The value of money depends on belief and consensus, and the history of paper currency is riddled with collapses in faith that led to dramatic devaluation. Take, for instance, the Ming Dynasty’s attempts to replace coins with bank notes, pieces of paper that pledged a fixed value, six centuries ago. When the state printed too much money, the link between actual value and promised value broke down. When the notes were worth only a sevientieth of their original promised value, paper currency was suspended in China and wouldn’t return for several centuries. The world would eventually embrace paper currency, but recent global crises of the financial kind suggest we still haven’t figured out a stable system.
One of the most famous chapters of post-war Japanese art is Genpei Akasegawa’s 1000-yen Note Incident. In 1963, the young han-geijutsu (‘Anti-Art’) artist had printed several hundred single-sided monochrome 1000-yen note semblances, mailing them in the post office’s cash envelopes as invitations to his exhibition of collage works in Tokyo. In the following months he made several thousand reproductions of the image, burning some of them in a performance and using others to wrap objects, like the bag pictured below. Nobody took much notice outside his own circle of artist friends.
The following year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police launched a criminal investigation on Akasegawa, referring to an old, vaguely termed law prohibiting manufacture of objects with an exterior that “may be confused with currency.” This led to a highly publicised and drawn-out trial at Tokyo District Court which raised more provocative questions and reached more people than Akasegawa’s art works could ever have managed to do without the state intervention.
The case (which has been recounted in recent years by Reiko Tomii and William Marotti) necessitated a close consideration of the boundaries of legality and of art. Backed by a group of like-minded artists and critics, Akasegawa stressed the blatant unusability of his notes, arguing that they weren’t counterfeit because they weren’t pretending to be real or true – they only referred to real and true money (albeit aiming thereby to disrupt its imagined reality and truth). The uselessness of the notes gave them their status as art objects, but the court’s response was that what he did may well have been ‘art’, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t criminal. After two appeals, the supreme court upheld the lower court’s indictment in 1970, activating the artist’s sentence of three months incarceration and one year probation.
An ironic side effect of the incident was that it cemented the otherwise barely noticed work in the public consciousness, and in art history. The event is remembered as a forensic interrogation of the nature of representation, replication, imitation and simulation – which, it turns out, are all quite different things. Akasegawa named his notes ‘models’ – they weren’t intended as currency but as images of currency, money abstracted from monetary value.
The aforementioned Ming Dynasty bank notes were printed with warnings that forgery was punishable by death. This serves today as a reminder that due to the huge gulf between the low material value of a piece of paper and the high promised value of the state-issued symbol, the risk of counterfeit has been a concomitant part of every paper currency. One of Akasegawa’s responses to the trial was to create the Greater Japan Zero-yen Note (1967) (above), which was ‘money’ that made explicitly clear the fact that it had no monetary value. People were invited to exchange three hundred real yen with him for an ‘original’ zero-yen note, his ambitious idea being that once he swapped it all, there would be no ‘real’ money issued by the state left in circulation.
A member of the avant-garde art collectives Neo Dada (initially Neo Dadaism Organisers) and Hi Red Centre, Akasegawa was associated with the radical han-geijutsu or ‘Anti-Art’ movement of the 1950s and 60s. In later years he would develop a theory of cho-geijutsu or ‘Hyper-Art’, which was less overtly political but would continue to seek intersections of the spaces of art and daily life, and interrogate notions of individual authorship and originality.
He also went on to be a prolific author under the pen name Katsuhiko Otsuji, and wrote the screenplay for the 1989 film Rikyū (by Hiroshi Teshigahara of Woman in the Dunes fame), which chronicles the life of the sixteenth century master of the Japanese tea ceremony. At one point in the film, Sen no Rikyū looks upon a statue made in his image and says, “I now see that I am little more than an effigy myself.” Here, the copy doesn’t reinforce the originality of the original – in Baudrillard’s terms, the copy suffices to “render both artificial.” This harks back to the institutionalised fear that abounds around semblances of money; mechanical reproductions of mechanical reproductions, they threaten to destabilise the consensual authority of money, and the precarious apparatus of faith required for homogenised symbolic value to function.
More on Genpei Akasegawa here.
Akasegawa, Genpei. Hyperart: Thomasson, Kaya Press, 2010
Tomii, Reiko. State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei and Company, Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, Volume 10, Number 1, Spring, 2002
Marotti, William A., Simulacra and subversion in the everyday: Akasegawa Genpei’s 1000-yen copy, critical art, and the State, Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2001