrase Elias Canetti) a swarm of millions.
Cruz’s project actually comprises two orders of visual quantification, both of which appear to be holding out against the conventional framework of monetary tabulation. In the first the monetary units are deposited spatially across the canvas in a loose but even distribution. The second order forms a companion to the daily process of her painting. It is a private, almost secretarial, tally in which numerical rather than spatial precision is observed. This consists of a series of small, irregular notebooks in which the numbers, dates and colours particular to each painting are diligently recorded. Here the visual quantification of money is given a literal treatment. The exact number of circles completed each day are entered on an unruled page and are added to give a total contained in the finished painting (the one shown opposite, for example, contains 15,004 circles). No further significance is attached to this number beyond its being a record or numeric total from which the painting inherits a title. The act of naming in this way becomes something like a symbolic melting-down of the coins into a lump sum or a capital for the work.
It’s possible that the professional accountants of Weimar Germany were driven mad by having to contain so many zeros within a closed system of bookkeeping, bracketed by the double-entry notations of debit and credit. For them quantity – and by extension profit and loss – had to be resolved within rational economic bounds. In contrast Cruz’s system of accounting, by its off-handedness, gives the impression of a vocational independence not held accountable to any outside measure. The books and paintings may indeed represent clearing-houses of a sort, but without being answerable to the demands of financial equilibrium. Indeed, both the cyphers and the tabulations could just as easily be interpreted as indicating a summation of time, as much as the figuration of monetary value. This would be a notation of endurance – not of the kind governed by a ideological resistance to anything particular, nor one motivated by the ‘maso-machismo’ exemplified (however admirably) in work such as Tehching Hsieh’s Time Clock – a self-portraiture tempered by suffering or hardship. Time is tallied in Cruz’s paintings and her books without it representing increments of incarceration, or anything more painful than a gentle obligation to one’s work. There are obvious parallels to be made with what is celebrated in the activities of feminist artists and scholars such as Silvia Federici or Miriam Schapiro who champion an anti-heroic and unacknowledged domestic labour – except that in this case labour represents a creative engine that has been tuned down to a breathing idle as much as anything overtly concerned with market forces and capitalist enterprise. There are similarities to the existential notations of On Kawara but even his bold-faced declarations appear theatrical beside Cruz’s more ‘metronomic’ and lower-case sketches. In Cruz’s project the cadence of counting provides relief from the neurotic calculations that monetary administration demands of the adult mind, replacing them instead with a creative and industrious kind of absent-mindedness.
Andrew Hurle is an artist and academic who lives and works in Berlin. His doctoral thesis (2013) was on the subject of monetary ornament, security and counterfeit.
The new paintings shown in six hundred and fifteen thousand four hundred and eighty eight are a continuation of the project one million dollars which was exhibited at Artspace following her residency there in 2006.
Maria Cruz’s abstraction is an aesthetic remembrance on the valuation and devaluation of coins, the intuitive process of putting color to the elements continuously and the modulation of documenting day-to-day works. Her process of tracing the outline of coins then rendering them with a transparent wash of colour is exorbitantly a trademark of Maria Cruz.
The power of the circular element of coins is what we may call an ubiquitous concept of ‘having’, an existential challenge of acquiring properties to prove permanence, of making recollections to prove works eternal.
A recipient of several exhibition and residency grants among them Institut fuer Auslandsbeziehungen in Germany; MOMA PS1 in New York City; Visual Arts and Crafts Board in Australia and joining over more than 50 solo and group exhibitions in Europe, Philippines, and Australia, Maria Cruz stages her next exhibition at Galleria Duemila adding to her one million dollar series. Exhibition will run from November 10 – December 29 2018 at 210 Loring St. 1300 Pasay City.
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