Category Archives: North America

Artist Mark Wagner is Reinventing the US Dollar Bill

Fig. 1. Ben Bernanke. Commissioned and rejected by Time magazine for their 2009 "Person of the Year" cover. Later purchased and exhibited by the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.
Fig. 1. Ben Bernanke. Commissioned and rejected by Time magazine for their 2009 “Person of the Year” cover. Later purchased and exhibited by the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.

Visual Artist Mark Wagner exclusively uses US dollar bills in his work, and has done so for decades. From creating collage-style portraits, still lives, and sculptures to an actual money tree, Wagner attempts to meticulously use every detail of the banknotes he works with. Wagner’s humorous, approachable, and culturally relevant pieces have made him a favorite of the New York City art world and beyond.

Over the years, Wagner has continued to create subversive works that offer a larger social commentary on money, economics, and beyond. In 2009 he constructed a 17’ x 3’ recreation of the Statue of Liberty entitled Liberty, made from pieces of over 1,000 dollar bills. Several of Wagner’s other works including, FROM DARKEST DECAY was featured at the Expo Chicago in September and his other work, CUT UP CUT CUT is on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum and will be traveling as part of a group exhibition through 2009. We sat down with Wagner to discuss his relationship to money, how he obtains the bills he uses in his work, as well as the larger personal and political underpinnings that fuel his art.

ANS: What first attracted you to working with money?

Mark Wagner: I’ve always been a sucker for paper culture—for different printing methods and graphic design styles, as well as different methods of illustration and text presentation. Everything from fine art printing, to common stuff like packing materials, and paper napkins. In the ’90s I’d been doing a lot of collage from a bunch of different materials, anything I could get my hands on. I always had a large supply of Camel Cigarette wrappers because a couple friends saved them for me. There was something about the familiarity of the package that made those collages effective, especial to Camel smokers. So, I tried to think of other popular pieces of paper I could use and settled on the single most popular piece of paper on the planet: the US One Dollar bill.

At first I loved the dollar bill for material reasons—it was readily available, the paper it’s printed on is super sturdy, more durable than literally any piece of paper you can buy from an art supply store; the printing on it is super fine, and anything you make from it is immediately familiar to the viewer on a subconscious level. It started to dawn on me what it meant to use MONEY. That money is not some neutral thing, it’s not like cutting up bus tickets or playing cards at all. That everyone has money issues  and that addressing those issues with this material could make for some pretty OK art.

"Are What You Eat What You Are" or "Hand to Mouth." Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.
Figure 2. “Are What You Eat What You Are” or “Hand to Mouth.” Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.

ANS: What is your process like in conceptualizing a piece and then getting the materials needed to create it?

MW: I’m always processing materials. I’ve got an assistant who helps me as well. We break down bills into rudimentary parts and build these up into shapes, textures, and passages that might be useful in the future—Bins of head parts, a binder full of constructed trees and other plant life, little hands, little birds, little figures of George Washington. Then I work from the other end as well. Drawing sketches and figuring out how I can deploy these “moves” to greatest effect. How I can use money to say something about money  or sometimes just make something pretty.

ANS: How do you obtain the money used in your pieces?

MW: I get stacks of crispy ones directly from the bank when they have them. Sometimes I set aside crispy bills I receive as change. I like the small portrait bills from the 90s for the larger US denominations; usually I buy these on Ebay.

ANS: What is your attitude towards money?

MW: Money is basically a form of magic. Here is a substance I can transform into any other substance. That money and all our attitudes about money are a funny amalgam/chimera of everything money has ever been in the past. It is part honor-exchange, part commodity, part bank draft, part debt. Our last clear foci of money was as an amount of metal: here is a quantity of gold that can be exchanged for a quantity of some other substance. Or new foci, I think, will be more like the electricity inside a battery—here is a quantity of power I can use to perform an amount of work.

ANS: What are some of the broader themes you explore in your work in relationship to wealth and capitalism?

MW: I prefer subject matter that has a direct link with the materials. I use US bills for the most part anything Americana, American identity, or Founding Father-ish. I do portraits at least in part because of coin and currency addiction to portrait busts, sometimes the portraits are representations of some sort of human “value” trying to reclaim that word from its fiduciary use.

There are lots of representations of wealth in the work, architecture, leisure activities, lavish gardens, artworks. Concentrations of wealth have given us both some of the most beautiful things in our culture, as well as gross examples of decadence. There are lots of barriers and dividing lines depicted in the work—fences, hedge, walls. There’s a fair amount of menace. And there’s no shortage of both mystery and mythology. The thing is, I could represent anything out of money and it would seem like I was on topic and making a statement. If I depicted, say, the coffee cup sitting in front of me it would seem like I was commenting on the prices at Starbucks.

Figure 3. Benjamin. Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.
Figure 3. Benjamin. Photo: Mark Wagner. Courtesy of the artist.

