There is a room in the Guggenheim museum with a pervasive, musty smell that would be familiar to anyone in this country: The room is filled with tens of thousands of used dollar bills, some stained or wrinkled, others crossed with stray red or blue or black marks.
This is an art show, but it looks more like something you would take a Treasury Department employee to see. It’s also strangely lovely. When people walk in, their first reaction—it’s obvious from the looks on their faces—is wonder.
Few things are as inherently contradictory as money; its value is a mass delusion, yet every abstract swell and ebb of its worth has some real effect chronicled in the daily news. The German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann’s installation at the Guggenheim was created on the occasion of his winning the biennial $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize. Every dollar of his prize money is on display. Such a gesture initially might strike you as hollow or uninteresting—a case of the emperor’s new clothes. But upon closer examination, the show is moving.
Mr. Feldmann, a conceptual artist, has previously photographed parts that make a whole, documenting every strawberry in a pound of strawberries (One Pound of Strawberries, 2005) and every item of a woman’s wardrobe (All the Clothes of a Woman, 1973). In displaying a grid of 100,000 overlapping one-dollar bills, he is both engaging in a logical extension of his work and crossing through the picture plane dividing the represented from the real.
Nine walls and two columns in a windowless gallery are hung floor-to-ceiling with single dollar bills. The dollars dissolve from a distance into a nice, muted green; about half of them face forward, half backward, so Masonic pyramids and George Washingtons obliquely greet you. They are tucked in vertically, shingling the wall like the siding of a Cape Cod cottage.
When you check—by inspecting a part of the piece that runs along the edge of a doorway, or lifting the thicket of green with your hands as some visitors tried to do—you see that the bills are individually fixed to the wall with single finishing nails. Maybe because they already know what money feels like, visitors seem eager to touch this artwork. Every time the sole security guard turns her back, hands shoot out proprietarily to the wall.
In fact, Mr. Feldmann’s room at the Guggenheim has become a minor sociological experiment. Unlike other art about money (pieces by Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons come to mind), Mr. Feldmann’s effort doesn’t come off as aloof or stand-offish. During this summer of perpetual financial crises, his artwork has given New York an immersive environment in which to think about dollars, a place to talk about and reflect on these enchanted, and preoccupying, everyday objects.
While The Observer was in the gallery, a fleet of suited money managers entered. “Ah!” one of them said with a smile. “Money!” The group laughed. The room would appear to function as a spatialization of our collective desires. A man in a hat blew softly on the cash. A woman sat down cross-legged to write in her journal. High bills fluttered in the stray, climate-controlled breeze. Their scent was pronounced: “It reeks of culture,” someone joked.
There is something comforting in all these out-of-circulation bills, magical papers pinned down like a collection of butterflies. Watching people gaze at the walls from different angles, lingering and talking to strangers, it becomes apparent that Mr. Feldmann’s prize work, like a cathedral from another era, is a monument to an abstract obsession we share.