The National Bank of Belgium supports like a number of other companies and central banks contemporary artists. Since the acquired works are hung up on the walls of its premises, they are not usually seen by the public. From time to time a work is presented in a public hall, like the Museum of the NBB, where it can be admired by the public at large. In the room dedicated to money and imagination the work ‘Ya + d’arzent, ya + d’amou’ of the Belgian artist Johan Muyle found its destination.
Something more about the work
It is a modern and rather exotic version of the Vanity still life. This genre as well as the related Memento Mori paintings made its appearance in the Middle Ages and became particularly popular during the 17th century. But it is not a genre of the past. Also modern artists like e.g. Pablo Picasso, Sarah Lucas, Johan Muyle and many others got inspired by this theme. The basic Memento Mori-paintings can be easily recognized by recurrent images evoking the viewers mortality and the brevity and fragility of human life.
Symbols commonly found are skulls, hour glasses, guttering candles, flowers. In addition to these images of mortality Vanity paintings may include musical instruments, wine, books and mirrors as symbols of worldly pleasures and goods. Apart from a skull which has become a skeleton bust nothing of these images can be seen on Johan Muyle’s work ‘Ya + d’arzent, ya + d’amou’. And yet, it belongs to this time-honoured tradition.
The work of art, an offset print of 70 by 37 cm, is based on a Zairean banknote of 10 nouveaux zaïres bearing the portrait of president Mobutu Sese Seko (1965-1997). The traditional representations of worldly pleasures are replaced by two elements which open all doors to all joys of life, i.e. money and power. Love is reduced to sheer merchandise by the phrase “ya + d’arzent, ya + d’amou”. This expression has been added by an accidental (Zairean) user – or by the artist himself. The wording, simple though it looks like, is open to different and almost universal interpretations: more money, more love; more money but no love; no more money, no more love or no more money yet more love.
Too far-fetched? Probably, but it should not be forgotten that Johan Muyle is a pun-loving artist. Titles such as ‘Plus d’opium pour le peuple, (No) More opiate for the masses’ or ‘Sioux in Paradise’ (See you in Paradise) are only a few more examples of his word plays.
His work has also several layers. To get to the second layer the spectator has to participate, not as an onlooker but as an active participator of the work of art. He has to take part in the game set up by the artist. By pressing a button the image changes completely. President Mobutu and the banknote disappear behind the scenes whereas a skeleton wearing Mobutu’s military kepi and the brightly lit text are brought to the centre of attention. The looker-on is confronted with the idea that playing with emotions, money or power can be very risky. The spectator becomes a party to the work., by making it work, by unveiling a new layer. He participates intimately and in an essential way in the creative experience.
The artist refers in this work to main topics such as love and death, money and power combined with African drama. These themes are no gratuitous concepts, they are embedded in daily life and refer to the sometimes harsh reality Africans have to face: economic crisis, (hyper)inflation, aids, lust for power and money.
Africa is biotiful, 1999. Something more about the artist
Born in 1956 in Montignies-sur-Sambre (Charleroi), Johan Muyle is one of Belgium’s most famous artists abroad. He studied several artistic disciplines before settling down in Liège. His works mainly consist of compound objects and vast installations which evoke ironic situations or popular expressions that ridicule the complexity of modern society. Omnipresent in those situations and expressions are human relationships. From 1993 to 1995, Johan Muyle visited Kinshasa several times in order to meet and work with local artists (Chéri Samba amongst others) and gamins. The last few years the artist has favoured animated sculptures assembled from objects gleaned during his travels or on flea markets. Apparently at random he assembles objects, like the Dadaists or the surrealists, in order to create a new object, but one which is impregnated with the history of the things that went into making it. Muyle incorporates movement into his creations using ingenious motorisation systems like cogwheels, buttons, levers…. so the works can be brought to life (by the spectator).
Art and Money
Does ‘Ya + d’arzent, ya + d’amou’ break new grounds? No, quite a number of artists before Johan Muyle used banknotes and movement in their works. By the end of the 19th century e.g. American trompe-l’oeil artists began to focus on the subject of money. They were not interested in ready-mades but painted their own exact copies of paper currency. At the beginning of the 20th century modern artists adopted the collage as a technique but mainly pop artists with their liking for mass-produced visual commodities and artists who prefer to integrate ready-mades in their works (like Andy Warhol, Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Beuys a.o.) used banknotes as a basis of their creative work.
You want more?
In the neighbourhood of the Museum, at the Brussels’ North station bus terminal to be precise, Johan Muyle and the cream of Belgian artists give you a warm welcome. On the jumbo-sized colourful mural painting, ‘I promise you(re) a miracle’, you will certainly recognize famous persons with very different backgrounds, ranging from visual arts, theatre, film, music to fashion designers or extravagant hatters. Jan Fabre, Arno and Elvis Pompilio expect you to come along but who are the 40 other ones?
Ingrid Van Damme
- Les couleurs de l’argent, catalogue, Musée de la Poste, Paris, 1991.
- Geld und Wert / Das letzte Tabu, catalogue, Schweizerischen Nationalbank, Zürich, 2002.
- The Low Countries. Arts and Society in Flanders and the Netherlands, Ons Erfdeel vzw, Rekkem.
- Muyle J. & Vaneigem R., Plus d’opium pour le peuple
- Quand soufflent les vents du Sud. Aujourd’hui artistes de Wallonie, BBL, Liège, 1999.
- Szeeman H., “Money and value / The last taboo”, in Art&Fact, Art et Argent, nr. 21/2002.