Floating Currencies

Dianne Beal, curator

As European currencies give way to the Euro, Moscow's leading conceptual artists, the team of Valera and Natasha Cherkashin, turn money into art in this marvelous underwater installation, Goodbye Favorite European Portraits: Hello Euro.  Underwater exhibitions and performances developed by the artists over the past five years, including the use of national currency portraits in their recent series, Favorite Portraits of People in the World (1998), come together in this installation.  The Cherkashins are well known Moscow artists who have achieved substantial notoriety throughout the United States and Europe.  Recently returned from a three-month working visit in Tokyo, they are recognized for innovative photographic exhibitions, installations and performances.

 

This exhibition, which preserves and calls attention to the portraits on Europe's national paper currencies, was conceived early in 1998 in reaction to the approaching issuance of a single European currency.  By 2002, all members of the European Union will exchange their national currencies for the Euro.  This enormous move toward unification is a major development for European civilization.  While the national currencies will lose their economic value, the portraits on printed currencies will remain historically valuable in understanding the culture and politics of a unified Europe, much as architecture and monuments remain important.

 

Working underground for many years, literally and figuratively, the Cherkashins are loosely associated with what has been labeled "non-conformist artists from the former Soviet Union." As outsiders in both their own community of Soviet official artists and that of their Western colleagues, the Cherkashins have taken traditional institutions and important monuments in history as raw material to create images that transcend traditional definitions of art.  First watercolor and then photography have been the media of choice for Valera Cherkashin over his 20-year history as an artist.  The two became entwined in the couple's signature works that document the cultural monuments of first their homeland, the Soviet Union and Russia, then other countries, as they began to travel outside Russia.  Their art incorporates everyday materials,such as newspapers and currencies, and presents them in a new light, often with humor and a lack of decorum.

 

Exhibiting and performing underwater were developed by the Cherkashins first as a symbolic act of paying homage to the sea as part of their Travel as Art program.  Photographs were submerged in various locations throughout the

United States, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.  The artists then traveled to the Thames River and to the studio of British popular artists Gilbert and George, where the artists bathed their works in the tub.  Further travels led to the European continent and their monumental performance, German Atlantis, in which they submerged gigantic photographs of German architectural monuments in the Olympia Swimming Pool in Berlin.  In each case, whether as viewers or participants, we find elements of play, irreverence and spontaneity.

 

The World Bank installation in Washington, D.C. is no exception.  Portraits seen floating in the

Atrium pool are of some of Europe's most beloved and talented figures.  Often, a single portrait can symbolize an entire national character.  To Americans, a portrait of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln immediately conjures up historical, cultural and political references.  The same can be said for the European faces seen here.  For example, the faces of French scientist Marie Curie or Italian physicist Alessandro Volta remind each respective country of its history and accomplishments.  Each country's citizens are able to recognize and identify portraits in the installation, enabling them to reflect on their own history and the path that has led to the Euro.

 

This site-specific installation was created by photographing the portraits on currencies of the participating European Union member countries, then manipulating them into various formats, up to one meter across.  Each portrait is hand colored and enhanced with gold and silver acrylic.  Each image is laminated and weighted slightly so that it floats just under the surface of the reflecting pool.  Placing the portraits in the pool follows the tradition in many countries of throwing coins into fountains or pools for luck.  The accompanying installation above the pool draws viewers' attention to the shimmering surface below and augments the theme developed underwater.  No parting is complete without flowers as symbols of love and respect for the departed.  Thus the artists have included flowers made of tinfoil in the installation.

 

As an extension of the underwater theme developed in the Cherkashins' earlier exhibitions and performances, this installation, Goodbye Favorite European Portraits: Hello Euro, physically envelops the photographs of European portraits in a laminate capable of staying in water for longer periods.  The idea of encapsulating the images becomes even more captivating when we consider that today's currencies soon will become collector's items and pieces of our collective memory.

 

1999