Capital, they say, is as shy as a deer. For wherever money is concerned, the animal spirit reigns. Metaphorically but also literally. In front of Wall Street stands a bull; in fairy tales, the ass shits ducats and the goose lays golden eggs. An immoderate man is generally represented by a wolf, as, for example, in a famous mosaic in Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon; in Swabia, a miser is sometimes called a “duck squeezer.”
Whereas animals in the allegorical repertoire of the economy are usually symbols of the irrational or the extreme, money also has a symbolic dimension of the animalistic that is, by contrast, supposed to promise confidence and stability. On the one hand, for example, several currencies are named after animals. The Moldovan leu and the Bulgarian lev both derive from “lion.” The Guatemalan quetzal is based on the tropical bird of that name; the Croatian kuna—literally, “marten”—refers in turn to the medieval fur trade.On the other hand, there are also supposed to vouch for this not only with their names but also with their faces. That is true of the dog, for example.
For example, in 1869 the Argentinian Banco Oxandaburu y Garbino, a private bank on the border to Uruguay, issued a four-real note decorated with a portrait of a bloodhound.(1) This image of the faithfully gazing bloodhound, derived from the English animal and landscape painter Edwin Landseer, was supposed to fulfill a specific purpose in times of economic unrest: establishing confidence. The South American country was, namely, once again experiencing a serious economic crisis, so that they wanted to prevent further decline in trust in its currency by symbolically evoking man’s best friend.
Something very similar was done in Oldenburg, in 1921, in the middle of Germany’s inflationary period. Emergency money was issued to bridge a shortage of coins. The fifty-pfennig note was illustrated with a seeing-eye dog leading its master through the jungle of the cities. On the bottom of the banknote it read: “A guide to working for one’s daily bread.”(2) Although this refers primarily to the historical fact that many soldiers were blind when they returned from the front in World War I, this inscription can of course also be read on a higher level: the dog trust not only the blind man but also money itself.
Inflationary money plays a central role in Lena Inken Schaefer’s works 50'000, Stabsichelbogen (Bar Crescent Arc), and Erdkarussell (Earth Carousel). At the same time, as we will see later, the dog is also notably significant. The common point of departure for all these works is a German 50,000 mark banknote from the inflationary period whose ornamental decoration then takes on a life of its own in various ways. This in turn means that each of these works raises in its own way the question of the essential core of money.
If the economy is to grow, money must flow. And to that end, symbols—banknotes and coins—have to circulate. Nonstop. For where credit squeezes arise and a chronic shortage of symbols reigns, only the state and the central bank can keep the supply flowing as necessary. If, however, the circulation of symbols escalates, more fateful circumstances threaten. In the worst case, inflation begins to run rampant, as they say. If symbols begin to increase explosively and exponentially, namely, usually not only banknotes but also social contracts will lose value. In Germany, especially, the iconographic images of the period of hyperinflation are part of the collective memory, as are the photographs that dramatically illustrate how the contents of a wallet can suddenly swell to the size of a wheelbarrow, and even stir up financial and sociopolitical fears. Accordingly, money always moves along the paths of economic circulation with a peculiar tension: on the one hand, it has to flow as quickly and much as possible; on the other hand, it cannot get out of control.
Lena Inken Schaefer’s drawing 50'000 captures both these aspects in an uncommonly coherent but precisely for that reason vexing simultaneity. Schaefer reproduced the centimeter-wide pattern of the banknote from 1923, which consists of bars, crescents, arcs, circles, and drops, multiple times at a length of six meters. Something paradoxical occurs when looking at the drawing. For this propagation of the ornamental in space looks like, in its spacious expansion, well-ordered transgressions of boundaries, like meditative metastases of the symbolic. It seems as if it could scarcely be determined whether the ornaments are spreading with well-meaning regularity or infectious aggressiveness. Especially since this conflicting impression is heightened by the fact that the panel that serves as the support evokes associations with both a sacrificial altar and a dissecting table. Hence this level is likewise dominated by a certain simultaneity of competing meanings. The precise harmony of scientific operations contrasts with the ecstatic devotion to religious rites.
Whereas the detail of the pattern on the banknote in 50'000 is revealed in a form that is both enlarged and multiplied, in Stabsichelbogen it is demonstrated in a literally de-constructed form, as a collection of individual parts. The bars, crescents, and arcs that previously formed an ornamental whole now appear as the autonomous figures of a mobile. If we watch how its shadowless silhouettes cautiously circle one another, Stabsichelbogen produces at first glance an almost sedating feeling of steady circulations. On closer inspection, however, that changes. With their rotating movement, namely, the individual forms establish constantly fleeting connections that quickly disappear again. A certain symbolic chaos dominates—at least when the latter is taken literally. Etymologically, “chaos” means “gaping space.” There is, moreover, another “disturbing” aspect in the work: on closer inspection, the figures of the mobile do not rotate consistently but are rather occasionally subject to vibrations of varying force. It seems as if they are caught up in sudden gusts of wind now and then. And this in turn permits the associative cross-reference to inflation, since the word derives, after all, from the Latin verb inflare, meaning “blow into,” “blow up,” or “swell up.” Hence a certain simultaneity of contradictions figures in Stabsichelbogen as well. On the one hand, the mobile seems like a balanced construction; on the other hand, the free-floating symbols, vexed now and then by the wind, also refer to the precarious existence of symbolic orders.
Whereas the pattern from the 50,000 mark note in Stabsichelbogen looks de-constructed, the slide projection Erdkarussell takes it another step in this respect. The ornamental patterns of the banknote are presented not individually but rather recomposed into new figures. In this series of eighty drawings, there are seeds, flowers, tools, antlers, horns, bones, eggs, and—a dog. The ornamentation of the paper money, disassembled into its component parts and then recombined, thus suddenly appear in premonetary contexts, since tools, seeds, and eggs were all used in bartering.
For example, just as the name of the Croatian kuna reflects its origins in the fur trade, Lena Inken Schaefer is able to present the 50,000 mark note in Erdkarussell as an ornamental archive of its own (pre)history. Coming to terms with the patterns on paper money exposes their premonetary origins. This is demonstrated in part by the fact that Schaefer produced the drawings in an explicitly handmade process. First, the thirty-three individual mobile figures of Stabsichelbogen were cut out of steel, each of them in two sizes, and then used as stencils for the drawings in Erdkarussell.
The fact that a dog also appears in this series of drawings makes, whether consciously or unconsciously, a particular intricate point. If we keep in mind the examples of the dog as an allegorical protector of trust discussed at the beginning of the essay, it is striking that all three of Schaefer’s works are linked together by the dog in a certain way. Exaggerating somewhat, one could say the dog forms a kind of hermeneutic hinge between 50'000, Stabsichelbogen, and Erdkarussell. On the one hand, it is part of the circle of associations with premonetary meanings; on the other hand, it also functions as a symbol of trust. Thus it not only points to the prehistory of money but also testifies exemplarily to the both symbolic and literal attempt to get the escalated (money) symbols under control again.
Notes1 Franz Stocker, “Als die Notenbanker auf den Hund kamen,” Die Welt, August 22, 2014, http://www.welt.de/finanzen/article131481615/Als-die-Notenbanker-auf-den-Hund-kamen.html.2 Ibid.
Translation: Steven Lindberg