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A rich man’s world

Danielle Child visits a fascinating exhibition telling the damning history of finance

October 1, 2015
7 min read

In a far corner of the People’s History Museum, Manchester, a challenging new exhibition is inviting visitors to look at the changing image of finance in visual culture since 1700. This is not just a visual display, however, but an engagement with the world of money as a changing conceptual and political idea.

Show Me the Money: The image of finance, 1700 to the present is an unusual exhibition for the People’s History Museum in that it combines historical items from museum collections, archival material from sources such as Barclays bank, and contemporary art works, some commissioned specially for the show. The exhibition acknowledges the abstract nature of finance, which covers exchange, property, bonds and stock markets in addition to the everyday commodity markets, financial institutions and those who work in these institutions, including the financial ‘class’. It brings together an eclectic mix of artefacts and images under five headings: ‘Booms and busts’, ‘Framing finance’, ‘Animal spirits’, ‘The money shot’ and ‘Debt and credit’.

Dress up like a banker

The show opens by inviting the visitor to ‘dress up like a banker’. The usual regalia is provided: briefcase, umbrella, overcoat – and, of course, a mirror in which to admire your efforts. Next to this is a cabinet of real-world finance-themed games, reminding us of how integrated finance is within our lives from an early age.

The image that confronts the visitor on entering the show proper is William Holbrook Beard’s painting The Bulls and the Bears in the Market (1879), which depicts the financial crisis of 1873 as a stampede of bulls and fighting bears outside the New York Stock Exchange. Here animals are torn apart in the foreground, while the two species grapple with each other in the background. The image not only sets the scene for the exhibition, in which we encounter numerous satirical depictions of bankers and finance workers in animal forms, but also initiates the viewer into the, at times not-so-subtle, critical politics played out in the show.

There are a number of pieces depicting finance workers. Stephen McLaren’s Moral Hazard (2008–14) series stands out. The work is a series of photographs, shown as a slideshow, documenting City of London workers. McLaren captures the workers undertaking ‘everyday’ activities: having a cigarette break, crossing the road, chatting to colleagues or on the phone. Images of City workers sleeping, presumably in their breaks, on benches and the ‘beaches’ of the Thames are juxtaposed with pictures of London’s homeless on the streets as the workers rush by during their commutes. The viewer is left to draw their own conclusions as to what is taking place in the images.

Simon Roberts’ Brokers with their hands on their faces (2007–11) presents us with another view of the financial crash, a series of images in which apparently stressed bankers touch their faces in the familiar image of a ‘stock market-esque’ scene.

Clichés of bankers are also utilised in James O Jenkins’ 17 April 2013 (2013) photographs. On first glance, the viewer appears to be looking at suicidal bankers, climbing on window ledges and up the side of bridges. On reading the accompanying text, you realise you are in fact looking at images of bankers trying to catch a glimpse of Thatcher’s funeral cortege driving through the street of London.

Datascapes

The more common images of finance are contrasted with the abstract digital visuals of Cornford & Cross’s mountainscapes, which are generated from financial data. In The Lost Horizon (2003), the artists worked with Financial Times Stock Exchange data to interpret it for a lay audience. The result is a datascape of peaks and troughs that renews itself each day with a new cycle of transactions and associated data.

There is an incredible amount of history and information presented in the exhibition. Jane Lawson’s handmade book, How We Got to Where We Are (2012), presented like a concertina, shows an infographical ‘history of the entire world economy as re-told by an interested amateur’. The timeline connects other visual diagrams in the show, such as the 1913 diagram from the Pujo Committee Report, which investigated a powerful community of Wall Street bankers, and William Powhida’s Welcome to Griftopia (2011), which maps the players in contemporary US politics, exposing the connections to finance.

As Lawson’s timeline approaches the present day, the amount of information and statistics relating to finance becomes more concentrated, making visual David Harvey’s identification of ‘time-space compression’ in late capitalism. Lawson articulately highlights the relationship between the Chicago School economists and the implementation of a neoliberal economy. She maps the history of the Chicago School’s influence on economic programmes implemented in Brazil, China and Argentina, where ‘Chicago boys’ were placed in key economic posts. She further shows how Friedmanite policies were adopted in Britain under Thatcher and the influence of these polices as promoted by the IMF and World Bank. In her piece commissioned for the exhibition, The Detoxification of Capitalism and Freedom (2014), she attempts to ‘detoxify’ Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom (1962) by exposing it to oyster mushrooms, known for their detoxifying qualities.

Images of money

The show also presents images of money itself, including alternative models of currency created by artists (the ROBIN™ Currency), those protesting against the decision to take women off British banknotes, and the use of subversive messages on money (Cildo Meireles’ Insertions into Ideological Circuits 2: Banknote Project, 1970).

In the final section on debt, we encounter satirical images of money and debt as an addiction in James Gilroy’s cartoons. Thomas Gokey’s contribution highlights the amount of debt he has taken on in undertaking a MAFA degree in which the total cost – $49,983 – has been pulped into three sheets of paper. Gokey sells small pieces of this sheet of pulped-money paper, inviting the buyer to also purchase and share his debt. This sits alongside old advertising images from TSB and Barclaycard, in which women are either appealed to through the now patronising language of ‘inclusivity’ (TSB) or used to sell products (the equation of the Barclaycard marketing women with credit).

The show ends with William Hogarth’s famous series of engravings, A Rake’s Progress (1735), which tells the story of Tom Rakewell, who inherits a fortune, spends, gambles and loses it all and, ultimately, ends up condemned to an asylum. The final piece, again, suggests a contemporary story as Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences (2012) series of tapestries, which deal with class in contemporary Britain, updates Hogarth’s series.

Disorienting and disparate

To bring a touring contemporary art exhibition like Show Me the Money into a public museum is a daunting task. The location within the museum is not perfect and entering the show is a little disorienting as the logic of the exhibition is not at first clear. Perhaps, though, this is intentional to reflect the disparate subject of the show.

Some will visit to see the historical examples of the stock ticker and the 18th-century clerk’s desk, and others the critical approaches in the contemporary works of art. The show presents a wealth of information and visual material; to fully engage is to spend time with the exhibition, which pays off. In short, this is a very clever exhibition, which tells a damning tale of the history of the finance industry made accessible through drawing not on the language of finance, but the visual language of cultural commentators and artists.

Show Me the Money: The image of finance, 1700 to the present is at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, until 24 January 2016.