JL: …and they bring out common signifiers that you see in currency across cultures. One piece you were working on displays a repetition of floral forms within currencies from around the world. This ends up being an interesting commentary on globalization.
SM: I can see these works talking back to me. This is something very beautiful. I don’t control it very much. It is as if the work is above me. It is a great personal success when you achieve this. I don’t know if it is me doing it, or if it is randomness. These works pull together cultural artifacts that speak to a global situation. You can start drawing parallels between the people who live in Mozambique and those who live in Norway and how globalization affects the manner in which individuals drive their personal ambitions.
JL: There also seems to be a conversation between economy and foreign policy. This is something that appears in the works focusing on American currency, such as Money Talks (pp. 251–253), which presents a dialog between China and the US. How the two countries are interrelated. When you pick the currency that you work with do you take into consideration the relationships between these nations?
SM: I use currency from supposedly opposite economic systems so that we can look at them in relation to each other. There is a great deal of interdependency. That takes me back to what I was saying before about the randomness of things. Commentators and critics couldn’t foresee the extent of the 2008 financial situation. There are just so many different variables in any profession. And really, we just do not have any clue. You have to accept that you are going out there in your boat and you don’t know if there is a cool or a hot current under the ocean. If there are going to be fish or there are not going to be fish. You just have no clue. You might be the best fisherman, but there are always elements you cannot control.
JL: You began this series before the financial crash.
JL: Yet this body of work has almost become about the crash. Not through your own doing, but because viewers associate it with the aftermath of the 2008 crash. Your work has become part of this dialog about being out of control. It has become something other than your original intent. This is very much in line with your interest in randomness.
SM: It is a current I didn’t see coming. It probably has been good in the sense that it has become fuel for other works. When I start to get too comfortable I shift and go somewhere else to try something new. Mostly because I also find it boring to keep going around and around the same thing, trying to find the third variation of subjects. In this case the work took on a life of its own.
JL: What is the relationship between your involvement in the art market and the use of currency in your work? Right now so much interest in art comes from its being viewed as commodity rather than as cultural artifact. Do you see your work as being a commentary on this or in relation to this subject?
SM: I find it compelling to raise questions about this. I think both sides are very important and I do not think that it is simply about the right side or the wrong side. I am not talking about the extremes— those who think it is just about the market and those who see art only as cultural objects. When you are on the cultural side you do not see the struggle on the market side, and when you are on the market side you do not realize the struggle on the cultural side, so I do think there is a lot that needs to be done in regard to that. There needs to be more cohesiveness on both sides. It feels like the fight we used to have between photography and painting. In the end you find out that painters are using photography and photography feeds on the history of painting. You can use one thing or the other with very positive outcomes, but the fight really does not take you anywhere constructive.
JL: In your work, the number zero is repeated over and over again. What is its significance for you?
SM: It is the simplest symbol and we are surrounded by it all the time. It holds great power and meaning, but it also signifies nothing. Ok we are going there, we are doing all these things, we are driving the economy, we are trying to raise the living standards and then, so what? How different are the problems we have today from the problems that people in the Amazon jungle faced two hundred years ago? Where is it really that we are steering the ship? This zero is about adding something that appears to create a bigger sense of value. Zero in the ontology of value. It is the thing that says, “look in the mirror” and yet, there really is nothing there. You can get profound about it, but I wouldn’t want to dictate the way others read the work.
JL: All of your work allows for viewers to take different things away from it. You have spoken quite a bit about that openness and the stories people have told you about what they see in the work. Currency is full of personal relationships and that is something very important in the series.
SM: I think the best way to sum up the zero is when you look at Zephyrus (I & II) (pp. 94–97), the neon piece, and it sticks with you. You think, “wow.” We all have a magnet—that one thing that is really driving us. The zero is that.