est eng



From money to art

Harry Liivrand (3-4/2010)

Harry Liivrand discusses Siim-Tanel Annus’s solo exhibition Money and Poetry against the background of art history.
Living in New York, the capital city of Capitalism, during the 1960s Andy Warhol turned a painted dollar sign into his visual signature. He was one of the first Pop artists to interpret this universally known symbol of consumer culture as an aesthetic icon.Capitalism returned to Estonia when our country regained its independence, and it only took a decade before Estonian artists too turned their attention toward the subject of money.It is in this context that I would like to highlight the activity of Leonhard Lapin and Siim-Tanel Annus. Systematically and using mainly conceptual methods, in the 21st century they have each worked with images of different means of payment.These means of payment include Estonian purchase-tokens, barcodes and Estonian cents that are still in circulation (Lapin), and banknotes that have been in use from the time of the first Republic and in the current Republic of Estonia (Annus).Semantically, the iconography of the works by both artists is wonderfully multi-layered and controversial. At the level of personal mythology, this enables conclusions to be drawn about where each artist places himself in the field of art and about the basis of the each artist’s identity as a creator.  
First, let us take Leonhard Lapin’s retrospective and historical series of Estonian purchase-tokens completed in 2000.Purchase-tokens were used in the early 1990s, during one of the poorest periods in Estonia’s recent history. Ideologically, they were clearly intended as a protectionist means of internal trade and were put into use to protect Estonian citizens (at the time, it was apparently the only reasonable political decision).Without a purchase-token you could not even buy basic necessities from the state-operated trade network, including certain grocery products.A purchase-token permitted the buying of goods in rationed quantities and functioned in parallel with money.The tokens featured a panoramic view of Toompea Hill in low-quality print on poor paper, with the Town Hall Tower in the foreground and the Dome cathedral and Ministry of Finance building in the background. This also inspired the title of Lapin’s pair of buying cards: View to Toompea.Lapin, who loves the beauty of a game, often takes a Duchampian position, manipulating the pure readymade and processing it in the spirit of the classic avant-garde.He presents the readymade object as a cold, rational artwork, but unlike Marcel Duchamp he exhibits it as a valuable and protected artefact – placing it in a glass display box like some medieval relic or rare herbarium.By covering the other purchase-token with paint, Lapin – having now decided to present himself as a romantic and passionate world-changing artist – voids its initial meaning. Instead, he is interested in expressing some vague natural experience in an abstract way.However, because the image on the purchase-token is still visible through the layer of paint, Lapin does not erase the semantic meaning of that formerly existential piece of paper from our memory.In the present social context it is significant that Lapin created his buying card series at the time when our own little economic miracle and consumer boom were being discussed publicly for the first time and no-one could imagine that the real estate bubble might burst or had anticipated the later banking crisis.With his series, however, Lapin takes the position of a moralist, reminding us of an era when goods were strictly rationed.
The other of Lapin’s series that has gained international attention – Codes, began in 2003 and is based on the universal geometric ornament of consumption: a barcode.We cannot talk about Estonian idiosyncrasy here.Lapin’s Codes is first and foremost a beautiful formalist series which steps into dialogue with geometrical abstractionism and minimalism; it is a magnificent analysis of the problems of colourism within a picture, also associated with Lapin’s researches in colour theory.Yet, in late summer 2010, Lapin altered the Inner Landscape series he had started a year earlier by bringing a new readymade element into it.An Estonian coin dominates the work as a substantive accent, glued onto the centre of the postcard-sized paper covered with Pollockian brush strokes, dripping. Guidance is provided on how to read the work, but at this meta-level of souvenir-similarity it already speaks for itself; Lapin has again found a new and promising invariant to further develop his previous creative system.However, since this series is still in an early stage of development I will not discuss it further here.
Siim-Tanel Annus’ big project – Money and Poetry, may be seen as an attempt to visualise 20th century Estonian history through both the official and unofficial banknotes that have been used here.Annus began his series in 2005 and during the same year he first displayed one of his ‘money paintings’ at Tallinn Art Hall in the exhibition Our Money – this was the year in which Estonia’s joining the euro became a topical issue.He became interested in banknotes as symbols of statehood, semiotically-charged signs and important carriers of values – in the visual, political and psychological sense.The exhibition inevitably also acquires an emotional and nostalgic dimension, now that the decision has been made in Brussels that from 2011 Estonia will adopt the euro and the Estonian kroon will disappear. 
In contrast to Lapin, who uses buying cards and coins as integral units, Annus constructs symbolic values through small details generally recognised by all Estonians. He takes a small detail (the hair, the lips) that was originally unimportant for recognising a person, and enlarges it to the point at which it becomes an abstract painting. Such an abstract image, a delicious ornament and the result of a laborious technical process, has nothing to do with real banknotes (a conceptual parallel to Lapin’s Codes), even though the value of the specific banknote can also be seen in this modification, albeit in the wrong place.Of course, if one wishes to buy one of Annus’ works then one must pay for it in real currency. 
Thus, art again takes on monetary value.
Harry Liivrand is the Director of Tallinn Art Hall.
10 rubles 1961 (2009)
Tallinn Art Hall
Curators:Harry Liivrand, Reet Varblane
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