Aug 10 2011: An Interview with Cesare Pietroiusti on Earning, Eating and Excreting Money (Birmingham, 2007)

Italian artist Cesare Pietroiusti completed a small trilogy of works on the subject of money as part of a period spent at the Ikon Gallery in 2007. In the first he spent 24 hours cooking Italian food in the Ikon Gallery’s café, serving it to customers who were then given the value of their meal in cash instead of a bill. The second involved placing £20 notes in front of participants who were then required to concentrate on the money in front of them until the artist decided they had given sufficient attention to the banknote to warrant taking it away with them. In the third part, Eating Money, Pietroiusti and Paul Griffiths held an auction. The winning bid, paid to the artists in two banknotes, was eaten, and the notes then recovered – by natural means – and returned to their owner, still recognisable, but transformed. An abridged version (Five Questions for Cesare Pietroiusti) appeared in the West Midlands Life section of Metro.

Wayne Burrows: What was the idea behind the three money works?

Cesare Pietroiusti: In general, I wanted to look at questions of money and value, and the idea was to very simply and literally reverse our usual relationship with money – so I paid people to eat my food instead of making them pay, for example. We always use money to make exchanges, and we tend to see monetary value as equivalent to the actual value of things. I wanted to provoke people into thinking about these assumptions. Money is an element in our culture that we think we are buying things with, but in fact money is the thing we buy by spending other things, such as time.

WB: So this was the thinking behind the event where people stared at banknotes for unspecified lengths of time, arbitrarily decided by yourself, in order to earn the money?

CP: Yes, because we think of money as abstract – it does not really exist, but represents value. I wanted to consider it differently, as a very literal thing, a real, physical object that exists in the world in its own right, and like other commodities we are ready to spend our time obtaining it.  People use money to buy time, for example, but are not always aware of how it might have taken more time to earn the money than the money eventually buys. This is one of the paradoxes I was interested in exploring.

WB: Of course, the auction piece makes the money very physical indeed.

CP: Certainly, eating money relates it very strongly to the physical realm. Having a 500 Euro banknote in the stomach, where it is partly digested and becomes shit, is a metaphor, but I can also say from experience that when the body is trying to deal with a large banknote like the 500 euro it is rather painful. The body tries to reject keeping it in the stomach and the necessity of evacuating it, and retrieving it from the shit required some care! I joke, perhaps, but did feel as though I was pregnant while carrying out this work. I was carrying inside something that was not part of me.

WB: Were the works of Piero Manzoni – I’m thinking especially of the works where he sold cans of his own excrement at the price of gold – and Yves Klein’s works selling ‘immaterial zones’ for gold leaf part of the meaning of your works?

CP: Absolutely. Manzoni and Yves Klein are probably the two main references on my work. Manzoni is an artist I got to know – or rather, whose work I got to know – when still very young, at the very beginning of my own career, and there is a wonderful radicality in everything he made. So many things that still concern us are there in Manzoni’s work: considerations of the artist’s body as a material to be used, the questioning of authenticity, the way he made himself a very extreme case of the material producer, so that every material he produced – whether shit, breath, a fingerprint or whatever – all become parts of the work. Yet he is very paradoxical. He reverses our way of seeing things, by putting his plinth upside down and saying the world is his sculpture, which is a wonderful thing to do. Klein is like this too, but he was more concerned with reaching what he thought of as an ‘ultimate reality’. For him, it was important to use gold, because gold is perhaps the ultimate form of money, the most obvious signifier of exchange value in our culture.

WB: Both seem to have a humour that is unusual in a lot of older conceptual art. They challenge us, but Manzoni especially can make us laugh out loud, too. 

CP: Yes, I think this is correct. Most conceptual art is Anglo-Saxon, coming from countries such as America, Britain and Germany, so perhaps it s a cultural difference between these cultures and Italy. There is another artist in Italy, Alighiero Boetti, who died in the mid-1990s. He had the same very poetic approach mixed with humour, the ability to create a critical point of view, and the same mix of radicality and irony as Manzoni. Boetti was a very light and joyous person, where Manzoni was alcoholic, rejected by his family and died very young, a slightly tragic persona, so their personalities are very different. But they share that Italian tradition of lightness and irony and I think this does distinguish Italy’s art from that of the United States and Britain, where art is usually taken more seriously.

