Meet the man who destroys money to make art 💸💸💸
A Q&A with the talented Mark Wagner
A couple of weeks ago we stumbled upon the fabulous Mark Wagner. He’s an artist based out of New York, and has been referred to as “the greatest living collage artist” and even “the Michael Jordan of glue”. We agree: his work is spectacular.
His medium? Money. He repurposes thousands of dollars each year to create intricate works of art, and he’s been at it for 12 years!
Mark explains his currency collages on his site, http://markwagnerinc.com/blog.
Wagner destroys thousands of bills yearly to create works which pointedly and playfully explore the intersection of wealth, power, value, and American identity. Wagner’s audacious (and unlawful) destruction of this revered icon of American commerce is checked only by his virtuoso material manipulation, which renders what you will… portraits, plant life, fantastical beasts, or allegorical scenes recasting George Washington in every roll.
He expresses that even though we handle money daily, we don’t know exactly what it is. We keep close track of it; we guard it. We are happy when we have it and sad when we don’t. But we are also skittish about money. Ultimately, he says, money is kind of spooky.
After years of taking money apart, his perspective is unique to the point where money has lost all meaning for him as currency.
One day some years ago… back when I was broke and each dollar came dear to me… my studio-mate and I were heading to the corner restaurant for linner, our only meal of the day. I checked my wallet and it was empty. Shit. I sat at my workstation for probably a whole minute… hungry, annoyed, and complaining… before my friend pointed out that there were 40 or so spendable dollar bills sitting on the table right in front of me. In my mind they had already become something else.
We think that Mark’s work shows how fluid the nature of money is, as its very destruction demonstrates a change in its value when rebuilt as art.
In doing some more research on Mark, we’ve learned that:
- Yes, it’s real money he uses. Nothing is digital, it’s all scissors and glue!
- Yes, he knows it’s illegal to destroy money (just don’t tell anyone he’s doing it)
- Not as much money goes into each piece as you might think! He refers to a bank note like acreage: a bill’s worth of paper = 16 square inches.
- Each note is carefully deconstructed, the individual pieces are then ‘categorised’ and organised. Every last bit is used!
- Money is his medium of choice because it’s universal for the wealthy and the poor, the thrifty and the extravagant… the dog people and the cat people.
- He believes money is arrogant; that it tends to control conversation and is used as tool for measurement far too often..
- As a highly regarded artist, Mark’s works are collected by dozens of institutions and has been shown extensively in museums and art galleries.
Watch Mark at work in the video below
As we scrolled through the mountains of incredible work on his Facebook page, we realised we had a few more questions for him. We reached out, and from under the piles of currency, we received word.
1. We’ve found (especially here in New Zealand) there’s a fascinating taboo around discussing personal finances. Are Americans comfortable talking about their personal finances?
No… Americans are certainly uptight about financial talk… for one reason or another. People don’t ask about money because they don’t want to pry. People don’t offer information about their own finances because they neither want to be caught out boasting or far behind their neighbour.
Do you think this will change?
I hope it will. I try to have frank conversations with friends and fellow artists involving practical financial matters. And I intend to discuss personal finance with my kids much more than both my parents and my wife’s parents did with our generation.
2. You mentioned on your blog about a time when money had lost all meaning to you as a currency. Do you now see banknotes more as an art medium such as acrylic or oil instead of legal tender?
I’m trying to see money now as an illusion totally. I think that would be the height of liberation. I know intellectually that it is… that money’s only value is through mass consensus. But its a difficult lesson to learn… or rather unlearn.
3. Do you have a bookkeeping system for all the money that’s used in each of your pieces, so you know roughly how much a piece is “worth”?
In the past I’ve counted bills used… or even counted each scrap of paper glued down… onto a particular piece. But the way I’ve been working the past couple years no longer lends itself to a close tracking. I shovel loads more bills into the process now. Keeping more materials pre-processed has made the work more efficient.
4. Are there specific parts of a bank note that are more valuable to you than other parts? For example, is George Washington the holy grail?
Oddly enough, Its the black background behind George that’s the most “valuable” to me. There aren’t very many darks on the US one dollar bill, and contrast makes for striking images. Blank white pieces of the bill are also prized.
5. Have you ever come across a rare note that you couldn’t cut up?
I’ve cut up hundred dollar bills. I’ve got some vintage bills from the 1920s in the binder that I’ll use if I ever need them. I’ve used old silver coins before. I don’t mind spending money on making art as long as its effective or necessary. But I’ve never used anything too extravagant. Part of what makes the art interesting is it’s made with something common.
6. Your unique understanding of the physical characteristics of money would make you an asset to the counterfeit money industry (on both sides of the law). Have you got a cool dollar bill story?
The US Federal Reserve Board is the primary banking institution here in the USA… close to a state-run bank. I was super duper excited a couple years ago when they bought a piece of my work for their collection… like the money got to go home.
7. Are you worried for the future of paper money? How do you feel about new cryptocurrencies, bit-coin, etc.?
Not worried no. Seeing what’s happening with electronic money has helped open my eyes to the changing nature of money. Humans have used the concept “money” to describe lots of things… an amount of metal, an amount of goods, an amount of debt. This current electronic step embraces that money has become more about performing work than acquiring props.