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.
In its desire to make visible the financial underpinnings of an exhibition at the Guggenheim, the installation is initially reminiscent of Hans Haacke, the artist who famously, and in the same museum, tried to put on display, for his solo show, photographs of all 142 slum apartment buildings owned by a landlord who had personal and institutional connections to the museum. Mr. Haacke’s piece, Shapolsky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), was never displayed, however, and the curator responsible was fired.
Mr. Feldmann’s is a softer-focus attempt than Mr. Haacke’s to confront the limits and economic conditions under which the exhibition is taking place. In this way it is more reminiscent of Urs Fischer’s 2007 installation at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, You, which excavated the gallery floor to a depth of eight feet. Both Mr. Feldmann’s and Mr. Fischer’s works aim at creating the visual effect of transparency; both ultimately do so not as a critique of the exhibition environment but to create a novel phenomenological viewing experience for the spectator.
Finally, like the late Sigmar Polke, Mr. Feldmann’s most obvious peer, Mr. Feldmann was born in Düsseldorf in 1941, and there is a taste of Kunstakademie Düsseldorf professor Joseph Beuys’s love for the magic of materials in this display of dollars. There is also some of the fascination Polke bore for Western capitalism.
What will happen to the piece? One guard thought Mr. Feldmann might donate it to the museum. Another guard said it was a loan from a bank that Hugo Boss helped the artist co-sign, and that the bills—each bearing a single nail hole—would go back to the bank and then into circulation after the installation came down. For some reason no one assumed Mr. Feldmann would keep the money, although a New York Times article specifies that the bills belong to the artist.
Assistant curator Katherine Brinson provides the usual explanatory apparatus to help us apprehend the work’s meaning: we are told that the artist was born in 1941, in Düsseldorf, that he often works in unlimited editions, that Mr. Feldmann resists the art world’s commercial structures and comments more generally on capitalism; that he didn’t make work at all in the 1980s.
But none of this background really explains the effect of the installation, or the reactions of the people who visit it, which—as worn as the phrase may be—are priceless.