An Interview with Santiago Montoya by Justine Ludwig

Santiago Montoya’s father was a fisherman. Montoya is a painter, sculptor, and installation artist, but when he discusses his artistic practice he often looks to his father’s profession for metaphors. This provides an apt connection as nautical vocabulary so neatly translates to Montoya’s latest theme, the discipline of economics—the flow of capital, the ebb of a currency’s primacy, riptides in the market. Indeed, there might be no better image for the way in which we are immersed in the financial markets than the ocean itself. His medium and subject of choice—paper currency culled from every corner of the world—also speak of history and globalization. Montoya’s The Great Swindle (2007–2014) offers an openness that invites the viewer to bring their own frame of reference to the works and read them in a multitude of different ways. This is an invitation to question precisely what is behind our blind trust in the value of legal tender.

The Great Swindle is a visualization of present cross-cultural financial and political interaction. These elements are closely connected as the circulation of capital has allowed for the global network that we now take for granted. Free markets, international economic dependency, and continuous negotiation of citizenry have come to define the way we understand the interplay of the local and the global. Montoya’s works tease out those global financial foundations, as they question the true value of national identity and financial security. In his “paintings” (collages might be the actual technical term for them), all currency is equalized through an uncoupling of space and time. Repetitiously placed neatly through slits cut in stainless steel, the individual history of each bill (when it was produced, where it has traveled, whose hands it has passed through) is wiped clean.

With something as fundamental as currency being the very material of his works, it is almost impossible to find someone these days who will not feel involved in Montoya’s oeuvre from the outset. As viewers we are implicated in it, as we are active participants in the exchange of capital on a daily basis. Even if we only use credit cards, we are (whether consensually or not) constitutive participants in the process that imbues these pieces of paper with a value far beyond that of its material elements. This leads inevitably to a personal intimacy in the work: there is a familiarity with the tactile qualities of Montoya’s medium, which makes it seductive by nature.

Montoya sees bills as “readymade works of art” in the spirit of Duchamp and the Dadaist movement, for they do not require alteration in order to be recast as art; simply a change in context is sufficient. The 2012 piece One Thousand and One (pp. 302–304) allows for the possibility of Montoya’s medium to return to its function as legal tender for the bills not fixed to the steel support.

This was the original manifestation of the work—allowing for the questioning of the tight interrelation of art and commodity. Other elements of Montoya’s oeuvre draw from Dadaist sentiment as presented in Hugo Ball’s 1916 “Dada Manifesto”. Ball describes the international nature of the Dada movement by describing the many translations inherent in its title. The final translation he supplies is the meaning of Dada in Romanian, “Yes, indeed, you are right, that’s it. But of course, yes, definitely, right.”1 These words seem to echo Montoya’s own as he validates the wide range of interpretations of his work. And like the term Dada itself, The Great Swindle offers a complex interconnected web of meaning that may be read in different manners internationally. Yet for all the myriad associations, Montoya’s oeuvre at the end of the day is about faith. Faith in the value of currency from around the globe, faith in the transcendent power of art—much like the faith of the fisherman who sets out to sea in the middle of the night believing there will be fish waiting in the ocean, ready to be caught.

''These bills that are so central to the everyday life of so many people are pieces of political propaganda''

— Santiago Montoya

Justine Ludwig:  What originally attracted you to the concept of using currency as a medium?

Santiago Montoya:  I chose to work with currency because, in a way, bills function as small paintings that dispense a message, whether that message be good or bad. These bills that are so central to the everyday life of so many people are pieces of political propaganda. My attraction to currency also comes from a desire to paint and my search for an alternative way of painting. Using currency allows me to address many different subjects that different people can relate to. Currency relates to my interest in universality because it is a type of information that all human beings, regardless of what they do or what they think about, have in common. It is a meeting point for all of us.

JL:  So is this part of an interest in the global and a desire to make something that is universally understood?