ANS: Do you think there is a gendered component to the work you create? And if so, what do you think that is?

MW: I hadn’t thought about this until you asked, but of course there is. There are no women on US bills I can easily cast as characters in my work. And money itself is probably considered a masculine thing. I do think the patience of execution harkens back to my Mom sewing, though. Quilts and embroidered samplers have informed my work as well as cropping up as subject matter.

ANS: What are some current projects you have in the works, and do you have any upcoming exhibitions?

MW: I’m just finishing up a 6’ x 4’ money tree. I’m making some dollar bill “Loan Ranger” masks. I’m making some portraits of at-risk children from Ghana. I’m working on a couple of essays about the nature of money and art. I’m working on plans for a 12’ x 18’ collage of movie monsters battling over New York City.

ANS: Do you collect any coins or other currency beyond $1 bills?

MW: Yes, mostly in a catch-as-catch-can manner. My coin collection started as a kid with a jar of European coins that my dad had brought back decades earlier from World War II. I came from a small town in rural Wisconsin, and I loved the connection to another place and time.

As a kid I loved—and still love to this day—a few of the coins from the jar, which had circulated for well over 100 years, worn almost completely smooth: Napoleon’s name, or one of the George’s only barely visible. I still have the US silver quarter and about a 1/4 of it worn away that I used for silver-point drawing in art school. I still have the silver quarter I was handed as change at the deli, that I recognized first by the unfamiliar, deeper note within the handful of jingle. I love the beautiful face on the Mercury dime and the oddness of the fasces on the back. I love the weight of the Franklin half-dollar which is  judged most comfortable for practicing my finger rolls and palming.

I’ve got a small collection of paper currency. People know I like money, so they give me unwanted currency left over from their foreign trips. And I’ve got a small collection of late 19th, early 20th century stock certificates I love for the art and design’s sake—the decorative borders, the classicism meeting anachronistically with technology and modernism, all the rubber stamps and signatures and cancellations.

ANS: Have you run into any legal issues with cutting up US currency? If so, what happened and how did you resolve it?

MW: No legal issues so far. I think it’s pretty clear there’s no fraudulent intent in what I’m doing. I’m hurting no one. I’m generating a fair amount of economic activity, tax revenue, and seigniorage through my actions. I’m naughty, but safe-naughty.

ANS: Do you view your work as subversive and are there any political underlinings to your current work given the current administration?

MW: Subversive, I’d like to think so, but then again maybe I’m just commodifying my own dissent. My first reaction to the new regime art-wise was to try to ignore it. I’m still on that tack, trying to make pretty things or timeless things or the same sort of things I would have made a couple years ago.

Before the election I made a portrait of Trump for an art show. It hung in a voting booth next to a portrait of Clinton back in September of 2016. After the exhibition (but before the election) I burnt the Trump portrait because I’d really come to detest the man.

Cash and Carry

Figure 1. Chinese spade money, c. 770–475 BC.
Figure 1. Chinese spade money, c. 770–475 BC (ANS 1937.179.14763).

The American Numismatic Society cabinet contains a remarkable collection of Chinese coins and currency ranging from early bronze spade money (Fig. 1) and so-called “ant-nose” coins derived from cowrie shells down to more recent issues of the People’s Republic of China. Within this long parade of money, a watershed moment took place in the late third century BC when Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China (220–210 BC), introduced a new cast bronze coinage to be used throughout his empire. The coins, known in Chinese by their denomination ban liang (“half tael”), were circular in shape, like the contemporary coins of Greece and Rome, but included a square central hole that permitted them to be strung on cords for easy storage and transportation in an age before pockets (Fig. 2). Over the centuries the basic form of the ban liang was used and reused for new imperial coinages of different names and denominations like the wu zhu (“five-zhu”) and tong bao (“circulating currency”). As European trade with China expanded in the Far East in the seventeenth century, such coins came to be known in English as cash—a term derived from kaasu or kasa, South Indian (Dravidian) words for “money” often referring to a coin of small denomination.

Figure 2. Han Dynasty bronze ban liang, 206–126 BC.
Figure 2. Han Dynasty bronze ban liang, 206–126 BC (ANS 1937.179.30060).

While cash coins are interesting in their own right, not only in their role as currency, but also in Chinese tradition as talismans for the living, medicine for the sick, and assistance for the spirits of the dead. They are also remarkable as part of a growing corpus of Eastern coins brought to the shores of the United States and Canada early in the histories of these countries, largely unnoticed by the numismatic community. There is always something exciting about a coin discovered in a wrong or unexpected place. When this happens there is almost invariably a good story that goes with it.

