The Market Is Sarah Meyohas’s Medium—But Is There a Message?
For nine days this month, artist Sarah Meyohas will sit in an office chair at a glass desk in the middle of the spartan cube that is Chelsea’s 303 Gallery and trade stocks. Through her transactions, she will intentionally push prices up and down and record the ensuing vicissitudes of these stocks in oil stick on large white canvasses that line the gallery walls. At first glance, this is spectacle, complete with limited-edition, gold-nanoparticle-painted artist books produced alongside the performance. As my favorite art historian (the Wendy’s fast food company), might ask: Where’s the beef?
My question walking into the opening Friday was not only that but also, what is the message? Meyohas has engaged with finance before, studying it at the University of Pennsylvania (where, in full disclosure, I knew her) and creating her own cryptocurrency “Bitchcoin,” which explored the notion of the artist as someone who could be physically invested in. And now, in this latest outing at 303, she is making the complex, obscure, even seemingly arbitrary machinations of the stock market visible. But is this a celebration of those machinations or a critique of them?
Though it affects every aspect of our lives, the marketplace is notoriously difficult for invested laypeople, let alone the 52% of Americans who don’t own stock, to interrogate. We’re told stocks go up or down due to a variety of macro- and micro-economic factors, a basic ebb and flow in which Meyohas is intervening. In one way she’s shunning the logic of the stock market by trading companies based on formal, aesthetic purposes (such as how she wants the stock line to look), thus refusing to imbue markets with the kind of rational intelligence so often deployed to justify their existence.
Indeed, in the halting up and down drawings she’s produced, there are echoes of pump-and-dump schemes (though less benzo-fueled than those of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street). And her attention to relatively small changes in value is shared by investment banks and hedge funds whose blackbox algorithms produce massive profits by rapidly buying and selling stocks on a large scale. The process is neither perfect nor benign: a software glitch caused Knight Capital to lose $441 million in 45 minutes, a “fat finger” typo that led to millions becoming billions temporarily wiped 1,000 points off the Dow, and short-selling speculators in 1992 forced the British pound out of the ERM, “breaking” the Bank of England.
Yet Meyohas’s patterns of buying and selling have nothing to do with quarterly earnings or dividend yields or even personal profit; she’s sorta just messing around. But this is real stock, real money, and ultimately real lives (and potentially, this kind of manipulation could be illegal?). There isn’t sufficient acknowledgement of these stakes amid the artist’s interest in the market being its own self-evident reality that can chart emotion. Meyohas might not actually be making a tangible impact on the employees of Golden Enterprises Inc. (a stock she’s traded previously because she liked the title), but she’s almost jokingly operating within systems of finance that do make a huge impact (even glorifying them). That the 2008 financial crash was partly caused by the catastrophic failure of Collateralized Debt Obligations, a “financial innovation” meant to help eliminate risk, is painfully ironic.
Meyohas’s oil-stick paintings are simultaneously real and divorced from the human context that makes reality actually valuable. When we spoke briefly at the opening, Meyohas insisted that this project operates from a position of neutrality. It’s not an endorsement of the market, she says, but she doesn’t want it to be a critique either. But that is a pretty impossible tightrope to walk: neutrality in this context sure feels like an ideological position in line with the work of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, whose practices have become, essentially, capitalism.
“Sarah Meyohas” is on view at 303 Gallery, New York, Jan 9–30, 2016.