What would you do if you were given $80,000 in cash from a museum to make art? Make an elaborate room-sized, interactive installation? Sculpt a figure out of the most expensive marble available? Incorporate the cash into your art to make a statement about capitalism?
If you are Danish artist Jens Haaning, you send two blank frames to the museum and run away with the money. It’s a brash, but not totally unexpected move from an artist known for his critique of power structures. The Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark, lent Haaning 534,000 kroner ($84,000) to recreate his previous works for their current exhibition. Per a written agreement, Haaning was to use the money as part of his work that would reflect the average income of an Austrian and a Danish.
But instead of recreating the old artwork from 2007 and 2010, Haaning breached his written contract and delivered a “new” artwork, titled Take the Money and Run. Instead of banknotes lined up neatly in a row, nothing was installed within the frames Haaning delivered.
Haaning said he conceived of this artwork because of the remuneration the museum gave him for his inclusion in the show. According to the artist, he would have had to pay 25,000 kroner ($3,900) of his own money to fully realize the artwork, which goes against the point of the original work. “Why should we show a work that is about Denmark…11 years ago, or one that is about Austria’s relationship with a bank 14 years ago?” he said in an interview with P1 Morgen.
For now, the museum is going along with Haaning’s stunt and has the two blank frames shown in their exhibition, Work it Out, which displays works by artists about the role of artists in the larger labor market. But it’s fair to assume that the museum is not happy with this turn of events. “I absolutely want to give Jens the right [to say] that a new work has been created in its own right, which actually comments on the exhibition we have,” said Lasse Andersson, the Kunsten’s director, in that same radio interview. “But that is not the agreement we had.”
The museum will seek legal action against this breach of contract once the show ends. But this whole shenanigan does bring up several questions. Was Haaning within his rights to pull this? Is there a wrong or right side in this debacle? How should artists be compensated? What is the true value of art? And the most important of all, what is art? Whatever the answers to these questions are, the artwork certainly has done its job to make us ask all these questions.