MONEY IS AN INHERENTLY VOYAGING THING: A Micro-Interview with Mark Wagner
ES: Mark, your currency collages are a curious fit for our themed issue in that money travels and returns. There’s movement imbedded in your work not solely by the material you use, but also in the nature of your portraits as in (for example) George Washington swimming in a sea made of minute pieces of dollar bills. Do you see a connection?
MW: As far as the theme of this issue goes, money is an inherently voyaging thing. It only has power through circulation and use, and is void of power when it stays in one place. I end this piece of paper’s voyage as money, only to make them return as artwork about money.
I think a lot about the traveling, episodic hero—Odysseus, Candide, Munchausen, Quixote, etc.—how a show of my “Washington pieces” could be read like a series of events. There are a lot of themes and scenes in my head, but, for the most part, only one character to cast in them.
ES: Would you say a few words about what first attracted you to using money as material for collage, and currency as climate in your art making?
MW: The first attraction currency had for me as a material was its commonness— everyone was familiar with it in a way, but in another way everyone was so used to it they weren’t seeing it. I wanted to do some Tom Friedman-esque bending collage work and grabbed a bill because it was close at hand. I was working with money for a while before I started to realize just how charged a topic it was. As I became more skilled at manipulating the material various matters of economics crept into the work and took over: differing concepts of value, forms of opulence, depicting divisions of power, etc.
ES: Surely you are asked this a lot, but I wonder if it continues to feel like a subversive act, (presuming it ever did) cutting up the 10 thousandth dollar bill, an act that is technically against the law. How does it feel handling it? gluing it? composing with it?
MW: I heard that porn stars stop thinking of their performance as being sexy; they’re just going to work. I’m glad the titillation of material destruction is there for my audience to vicariously experience, but it’s not there for me anymore. I’ll cut up a stack of a hundred ones in a single chop without giving it a second thought.
The handling of bill fragments is an exceptional pleasure. Occasionally I pick up some other piece of paper to glue—it tears when it gets wet, and curls unfavorably, or gets mushy—and I realize that I really lucked out in material choice. The paper of currency is so sturdy, and its engraved line work so fine.
ES: Despite the fact that money as metaphor might seem to have unlimited applications, I can imagine over time it might present a challenge to make it new. How do you keep the use of the dollar bill as both paint and palette fresh?
MW: Looked at in a certain way, I know it seems like I’ve greatly limited myself in my art making. But I don’t feel it. The rabbit hole has proven itself deep. Even if I stop coming up with new ideas, I’ve got a to-do list to carry me through a couple decades. When I’m not switching up subject matter, I’m switching up techniques of handling.
Money is “the universal medium of exchange”, so it seems ready to comment and add to most any subject matter. What’s more I can have a show that has a text piece, next to a portrait, next to an allegorical scene, next to a landscape, next to a formal study. If this was done with paintings, it might seem eclectic. But for me and mine, they are all of a piece.
ES: Your process videos offer observers an up-close look at how you handle the materials you use, a kind of curated studio visit. Is there anything you’d like to say as a lead in to the making of “Money is Material”?
MW: I was working with the folks at PF Pictures on a film about Noam Chomsky, when they were commissioned by The Avante/Garde Diaries to make a mini documentary. I was lucky for “Money is Material” to come out of this. It’s really nothing like a studio visit. They make me look and sound a lot better than I do in real life. From soup to nuts, from animation to sound—they did an amazing job. They even color corrected my eyes to get them closer to “treasury seal green.”
Mark Wagner, born in 1976, the youngest of 13 children, is an American artist who works in several media: from writing and artist bookmaking to drawing, collage, and assemblage. Widely published, exhibited, and collected, he is best known for the currency collages he meticulously makes entirely of US banknotes.
His work is part of the collections of dozens of institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, The Walker Art Center, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution. It has been shown at The Metropolitan Museum, The Getty Research Institute, and The Brooklyn Museum. He is co-founder of The Brooklyn Artists Alliance, and has published books under the name Bird Brain Press and X-ing Books.
He describes his collages this way: “The one dollar bill is the most ubiquitous piece of paper in America. Collage asks the question: what might be done to make it something else? It is a ripe material: intaglio printed on sturdy linen stock, covered in decorative filigree, and steeped in symbolism and concept. Blade and glue transform it-reproducing the effects of tapestries, paints, engravings, mosaics, and computers—striving for something bizarre, beautiful, or unbelievable … the foreign in the familiar.
Recently, Wagner provided credits and animation material for “Requiem for the American Dream” which premiered this April at the Tribeca Film Festival. He is currently working on artwork for The Agriculture Reader No. 7, a poetry and arts magazine he publishes with friends. He’s working on some nice little silk screens, too. His work is represented in New York City by Pavel Zoubok Gallery. For more information this artist see: markwagnerinc.com, pavelzoubok.com, requiemfortheamericandream.com, and www.theagreader.com.