VALUE AND FAITH
The works by Philipp Valenta
Text by Tina Sauerländer
In his conceptual works, artist Philipp Valenta deals with the formation and the measurability of financial, cultural and societal values. With his work A Perfect Match (2014) he invokes multifaceted references. Silver paint is applied to Gingko leaves and then printed on a sheet of paper. In Weimar, a whole museum is devoted to this old type of tree that originally comes from China. The resilient and legendary tree is worshiped throughout Asia, and in Europe it is known as an all-purpose medicinal plant. Its name derives from the words gin for silver and kyo for apricot, as its silver-white seeds are coated with an orange covering. The relationship between the Japanese words for gingko and Bank (ginkō) refers to the fact that in ancient China, the fan-shaped leaves and the ginko seeds were used as currency. Not only with A Perfect Match but also with the work Fen-Fan (2014), Valenta combines finances with Chinese cultural history. Made of one, two and five Fen-banknotes (the smallest unit of Chinese currency), the artist cuts out the ornamentation on the bills and rearranges it to create yellow, blue and green fans. However, even the material value of the notes seems to exceed the face value. Therefore the bills’ worth appreciates by transferring them into an artistic context. Fans are firmly grounded not only in Asian but also in European culture and history. In Japan, they are a part of traditional dances as well as a common and popular gift. Particularly in the south of Spain, fans are essential to the traditional flamenco dance yet are also sold by the millions as tourist kitsch. Further, fans were an essential accessory for women in the European courts of past centuries. With both works A Perfect Match and Fen-Fan the artist refers to phonetic connections as well as to traditional connotations of European and Asian culture, the banking sector in particular. Philip Valenta reveals a similar approach with the work Mit Geld spielt man nicht (English: You don't Play with Money) (2011). Here, the artist combines the idea of money with another item from Chinese heritage, the tangram. In Valenta's version, the surface of the quadratic puzzle depicts a large portion of the five euro banknote. Contrary to the title of this work but in the spirit of the game, the artist calls for the viewer to form as many possible combinations out of the seven parts, as to discover that the world’s beauty (and its money) lies in variety and diversity.
With his series of prints and drawings called Wertpapierzeichnung (2014), the artist refers to the issue of shares and securities of companies. The German word Wertpapierzeichnung is a word play, as Wertpapier means security paper and Zeichnung means both drawing and purchase or bargain with securities. Valenta listed only the identification numbers of these papers. Using the shares of the thirty best-selling German DAX companies, the frames of the works are in black and white, similar to a badger’s head (German: Dachs, pronounced like DAX). Philipp Valenta ironizes the meaning and the value of these commercial shares when he points out that it is just a numbered piece of paper. Further, by transferring the pure numbers in the context of art, another value is added to the numbers: the value of an artwork. This in turn is also questioned via the simple listing of numbers as a kind of found object.
The subject of money plays an important role in many performances and actions of the artist. One example is when "money laundering" is taken literally, and he cleanses bills not only from dirt but also from its color as it is put into the washing machine with a color absorbing cloth. Further, the topic of counting money forms a part of Valenta’s work. However, he does not—like Scrooge McDuck—count his wealth. He counts his debts, with borrowed coins. He alludes to the era we live in where television advertising seduces us to take debt with micro credits. Instead of securing out livelihood, we live a life of luxury with fancy cars and expensive vacations!
The artist deals with extensive and complex subjects like the financial, monetary or capitalist system. He uses coins and banknotes as material in his works. Art dealing with money is a relevant subject of art today. For centuries money, especially coins, served as a means to illustrate mythological or religious subjects or as an attribute of wealth, for example on Renaissance merchant’s portraits. In the 20th century, artworks dealing with money became an independent subject for art. George Grosz used a dollar sign in his critical painting Sonnenfinsternis (English: Solar Eclipse) (1926). In the 1960s, the use of everyday materials and finally bills and coins found their way into art, accompanied by a content dealing with the monetary, economic or financial system. Alongside Andy Warhol, Öyvind Fahlström or Klaus Staeck, Swiss born artist Anne Jud was one of the first to consider dollar bills. Jud as well as Valenta create fans out of these banknotes.
In the site-specific work sub rosa (2014), the artist placed long-stemmed white roses in glass vases in a bank’s consultation rooms and played on location-applicable notions of bank secrets. The Latin-derived phrase of the work's title ("under the rose") was used in humanistic circles to announce that statements following were confidential and secret. Even the ancient Romans knew the phrase and in the centuries that followed, some confessional booths were even decorated with roses for this reason. Philipp Valenta also deals with the history of ancient Rome in other works such as Gold (2012) or Bed of roses (2014). With the latter work—pillowcases made of empty money bags—the artist plays on the fact that rich Romans filled their luxurious mattresses with rose petals. In Gold, Philipp Valenta used a quote from Ovid's Art of Love (Ars Amatoria, 2,277) "Aurea sunt vere nunc saecula: plurimus auro Venit honos, auro conciliatur amor." (These are truly the Golden Ages: the greatest respect goes to gold: love is procured with gold). The slogan is emblazoned as a golden mural on a door lintel from the 1970s "At the Golden Rose" hotel in city of Halle in Germany.
