San Francisco

Ritsuko Taho

Capp St. Project

With a rare combination of humor and grace, Ritsuko Taho’s installation Dawn: Transformation of Zero, 1995, examined our complex relationship with money. For Taho, money represents more than the act of exchange or accumulation: it is also, metaphorically, a measure of time. Evoking a process of gradual refinement or winnowing out, two elegantly tiered platforms descended from two corners of the room toward opposite ends of a high table. The steps of one were covered with mounds of shredded currency; the other, with similar piles of crumbly brown topsoil. On the table, Taho had left instructions for making “money-balls”: fist-sized lumps of dirt were to be mixed with ground-up bills, sprinkled with water and grass seed, and then wrapped in a casing of aluminum foil. The final ingredient of these homely little spheres comprised a wish written on a small slip of paper by each visitor, to be slipped into the center of the muddy lump before twisting the edges of the foil closed.

On the opening night of the show, rows of these balls already lined simple shelves below the assembly area. Shortly before that evening, Taho had conducted workshops with employees from four institutions: two banks, Capp St. Project, and Greenpeace (the latter chosen, perhaps, as much for its name as for its altruistic program). During these workshops, participants were invited to voice their personal philosophies about money while they molded and mixed its remains with dirt and seeds. A short video tape of selected observations played continuously during the opening, as people eagerly lined up to make more balls. Once visitors had wished, scooped, mixed, and wrapped, they were invited to sign their names on the wall.

Within days, the appearance of the room had changed dramatically. After allowing enough time for the grass seed to germinate, Taho unwrapped the top half of each ball, then placed it on a large platform that ran the length of the windows lining one side of the space. Each cup of foil soon sprouted a head of soft, amazingly green grass, completing the fascinating transformation of legal tender into tender lawn. Visitors to the show continually added more balls, making it possible to observe each phase of this metamorphic cycle at any given moment.

The presence of so many dollar bills (some 1.8 million of them, to be more or less precise) was moving, but not necessarily in the way one might expect. Shredded with extreme thoroughness into fluffy piles of dusty, ink-scented powder, money became a visually compelling material whose interest, like that of Tony Cragg’s reclaimed bits of colored plastic or Wolfgang Laib’s pollens, lay in the odd tension between the use value of its original form and its reincarnation as an esthetic object. On the last part of the video, Taho herself carefully makes a ball. Over and over, the compressed time of the tape shows the complete cycle of transformation: the miracle of life, sprouting out of a lump of dead money. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Maria Porges