Facing each other across Sunderland’s Fawcett Street are a bright red Virgin Money branch and a bright yellow pawnbroker’s. Money makes the world go round, according to the catchy but sleazy song from Cabaret.
Signs and song are in my head – along with the street stall selling nectarines, five for £1 – as I enter nearby Sunderland City Library and Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art where the new exhibition is called Show Me The Money (a line from another movie, Jerry Maguire).
In the foyer, by way of introduction, are large photos of bankers letting their hair down (to put it politely).
They were taken by documentary photographer Immo Klink, whose name sounds uncannily like a cash register, and they are a taster of what awaits at the top of the escalators.
This exhibition, initiated by Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA) with a bunch of academics from Manchester, Southampton and Edinburgh, is utterly absorbing.
The relationship between art and money has always intrigued – we’ll come to the film of the art mavericks of K Foundation making a bonfire out of £1m – but the credit crunch really gave artists stuff to get their teeth into.
Suddenly, back in 2007-8, solid certainties went up in smoke as trusted high street banking names attained more than a whiff of that Cabaret sleaze.
Bankers went bonkers and artists had a field day.
A good deal of what the latter produced is in this exhibition but it is set in the context of history. Here are banking relics from the collection of Barclays, including a coin shovel, a clerk’s desk and a discount ledger from 1729-33 recording that one Daniel Defore (author and temporary resident of Gateshead) was lent money three times and switfly repaid.
Simon Roberts, in his Credit Crunch Lexicon, makes art out of the language of recession, the stuff spouted in the media as bankers made for the hills. His wall-mounted text runs from ‘A crisis’ to ‘zeroflation’ via ‘negative data negative equity negative futures... no viable alternative nobody responsible... predatory capitalism predatory pricing...’ and so on and on.
Roberts also has a piece called Brokers With Their Hands On Their Faces. It’s a self-explanatory collage of photos and a collective gesture of despair.
Another photographer, James Jenkins, presents images under the heading 17 April, 2013. They show pin-striped fellows clinging to ledges, as if preparing to emulate the American bankers who took the quickest route to the sidewalk during the Wall Street Crash.
Actually, they were striving for a view of Lady Thatcher’s funeral courtege which passed through the City of London so financial sector workers could pay their final respects.
Money is about winners and losers, failure and success, stinking rich and dirt poor and reminders of the ficklness of fate are everywhere, from William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress – tracking the path from wealth to debtors’ prison – to Mark Boulos’s work, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.
This is the first piece you see and it isn’t funny. Actually, it is extremely scary.
It consists of two films showing simultaneously on facing screens. One shows traders in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on day one of the credit crisis, relative calm giving away to an angry babble and a forest of jabbing fingers.
These are the traders in commodities, striving to accrue wealth from oil and other materials sourced from places they’ll never see. A few women are present but mostly it’s a testosterone-fuelled bear-pit. You wouldn’t want to be there.
The other screen shows fishermen in Nigeria’s Niger Delta whose living is threatened by the international oil industry. These are very angry men indeed. They wield guns and dance to summon a war god called Egbisu.
One man, addressing the film-maker while slapping his torso with a large cleaver, warns him that he must not return. White men have destroyed the fishing on which he depends to feed his family.
This is a very long way away from young men getting drunk in London cocktail bars and nectarines being sold on Fawcett Street but it makes the point that money is like the air we breathe. It shapes our attitudes and our world.
This is literally true, as you will learn from the work of Gordon Cheung who makes art out of the stock listings pages of the Financial Times.
Cheung’s wall-mounted piece here is called The City of Palaces and it was inspired by the Kangbashi New Area at Ordos City in Inner Mongolia.
This is a development that was designed to accommodate one million people and was fuelled by Chinese speculative investment. Apparently it’s now a virtual ghost city.
The artist has reimagined it as a fantasy landscape which seems apt. So much of the workings of finance is mysterious. That, presumably, is how so many reputable guardians of our hard-earned cash were able to mess up so completely without any of us – apart from Robert Peston, obviously – smelling a rat.
Perhaps the most shocking thing I learned from Show Me The Money came via a photograph by photographers Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann. It lacks a snappy title but High Frequency Trading Work Space 9, Willis Tower, Chicago is a horror. I’d say it smacks of the future buit clearly it is the present.
There are no people in the photo but there doesn’t need to be. It shows banks of screens and the caption explains that 50-70% of all US stock trading comes under the high frequency trading (HFT) tag and is automatic.
Computers exploit split second differences in prices (and somewhere far away, I’m thinking, a despairing fisherman puts down his net and picks up a cleaver).
The K Foundation, alias artists Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, caused a stink 20 years ago when they purported to burn £1m in banknotes in a Surrey field. Cue the outraged cry from millions: “I could have done with a bit of that!”
You can see the video they shot here – opposite another by Geraldine Juárez, who did a similar thing with computer currency bitcoin – and you will learn that it’s still not clear if the money they torched was legal tender or just some old notes the banks had taken out of circulation.
Newcastle artist Wolfgang Weileder teases us with Cash Point, a 3D facsimile of a ‘hole in the wall’ dispenser but with only a tiny slot. Apparently it is programmed to dispense a single banknote once every 24 hours to benefit whoever is standing nearby. Unfortunately I cannot verify this.
Traditional painters have had fun with banking excesses over the years.
Here you can see The Bulls and Bears in the Market by William Holbrook Beard, a reproduction of a19th Century canvas showing speculators as animals (in a bull market prices are predicted to rise, in a bear market the opposite is the case).
Nearby is Debt and her Debtors by contemporary New York artist Molly Crabapple which similarly shows the principle players portrayed in bestial fashion and stripped of their dignity.
A 70ft installation featuring a novel by artists Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby is called Looking For Headless and it’s a fictionalised account of their investigation of an offshore company based in the Bahamas.
This you follow towards the exit via Jane Lawson’s film, The Detoxification of Capitalism and Freedom, which shows what happened when she time-lapse filmed toxin-consuming oyster mushrooms snacking on capitalist tracts.
It was something to think about when heading back outside for some nectarines.
Show Me The Money: The Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present is at the NGCA until August 30 and is then on tour. The gallery opens daily except Sunday. Check www.ngca.co.uk