SM:  Yes. I think that is a big challenge, but I have set my goal from a very early stage in my artistic career to try and get away from what is expected. An example of this is the Latin American subject in contemporary art, which has been so redundant in referencing history, revolution, and dictatorship. I wanted to get away from these because they have been addressed so many times. It has almost become a cliché. Interest in many artists based in Latin America is dictated by their depiction of these subjects. These works all feel very politicized and I thought that was not interesting. I wanted to get out of the mold and get perspective—to find something more universal.

JL:  In The Great Swindle you chose to work with a subject matter that is endlessly rich. You have mentioned all the various perspectives one can have when looking at currency. I would like to talk about these different readings in more depth. Propaganda is one of the first things you brought up. You see this subject clearly manifest in the paintings where you take visual elements from the currency and enlarge them. In doing so, you bring attention to the scenes and the iconography that are part of these bills that individuals usually take for granted. I am curious about the scenes that you specifically chose to focus on within those paintings.

SM:  The less I have to modify the image, the better, because it is really about discovery. This is clear in one particular work, Worthy (pp. 120–121). It depicts Chinese people who have this calm in them, this thing that is unidentifiable. I could not figure out what it was that I was so drawn to in their expressions. It was a type of beauty, which is an element that I find to be validating. A visitor to the exhibition identified their expression for me: he said it was certainty. I am reading a really interesting book—Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.2 It says we cannot escape the randomness of existence, no matter how hard we try. No matter what school of thought you follow it is impossible to get away from the fact that shit happens and no matter what system we follow there is always an element left open to chance. No matter what path you choose there will be a point where it all falls apart—where all of a sudden it is a mess. Look at communism, it is a mess; capitalism, it is a mess. We try so hard to make things work and we keep messing things up and making bigger problems. This is the thing about propaganda. Looking back on world history sometimes makes it difficult to determine the best path forward. You see this debate in the US: should we cut taxes, should we raise taxes, should we do that, should we do this. No one knows. We have been going back and forth. It seems that we just have to accept that eventually everything is going to fall apart. There is no right way, is there? Propaganda tries to say that there is.

''Worthy'' (2012)

— Santiago Montoya

JL:  In your work you make us confront the problem of placing value on a piece of paper that can only be warranted through faith. Yet despite these negative messages humor is quite prevalent in your work. Do you use humor as a counterpoint to all these seemingly negative, almost fatalist messages that much of your work presents?

SM:  When I think of an artwork and I want to address a subject matter that is very serious and deep, I think humor is a way of saying it could go all wrong, expect the best, but get ready for the worst. I enjoy humor very much. However, all the works that employ humor are in fact not humorous at all. It is a way of setting the bait. My father had a fishing company so I am very attracted to thinking metaphorically about fishing. I want to make work that people without expertise in art can connect to. Some people might just get the first layer, but maybe that will be enough. If they want to learn more, then they can look deeper into the work, but you need to start with something that confronts the viewer immediately.

JL:  Do you see the use of text in some pieces, such as Go West (II) (pp. 206–207), as bait as well?

SM:  You might say it is an easy way to approach the viewer. It is very much like my relationship with painting. It is very difficult to come up with something new in painting, it is very difficult to use a cliché and actually get people to get over the title immediately. If you rely on the title to get people to think, “look how funny this guy is,” then you have nothing. It is a way of attracting people to the work, but it is only one layer. If you look back at the works I have done in the past they are mostly untitled. I am not looking to use clichés all the time for the sake of using them. In this case they fit within the context of the work. You have to use all the tools you have in hand to set up the hunt for the fish.

JL:  Some of your works read more as paintings. The Horizon series (pp. 308–329) really appears as paintings from a distance and in your studio space you have all the bills lined up by color as if they were part of a painting pallet. These pieces seem to function as a bridge between your paintings on canvas and the other works made out of currency.

SM:  Yes, I believe I was able to achieve something with that series. The work is something that stands on its own, but I do not want to undermine the other pieces in [The Great Swindle] that have their own messages and their own goals. These works have the ability to say many more things without having me present ideas directly. I think if I have been able to accomplish something, however big or small, the Horizon series has been it.

''I think if I have been able to accomplish something, however big or small, the Horizon series has been it.''

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.

SM:  Yes.

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.