Art critic Clement Greenberg famously alluded, in his 1939 essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch, to the inexorable dependence of the artist on the market or the state, dubbing this attachment “an umbilical cord of gold”. Artist Anthony Chin explores the ambit of this notion, not with gold cord, but with a slender column of $1 coins – 831 of them to be exact – stacked floor-to-almost-ceiling-height at independent art space Comma Space‘s gallery at Jalan Pemimpin. The title of the work, S$1996/- S$831.06/- references the conceptualisation and realisation of the work itself, which uses money as both metaphor and medium.
An installation comprising the aforementioned column of 831 current series Singapore $1 coins, held together with adhesive and steel tubing, a small stack of six 1-cent coins (and some older $1 coins) on a shelf and a handwritten list of donors on one of the gallery walls, the work is arresting in its stark simplicity as well as its tenuous stability. Entering the gallery space singly or in twos (in compliance with COVID-19 safe management measures) one almost holds one’s breath, stepping gingerly around the work lest the entire structure comes crashing down due to an inadvertent brush of an arm or nudge of a foot.
The work was conceived in 2020, when curator Michael Lee first approached the artist with a proposal for a solo show at Comma Space in the middle of the following year. As Chin tells it in his artist statement, their conversation was dominated by concerns about how the work and exhibition would be funded and whether they would be able to meet an upcoming deadline for a grant application to a funding body, which was mere weeks away. In response to the uncertainties surrounding the funding of the project, the grant application and the financial precarity surrounding art-making in general, Chin decided that the work he would create for the exhibition would be about just that.
Their application for the grant from the art funding body having been turned down, Chin made a mind map of other possible sources of funding, considering options like ticketed entry to the exhibition, obtaining an interest-fee loan, inviting “investors” etc. Eventually, he (together with Michael Lee, the curator, and Wang Ruobing of Comma Space, as artistic director) decided to turn to crowd-sourcing, issuing an appeal for donations to meet a target of S$1,996/-, the amount he calculated he would need in $1 coins to build a floor-to-ceiling column in Comma Space’s gallery space. The rest of the funds required to create the work, including labour, materials, production costs, etc., estimated to be slightly under $7,000/-, would be funded by a single donor, a good friend.
Chin explains his conceptual basis for the work thus – he wanted to represent the donations collected in a direct, physical way, converting their monetary value into an actual artwork. By using cash in a relatively small denomination, S$1/- coins, he would he would be able to build something of significant scale. The coins’ gold edges would add an element of “bling” to the work, conveying a certain sense of irony. (Curator Michael Lee adds that the use of S$1/- coins also recalls a public fundraising campaign from the early 1960s, the A-Dollar-A-Brick campaign, to help build the National Theatre.)
The form of the work itself would be a “pretend” support structure within the gallery space – a pillar or column – no explanations needed here! And the precariousness of the structure itself would echo the uncertainties that artists and art spaces and indeed, many others in the art eco-system (including ourselves, we might add!) face in doing the work that we do.
The crowd-funding exercise failed to meet its target of S$1,996/-, which explains the title of the work, S$1996/- S$831.06/-, as well as the fact that the column of coins does not quite stretch from floor to ceiling.
Like all good art, it defies any pat or easy explanations or conclusions, provoking more questions and further conversation rather than providing answers. Its many layers and details – the process of applying for a grant, the failure to obtain it, the appeal for donations from the public and the inability to meet the set target, the consequent necessary adaptations to the artwork itself, the single large donation from a personal friend, the technical difficulties involved in building the physical structure and ensuring its stability – offers rich fodder for thought and discussion on the challenges involved in sustaining an art practice as well as any other endeavour in the wider art eco-system (being an independent curator, running an independent art space or an art magazine …).
The work is available for sale and it is the artist’s intention that the curator and artistic director be paid an honorarium from the proceeds of sale and also that a portion of it be shared with Comma Space, for the use of the gallery space. As of the date of publication of this article, however, co-founder of Comma Space Wang Ruobing informs me that, while there have been expressions of interest and enquiries, the work has not yet found a buyer.
To any reader contemplating a purchase, may I suggest that the work offers a fresh twist on a famous quip by Andy Warhol, that if you’re going to buy a $200,000 painting, “you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visit[s] you, the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.” In the case of Anthony Chin’s S$1996/- S$831.06/-, you could take your money, buy a column of coins with it and install it in the middle of your living room so that the first thing your visitors see is a pile of cash in your house.
Anthony Chin’s S$1996/- S$831.06/- is on view at Comma Space till 19 September 2021.
If you would like to read more about the the use of money in art, read Usha’s piece, The Art of Singapore Money. You might also be interested in reading Weng Choy’s interesting take on how art is valued.