Denis Beaubois The Work of Art
Bound By Time
Latrobe Regional Gallery, 2017
Bound By Time
Latrobe Regional Gallery, 2017
The more there is of it, the more it produces every Turning…
- Benjamin Franklin, “Advice to a Young Tradesman” 1748.[i]
Currency is not quite real; an object manqué that never achieves the “full status of a thing” [ii]. In each of its many material guises it fails to match its lived ambition as capital, which outlasts it over time. As a physical representation of an unstable value, currency is an object that is—deliberately—deranged; it is “durable”, “divisible”, “portable”, “fungible”, and yet it has no intrinsic value. Although we see it and hold it, it remains wholly invisible.
Cotton, linen or polymer. Food, medicine, clothes, cars, a home. Currency becomes ‘Money’ when a material from the former list is exchanged for a thing on the latter. Money is a word as slippery and serpentine as it is heavy in the pocket of the mouth. Whether you have a little or a lot, money means something (else) to us all. I know currency and money are not the same thing, but that knowledge adds little nuance to my understanding—it is a distinction without difference. These are the concepts that we live by, and make of us all abstractions.
a) Twenty thousand dollars, consisting of (two hundred Australian) one hundred dollar bills.
b) A simple task for the duration of seven hours.
c) Twenty thousand dollars in new notes (with consecutive serial numbers) from the office of Federal Reserve in the United States of America.
d) One fifty-dollar Australian banknote.
e) Dust from the departure lounges of numerous airports.
f) Several water bottles crushed by atmospheric pressure upon entry into Australia by plane.
g) A list of serial numbers
h) An auction catalogue
i) A Funding Agreement from the Australia Council for the Arts
Are these prompts for an improvisation, forensic notes from the scene of a white-collar crime, an unpublished second draft of Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”? Rather, these are elemental descriptions of the works that comprise Bound By Time, a survey of works by Denis Beaubois that span 2000-2016. My list is not chronological or serial and it is barely changed from Beaubois’ own notes on the works; it is written here to point out that Beaubois’ art is little more than what it represents. His is an art that uses its subject materially, as evidence. It is a living art.
Labour, culture, capital; these systems, as subjects, are not unpacked but used by Beaubois to emphasise the work of art. He is an artist who doesn’t so much make, as make anew. In the published version of LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” he stated that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”[iii] Beaubois’ iteration might state “the system becomes the machine that makes the art.”
In Beaubois’Currency projects—Currency (2011), Currency – The Division of Labour (2012), Currency release #1 (2013) and A monopoly of reproduction (2016) —an iterative series which parses economic, social and cultural systems, Beaubois takes capital as both subject and object, using systems to make them, critically, visible. The first iteration of this series began when Beaubois used $20,000 from a “New Work Established Grant” from the Australia Council for the Arts to make Currency (2011), a sculptural object which consisted of valid banknotes to the value of the grant and a list of their sequential serial numbers. The work sold for $17,500 at auction by Deutscher and Hackett, a fine art auction house, in Melbourne.[iv] Similar to the effect of a patient swallowing barium sulphate in order for a physician to determine the site of an internal malady, Beaubois was to use art as a diagnostic contrast agent. Thus, consumed by the market, the art object makes the system manifest.
Though the tensions between spending (capital) and saving (collection) are enduring in the work—spend it and the work of art is compromised, save it and its worth becomes speculative—the sole aim of Currency was not to test the cultural value of art against its economic one and the sole outcome of the project was not a pile of cash. Materially, Currency includes a video of the notes being counted by a bank teller, a list of their serial numbers, an image of the secure safe key, the auctioneer’s letter of acceptance, correspondence between the artist and the funding body and media coverage on the project. But it was the inclusion of the audience’s own voice, as the final abstraction, that rendered the systems visible.
In emails received by the artist and in comments appending an article on the project in The Age newspaper, tendered as documentation as part of Currency, an enraged public questions the value of selling art when a loss is incurred. How can something sell for less than it’s worth? was one rallying cry, as if labour does not always produce a product whose value outstrips that of its maker. [The public writes as if the artist has broken art’s unspoken rules—we’re always afraid we won’t ‘get’ art, but if art is life then what’s there to get but ourselves?] Others did sums on who, exactly, lost what where, tallying up buyer’s commissions and GST, disputing the difference between ‘paper’ and ‘polymer’ losses. A waste! A joke! shouted commentators with screen names like Cashman, TaxPayer and HighlyDubious. Currency wasn’t life-like—it was life. Simply by being used and evidenced the system became visible by virtue of its abstractions; it wasn’t the value of art, but the hostility of capital that was coming into focus.
…artists and intellectuals do not control the interlocking apparatuses of culture and education. Increasingly, they are the functionaries and employees of corporate and state institutions: primarily as teachers and grant recipients. The ideology of autonomous professionalism serves to legitimate and defend career interests while, particularly in the case of artist-teachers, building on a hollow legacy of romantic individualism. Although the myth of the lonely oppositional path retains its redemptive ideological force, artists are forced into a dreary upwardly-mobile compensation for visibility, with reputation translating into career-capital. Those who refuse or fail are socially invisible, without voice.[v]
Each commentator, unwittingly, contributed to the project’s final fabric. This background noise wasn’t peripheral but central and defining; it was the emotional medium of the artwork that the audience claimed was materially missing. By yoking language to power, Beaubois had rendered a map that was the size of its territory. In the way that we can all imagine “what we would do” with $20,000 and feel powerless, money is a medium of empathy. This emotion didn’t make it to the glossy pages of the auction house catalogue that preceded it, those pages showed pictures of money. But this messy, furious, spitting matter that came after it was better—it was its image.
[i] Franklin, Benjamin. “Advice to a Young Tradesman, [21 July 1748],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-03-02-0130. [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 3, January 1, 1745, through June 30, 1750, ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961, pp. 304–308.]
[ii] Beardsley, Monroe. “Aesthetics, the Problems and the Philosophy of Criticism” (New York, 1958), 529.
[iii] LeWitt, Sol. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”,Artforum (Vol.5, no. 10, Summer 1967), 80.
[iv] The hammer price was $17,500.00, the final price (what the buyer pays: hammer price plus buyers premium) was $21,350.00 and the seller price (what the seller receives: hammer price minus auction house commission) was $15,960.00.
[v] Allan Sekula, “School is a Factory” in Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works 1973–1983 (Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984), 228.