WB: I also thought of Freud’s idea that our acquisitive attitude to money is a kind of adult version of the child’s view of his own excrement. Was that an influence?

CP: Freud’s line is very much that money equals shit, and there are many levels of interpretation. Psychoanalysis is definitely one that comes to mind. What interested me about this was the element of ‘gift’, when the child thinks of expelling its shit as bestowing a gift upon the world outside itself. Perhaps poo-ing represents an act of generosity for me too, except in the weird, ironic situation that I have created. But there is an act of giving at the core of the Eating Money work. I process an object in my own body, then return it to its owner with a ‘special touch’ added, the mark of the artist’s body, that may or may not enhance the original value. The owner could, if he wished, take the note to the bank and exchange it for a clean, new one, or he can keep it, and see the change as something of value. That is up to him.

WB: Were you surprised by the local press interest in what you were doing? It is a fairly esoteric set of actions in many ways.

CP: Yes, there were some very interesting things going on in the newspapers, and some took things strangely, but there is that very playful aspect to the work, which some understood, and some seemed not to see. It is important to me that what I do reaches beyond the small public of my own life and circle of fellow artists, critics and curators. My life is like everyone’s in that I am in a relationship with media, politics, economics, the wars and the world around me, the same issues we all deal with. I do not think what I do can build political alternatives, but perhaps it can change the way you think, even if only a little. In Italy there is a very strong moral tone in the way mothers tell their children “you should not put your fingers in your mouth when you have touched money, it is dirty, wash your hands”, and we also have a lot of Catholic guilt about it when we do have money. I think these complex taboos swirl around money in all cultures, so inevitably using money in my work gets attention.

WB: Do you think we consider its role in our lives enough? Sometimes it feels that money is like religion may have been in medieval times, before it was questioned, something whose existence and reality we take for granted.

CP: I think this is true. For some money has a transcendental value that goes beyond their attachment to their national flag or religious beliefs, but while even the most patriotic among us is aware of the rhetoric that gives a national anthem its power, we are not so conscious of the rhetoric and assumptions behind our economies and money itself. In some countries – Italy is one – it used to be a crime to damage banknotes, or deliberately destroy money. When you burn a banknote, all that happens is that the State prints a new one, so no actual value is lost. Yet it was still a crime to damage money, which I think shows that the affront went beyond the economic value of the money and crossed into questions of morality, identity and nationhood. This is changing now because electronic transactions are beginning to surpass physical currencies. Perhaps soon the banknote will disappear altogether, which I don’t think will alter the nature of the economy, but it does mean that there will be a huge psychological change in the way that we relate to money in our daily lives.

WB: I suppose this brings us back to Yves Klein’s idea of bringing the immaterial into existence: perhaps the economy is achieving what art didn’t?

CP: One project I am working on now is with a group in Bratislava, where we have founded a gallery and website to sell nothing but entirely immaterial art, works of which there can be no trace, nothing physical or exchangeable. When you purchase one of these works, you receive no documentation, no receipts, and no object. Perhaps there will be a note on the website saying who purchased it, and when, but otherwise no trace will remain. Some buyers request anonymity, so for them there is not even that, the work is gone, like a breath. The gallery is at www.evolutiondelart.org and the title, evolution de l’art, is obviously one of Yves Klein’s titles, something he used when trying to render his work immaterial and began selling statements in exchange for gold. Perhaps the primal law of the market economy, that we always exchange something physical for the abstract value invested in money is reaching its end. Other kinds of economy have existed in the past, and in other cultures, and human beings have managed to get along perfectly well with them.

WB: You sound fairly optimistic about things, considering…

CP: One thing I always want to say is that many people think of eating money as a harsh, violent act of criticism of capitalism and the economic system we live under. I am very literally turning money into shit, after all, so it may be true. But it is not only this. As I said earlier, taking money inside yourself is an act of intimacy which requires great care and trust, so perhaps there is also a homage to money in these works. We should remember that the banknote is a recent creation, and a democratic one. Banknotes were invented to stop the banks charging the interest they added to credit notes around two centuries ago, and as they may soon pass from existence, it’s worth remembering that they have not been with us for very long – unlike coins, which are far older. So perhaps I am critical, but I also make these works with a little respect.

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