Hans-Peter Feldmann puts his money where his mouth is. The winner of the 2010 Hugo Boss prize, Feldmann has used his $100,000 award to cover the Guggenheim Museum’s second-floor gallery with the entire sum realized in vertically hung one-dollar bills. “It was immediate,” Feldmann told A.i.A. “When I received the prize, I knew I wanted to see what all that money would look like. And I told them right away: I wanted to show all the money.”
The effect is a Scrooge McDuck-style fantasia that might say more about the mercenary nature of the viewer than the value of money itself. “I hope the piece will still be there in November. There are extra guards in the room, so it won’t be worth it to try to steal any of the piece, just for one dollar,” warns Feldmann. Or, he says, “You can just make a pinhole in the middle of any dollar and say it’s from the wall.” A DIY counterfeit artwork, created from real currency.
The 70-year-old Düsseldorf-based artist is perhaps best known for his 1994 artist’s book Voyeur, an unassuming, text-free visual epic crowded with disparate black-and-white photographs. For Feldmann, it seems that it was the scarcity of images—not their contemporary ubiquity—the led to his compulsion to explore singular icons, as well as image tropes (the artist often unites a multitude of similarly themed images-he has, for example, made multiple assemblages of photos of women’s knees). “After World War II, there were very, very few pictures in Germany. It was nothing like today. And it was actually the fact that there was such a small quantity of images around that made me so interested in them. The few I could get, I really wanted to see,” says Feldmann of his initial interest in black-and-white photographs. As a child, the artist would snip out pictures from one book and paste them into another. In Voyeur, the artist pairs images intuitively, so that their assemblage forms a visual poem.
One also hears poetry in the Guggenheim installation. Where Feldmann’s image juxtapositions seem lyrical, however, this piece seems more in line with the staccato of poet Charles Bernstein’s 1969 poem “1–100,” wherein the poet simply counts to one hundred. Feldmann also finds meaning, and emotion, in the superficially meaningless. “A dollar bill is only a piece of paper, but it makes people move. I hand you a dollar, and you get me a drink,” says Feldmann, of his prize’s—and his installation’s—content. “And yet, in the end, it is only a promise. Even silver and gold—they are very heavy, and when they fall on your foot it’s not good. But they are only a metal promise.” The artist approaches exchange value as a social given, what makes the world go ’round-yet also as an event and object that crumbles when invited to unmask its true identity.
Feldmann himself is notoriously unwilling to call himself an artist, saying, “An artist has an idea or a concept: he sits in his studio and paints what he wants to paint. I don’t do that. I just take things that already exist, and put them together.” Presented with the sum of his prize, he simply did what he normally does. But, as with all artists, self-acknowledged or otherwise, his personal identity as both a creator and a German born during World War II permeate the work, and particularly the Guggenheim installation.
Says the artist, “A percentage of European gold [bullion], even today, is from the Jewish people who were killed in the war,” the artist says, and, in fact, the legacy of Nazi gold bullion continues globally, if on a subconscious level. “We know this, people are aware of it and we live with it, but we don’t talk about it. So it’s important to talk about for me, because it gives some respect, and it helps people not to forget.”
Feldmann’s critique also addresses, circumstantially, the corporation that awarded him. “Hugo Boss is owned by a hedge fund in London today, but it used to be owned by a private family,” says Feldmann. “They made the Nazi uniforms [. . .] So if I had won the prize from the original family, it would have meant something very different. But this is history—today’s owners have nothing to do with that.”
Feldmann did not create his installation as a direct response to Hugo Boss’s past, but the piece asks that the past at least be acknowledged, since it cannot be undone. In the past century, German artists from Joseph Beuys to Jonathan Meese have created art that mourns the past atrocities of their countrymen. In the hands of Feldmann, the playfulness of a room covered in money becomes both a figure of memory and a metaphor for the amnesiac nature of currency, which becomes the possibility for something new the minute it changes hands.
Addendum [06/17/2011]: Dr. Hjoerdis Kettenbach, a spokesperson for Hugo Boss AG, responds,
“Hugo Ferdinand Boss was one of 75,000 tailors who produced workwear and uniforms by order from the Third Reich. By no means did Hugo Ferdinand Boss supply all the Nazis’ uniforms, as the artist has implied. Nor did he design them. His company was small, known for creating bodywear, windbreakers, and workwear, and uniform manufacturing was not extensive.”
Installation view: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, May 20–November 2, 2011.
Photo: Kristopher McKay © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York