Unknown Pleasures

visuals  interview
Excerpt from "Overtime Work" exhibition catalogue, 2010.

...ED: Can you tell us a little bit about 10 dollar Hamilton portrait? What is the idea behind it?

AK: The 10 Dollar note has a particular feel to it because of its hue as well as the slightly modernist design. But I focused particularly on the portrait of Hamilton, a prominent figure and a hero of the American Revolution, but who is not as universally popular as a founding father as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. He was an early federalist/nationalist, controversial in his time for his proposals to institute a national bank and to raise a national army in the quasi-war with France. My first encounter with him took place in the context of popular culture, i.e. a mini-series in the US about the second US president, John Adams. A friend as well as opponent of Adams, Hamilton is depicted in the TV-series as an ambitious but fiery intellectual in a rather ugly personification.

ED: The images that you used in your work are from the movie titled ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (2002) Can you tell us a little bit about the movie and also its effect on your work?

AK: Before getting into the general story of "Unknown Pleasures", let me say something about the stills from the movie which I used in this piece. The central image, in my conception is the one in which the character exclaims "A damned American yuan", while looking at the dollar note. In the same shot we can see a TV set with the frozen image of people looking rather solemnly to the front, which by a nice coincidence looks as if they too were examining the dollar bill. There is a newscast being shown during this sequence of the movie. The topic is the religious sect of the Falung Gong, whose activities are suppressed and prosecuted by the authorities as they are deemed to be dangerous by/for the state authority.

What I don't show in these images is that the dollar note which they examine was folded into the cap of a bottle of liquor, which the mustached guy opens out and later the money gets spent on the services of a masseuse. Curiously I just remembered that my 10 dollar note, the "Hamilton" remained folded in a pocket where I store unused cards for over a year, together with a Washington (1 $) and a Lincoln (5 $). Then, a few weeks ago, out of a whim I took out the 10 dollars and started taking pictures of it, mainly because it was such a crisp and nicely hued beige piece of cotton. Like an expensive brown paper bag… And Hamilton, I have to say looks pretty handsome on it. So I put a cropped shot into a folder and later onto an online portfolio from which it transmuted into this exhibition piece, with the helpful hand of this show’s curator.

I juxtapose this little story from the Cannes-nominated film "Unknown Pleasures" by Jia Zhang-ke with Hamilton on the 10 dollar bill, rather than George Washington, the more famous first president of the United States, who figures on the 1 dollar bill. I consider George Washington to be a less interesting figure then the tropes that Hamilton points at - a strong state and a modern national economy. I guess that the leading caste of China i.e. the different cadres of the communist party, embrace theses same values that Hamilton exemplified in his time: Nationalism and dirigiste prosperity. While Mao remains the figurehead of the present regime, Maoism as an ideology does not longer operate as an ideological foundation for the real economy - capitalist China. The gap between communist state and capitalist society seems to be sustained by the explicit pragmatism of the rulers, flanked by nationalism and sometimes confucianism.

What was to become the American dream (or the myth thereof), i.e. the promise of a new beginning, a new chance for the prosecuted people of Europe (a white dream foremost) is one of a multitude possible perspectives that can define one's relationship to the American ideology, symbolized by the greenback. Another, for some regions a more obvious perspective, is the one exemplifying asymetrical power relations in the form of imperialism. This discourse is somewhat present in the context of "Unknown Pleasures". After all, the modernizing force of materialism and rationalization has been the more dominant trait of America, i.e. the 20th Century. Our heroes in the film exemplify a general malaise of the one-child generation that has grown up in these vastly transformative years of Chinese history. This being an underground film, not condoned by the official film studio system we see the losers in this transformational era rather than the winners. People out of jobs, hustling to get by, with their little joys and general alienation, tasting "unknown pleasures" and paying its price…

Showing a Chinese interacting with American money does have an ironic tinge to it which excited me in the first place. The movie takes place at the beginning of the millennium. The Nineties were not yet over as 9/11 hasn't happened yet. It was a time when relations between China and the US, in the context of globalization, was a dominant theme of the day. Terrorism replaced the topic for the remainder of the Naughties and even after the Great Recession of 2009, Islam and the so called Clash of Civilizations continue to marginalize the topic of the economic transformations of our age. For me this is a sign for the bizarreness, the queerness of the world we live in. In my opinion terrorism has ultimately less impact on our lives then the transmutations that Chinese, American and other economies go through. But of course, manifest violence make more headlines then the trade deficit of the United States and the great morphing that so many societies, including the Turkish, Iranian, Korean etc. go through, on the path of their own modernity, materialism and maybe prosperity.