With his works Philipp Valenta is interested in a combination of everyday culture of past centuries with present-day reality of life. In the work Upgrade (2014), the artist presents faux debit cards varnished with gold nail polish. Only the gold-colored chip remains uncoated. Already in the series of Monochrome Hollywood Character Portraits (since 2013), the artist used nail polish to paint cow horn disks. Horn references both human fingernails, for which the paint is actually intended; on the other hand, the material is generally associated with ivory. Thus, the artist also recalls one of the oldest materials for jewelry, art and daily articles which was already in use by the Phoenicians and ancient Egypt. Yet in Valenta's work it is completely covered with a layer of glittering nail polish whose name refers to famous characters of Hollywood. Valenta plays with horn as a material of high art, but covers it with an everyday commodity—nail polish—and in the combination transfers both to an artistic context. This approach is reminiscent of the artist Anselm Reyle who covers cast bronze sculptures with car paint thereby creating a link between popular culture and high art. Both in this work as well as in Valenta's series of Monochrome Hollywood Character Portraits, the nail polish is used not a cheap product from the drug store, but instead as a luxury item. In the color gold, it is aptly named "Precious", " Be My Millionaire" or "It Rains Money". The works in the series are named accordingly. Philipp Valenta asks the question about the actual value of the plastic card, whose low material value is increased by expensive nail polish, turning them not only figuratively into a "golden card." As the artist integrates nail polish—a trashy everyday commodity yet also a version of a luxury item—into the context of art, he points to the absurdity of some moral concepts in today's society.
The high value gold is given seems, however, to have remained stable over the past millennia. The biblical story of the worship of the golden calf as a symbol of a misguided, quasi-religious worship of wealth plays an important role in money art and is also addressed by Philipp Valenta. So as part of his participatory art project Art Competition (since 2011) done in collaboration with Cosima Göpfert, the artist designed a one-euro-disco ball, which makes it possible to bask in money’s reflections and pay homage to the glittering DJ-God as an absurd Golden Calf.
When the artist formed a new cross for an altar from wax residues of votive candles in Relic (2012) and thereby created a new object for worship out of waste, the artist questions the contrast between the material and intrinsic value of such traditional cult objects. Alluding to the power of faith and the Christian transformation of water into wine, the artist also refers to the importance of water as a luxury item. In his performance Water and Bread at the opening for the Art Prize Ennepe-Ruhr 2013 for the municipality Witten, the artist entertained visitors with fine varieties of breads and the world’s most expensive waters that obtain prices that even some champagnes do not reach.
The work Sweets, which was exhibited in 2012 in a solo exhibition at the Belvedere Castle Museum of Arts and Crafts of the Weimar Classical Foundation, consists of "gems" optically transformed into sweets. Here, a contrast between a mass consumer item and an expensive luxury item is suggested yet is not the case. The supposedly valuable "Indian rubies", wrapped in standard transparent candy wrappers, are also just the cheap commodities often used for jewelry that you can buy at flea markets. However "true" sugary sweets were for centuries very expensive and were eaten as luxuries in European courts.
Philipp Valenta draws from the rich repertoire of global cultural history and our daily lives. In his works, the artist combines unusual and found materials from different situations together. With the works A Perfect Match, Fen-Fan, Don't Play with Money, sub rosa, Securities Drawing and Upgrade, the significance primarily of banking and finance is questioned and integrated into a cultural, historical and contemporary setting. In particular, the transfer of materials and objects such as plastic cards, nail polish or roses in the context of art reveals the absurdity of today's consumer society between luxury and poverty, money and power. With multi-layered symbolism, Valenta recalls the discrepancy of pure material worth and the value beyond by which an object is measured; gold paint itself is not expensive, but it symbolizes a high value. A list of stock numbers is also not valuable. It refers, however, to another piece of paper, which in turn is supposedly of high value. So the price of an artwork is nowadays not tethered to material costs but to an underlying idea or concept. On many levels, the artist reveals the contrast between material and intrinsic worth and raises the question of the origin, development and creation of values. In Valenta's works, it becomes clear that in addition to all kinds of factors such as the shortage of goods, it is belief in particular which generates value. This applies not only to religion but also to art and money.