Chinese cash coins have been recovered from Indigenous archaeological sites of the maritime fur trade period (1778–1850) along the northwestern coast of North America stretching from Alaska through British Columbia and into the contiguous states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The coins were already being traded to Indigenous peoples of British Columbia by the late 18th century, as indicated by a meeting between the Spanish explorer Jacinto Camaño Moraleja and the important Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) chief Taglas Cania in 1792. On this occasion, Taglas Cania is reported to have arrived at the meeting wearing his finest apparel, which included a coat and trousers adorned with cash coins similar to the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty tong bao depicted below (Fig. 3). These were attached to his clothing like buttons, but seem to have been intended to announce the presence of their wearer by the pleasant tinkling sound they made when they struck against each other as he moved. The coins and their sound enhanced the status of the wearer, visually illustrating the chief’s important trade connections and providing him with his own theme music on occasions of significance. It has been claimed that the Tlingit peoples of Alaska sewed numerous cash coins to leather coats and vests not only as status symbols, but to serve as body armor in their conflicts with other tribes and Russian traders in 1802 and 1804. However, the military aspect of such clothing has been disputed, with some recent commentators arguing that it was primarily used as ceremonial garb. A number of Tlingit cash-encrusted jackets and vests can still be seen in public collections such as those of the American Museum of Natural History and the Canadian War Museum.

Figure 3. Qing Dynasty bronze tong bao. Tainan mint, 1736–1796.
Figure 3. Qing Dynasty bronze tong bao. Tainan mint, 1736–1796 (ANS 1986.40.503).

It is unclear exactly how long before the arrival of Caamaño the Indigenous peoples of the north west coast of North America developed their taste for Chinese cash, but 1788 seems most likely. In the spring of this year, the English captain John Meares sailed from the Chinese port of Guangzhou (Canton) with a complement of Chinese crewmen, and reached Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. There he established a post for trade with the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth peoples despite lacking permission from the East India Company to do so. It has been suggested that Meares’ Chinese crewmen may have begun trading cash coins to the Nuu-chah-nulth when they discovered the attraction of Indigenous peoples to articles made from copper—copper and brass pots had long been staples of European trade with the First Nations of North America—and that this chance trade became regularized in subsequent visits by English traders. On the other hand, it is just as possible that Meares purposely included cash coins in his cargo when he sailed out of Guangzhou in 1788 with the intention of trading them to Aboriginal peoples as trinkets in return for much more valuable seal skins.

Figure 4. Portrait of a Wishram (a Columbia River people of Oregon) bride wearing headdress decorated with Qing Dynasty tong bao. Photographed by Edward Curtis, c. 1910.
Figure 4. Portrait of a Wishram (a Columbia River people of Oregon) bride wearing headdress decorated with Qing Dynasty tong bao. Photographed by Edward Curtis, c. 1910.

Chinese cash coins remained a popular item of clothing decoration among the Indigenous peoples of the north western North America into the 20th century (Fig. 4), although by this time the supply brought by maritime fur traders was supplemented by coins carried by the large numbers of Chinese immigrants who came to work on the great transcontinental railways built in the United States and Canada in the 1860s and 1880s, respectively. Cash coins seem to have been preferred for adornment in part because they came ready for stringing and because they were obtained fairly easily. With a value equal to about one tenth of a U.S. cent, Chinese cash had virtually no use as money in North America. Nevertheless, when cash coins were not available, other coins, like U.S. dimes and half dimes (Fig. 5), were pierced by for the same decorative purpose.

Figure 5. United States silver half dime. Philadelphia mint, 1838.
Figure 5. United States silver half dime. Philadelphia mint, 1838 (ANS 1931.109.26).

It is worth noting that the custom of wearing coins as clothing adornment connects the Indigenous peoples of northwestern Canada and the United States not only to the Far East through their use of Chinese cash, but indirectly also to the Middle East. There many Islamic cultures had a tradition of piercing coins to be worn as part of a bride’s costume (most typically her headdress) on her wedding day. The ANS collection includes hundreds of examples of coins that have been pierced, some of which almost certainly received their holes in this wedding context (Fig. 6). It is from this custom that the term sequin (an English corruption of zecchino, the Italian name for the famous Venetian gold ducat and its imitations) enters modern parlance as the small, shiny disk-like decorations most frequently found sewn on to certain kinds of glamorous women’s apparel.

Figure 6. Pierced Safavid gold ashrafi of Shah ‘Abbas III. Mashhad mint, 1735/6.
Figure 6. Pierced Safavid gold ashrafi of Shah ‘Abbas III. Mashhad mint, 1735/6 (ANS 1922.216.979).

Coins found outside of their expected areas of circulation and put to unexpected uses are always a source of great interest. The case of Chinese cash in northwestern coastal North America is no exception, as the coins document the long-distance maritime trade between European traders operating from Chinese ports and Indigenous peoples and highlight the cross-cultural uses of coins as part of clothing. The modern states of Canada and the United States have prided themselves on being cultural mosaics and melting pots, respectively. The more attention paid to foreign money found in North America reveals these terms to be relevant just as much to coins as to people.