A PERSONAL STANDARD, CAROLYN H. DRAKE 2016
For her solo exhibition at De Nederlandsche Bank, Sarah van Sonsbeeck was invited to pay a visit to the bank’s vault that stores the Dutch gold reserve. Fascinated by the main ingredient inside the vault and the fact that it remains hidden and secure from the public, she requested to make a mold of the standard gold bar as the departure point for a new series of works. Although the artist continues to further investigate gold’s formal and conceptual qualities through this act, her visit to the vault took an unexpected turn as her eye wandered from the shiny blocks to the shelves on which the bars were stored. Unlike the form of the standard 400 oz gold bar, the form of the shelves was context specific to the architecture of the building. Van Sonsbeeck therefore decided to reproduce the shelves according to the materials she found throughout the building making a direct reference to the particular context in which these universally standardized objects were located.
Almost exactly a century ago, Marcel Duchamp decided to turn a urinal on its side, place it on a pedestal, sign it with “R. Mutt 1917” and name it Fountain. This action proved to have an immense influence on artistic development and is impossible to dismiss when looking at art today. It changed the way we think about authorship and the hand of the artist. Taking the idea of the readymade gold bar as a basis for all of the works in the exhibition Van Sonsbeeck attempts to “translate” a standard form into new visual languages. The shape might change but in essence it remains the same thing, or does it? Melted gold bars populate the interior of the DNB exhibition space, puddles of gold sitting in different corners, some streaming down the stairs as if they were trying to escape the building. Their labeled identity has been evaporated during the melting – artistic – process, except for one bar that is still partly stamped with the name “Degussa”. It is the stamp in this puddle of gold that makes me think of R. Mutt and the artist’s hand. Essentially, the bar’s form is of the least value since it was merely created to have an efficient function, namely to be easily stored and transported. Art, however, is not produced for easy storage and transportation, even though the highly developed art market does provide an infrastructure for it.
By translating the shape of the standard gold bar, Van Sonsbeeck invites us to redefine its value from the commodity of gold to the commodity of art. It’s a continuing balancing act between intrinsic value and intellectual value. As Isabelle Graw discusses in High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture (2010), there is a difference between art and other commodities. Art is a special kind of commodity. Its market value is solely justified by its symbolic value. “The specific quality of its symbolic value lies in the fact that it expresses an intellectual surplus value generally attributed to art, an epistemological gain that cannot be smoothly translated into economic categories.” The intellectual surplus value of an artwork, associated with ideas, imagination, and perception is in turn linked to a personal value system constituted by the knowledge, interests, desires and memories of its buyer.
When looking at these works the viewer translates the value of the standard gold bar into something more personal that is simultaneously more and less valuable. We cannot use the puddle of gold to go out and buy ourselves a piece of real estate but perhaps it is much more enriching on another level. Its liquid form inspires us to consider flexibility in its meaning. Usually puddles are associated with negative connotations such as dirt, flooding, waste or an accident. In her earlier series Mistakes I’ve Made, Van Sonsbeeck gave new life to the gold waste that was created whilst gilding other works. She was interested in making something valuable again that was typically regarded as waste. With the puddles she takes this idea one step further by associating the form of a puddle with a valuable material such as gold. In doing so we are forced to question our personal value system that is comprised of both intrinsic and symbolic elements.
Van Sonsbeeck gives us a personal experience with art. Thus, the standard becomes personal and exemplified because it has been created from and for a particular space, namely De Nederlandsche Bank. Once these works leave this space they will always carry with them the aura and surroundings of the vault and the building. If you happen to become one of the lucky owners of a golden puddle please note that they won’t adhere directly to your new space, but the work will once again need to be translated into a new personal standard…