Monday, 21 November 2011

Strange Currency: Painting on Coins

Since 2004, I have been painting miniature portraits of dictators and tyrants on two pence coins. What this steadily expanding little cohort of international undesirables share is that they have all, at some point in their respective careers, been supported economically or politically by the United Kingdom. 

Following the tragic events of September 11th 2001, many people became aware that much of Bin Laden's £300 million fortune actually came from US and European investment in Bin Laden's Maktab al-Khidimat fighters to win the Afghan war and install a sympathetic government in the country. Similarly, the brutally corrupt regimes of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, General Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, to name but a few, all benefitted from our patronage in return for the whichever flavour of loyalty was required at the time.

The nurturing of questionable regimes for our own ends is a tradition that stretches way beyond our colonial past and is unlikely to end soon. It is ironic that are warned on a constant and spectacularly melodramatic basis that money spent on illicit contraband - from drugs to pirated music - is used to fund terrorism, war and aggravates third world exploitation, yet much less scrutiny is focused on the so-called legitimate use of the wealth we generate from our country. It is unquestionable that this kind of political expediency is a far more dangerous gamble, with a potentially far higher price to pay further down the line.

On each coin, traditional headshots mirror the familiar profile of Queen Elizabeth that adorns the reverse side. Conceptually, the use of coins is a very obvious visual pun, but formally the work is heavily influenced by Victorian Miniatures and Locket portraiture. Cameos and miniatures were often commissioned as keepsakes for loved ones. In contrast to the grand gesture of the full-blown oil painted portrait they were a sign of a more intimate, often secretive, affection.

Alongside this, the very use of a monetary unit as a canvas makes a gentle dig at the notion of the art object as financial commodity. These works are of immediate value to an audience beyond the galleristas and hipsters as they have an intrinsic worth - in this case a two pence sterling. As a result, they aren't going to get destroyed any time soon as no one simply throws money away – literally - it is instead always passed on. In some respects, I suppose these little works may well prove to be amongst the most valuable I’ll ever make.

Clockwise from top left: 
Jose Eduardo dos Santos (Angola, 1979-Present), General Augusto Pinochet (Chile, 1973-1990),
Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines, 1965-1986), Saddam Hussein (Iraq, 1979-2003),
Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire, 1965-1997), Osama Bin Laden (Al-Qaeda, 1988-2011)

Although I approach each portrait with as much formal realism as my size 000 brush and the uneven copper surface allows, the defacing of the coins draws on the techniques of classic art intervention. These are objects intended for mass circulation, so my initial intention was to paint and circulate the series over a period of time, leaving anonymous recipients to draw their own conclusions for the reasons behind the mystery appearance of the odd dictator in their wallet, purse or palm. 

However, when the initial series was completed, I had invested such a disproportionate amount of time and effort in the diminutive paintings that the first twenty miscreants were instead framed and exhibited together at the 96 Gillespie Gallery in North London. Since then I have slipped a dozen or so coins into circulation, including the accidental release of my first and favourite portrait of Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, but have continued to add to the collection on an casual basis. Some of these newly minted are shortly to be exhibited again as part of Theresa Bruno's quirky Wallet Gallery project.

If you are interested, but you don’t manage to catch them this time around, I can only offer some appropriate Northern advice – always check your change.

1 comment:

  1. These are brilliant. One of my favourite art projects of that last few years.

    That's my two cents.