Justine Smith is a contemporary artist inspired by all the ways that money makes the world go round. Via collages, sculptures and prints that exploit the beautiful designs of banknotes, Smith explores the concept of money, the power it holds, the politics it controls, and how the amount we have in our pockets impacts almost all aspects of our lives.
We’re delighted to announce that a selection of Justine Smith’s art is now available at Enter Gallery. To celebrate, we’re chatting to Smith to discover more about her work, and what drew her to creating with currency.
Since moving from Devon to London to attend art school, Smith has found herself drawn to creating with paper, be that found paper, or pre-printed materials.
One of her first collections was a series of dog sculptures covered with pages from the Beano. When she spotted some old dollar bills lying around from a recent trip, Smith came up with the idea to cover her next sculpture with the bills. She reveals:
“I went and bought a load of dollars at the Post Office, because they were only about 50p at the time, so were a relatively cheap material. The comic dogs were very light-hearted and fun pieces, and I though the dollars would produce a similar effect, but as soon as I’d finished it, I immediately felt it had a power to it. I was surprised by that power, and by the fact that the political element of currency was so immediately obvious.”
Bills Bills Bills
While on a physical level a banknote is just a piece of paper, it’s what each note represents that’s central to Smith’s work. She explains:
“Money is an interesting material because it’s not a neutral piece of paper in the same way that a flier or an advert torn from a magazine is neutral. It’s history, culture, society. Money instantly sets off a series of thought processes in people when they look at it. It’s such a central part of our lives. We’re all working for it. We all need it. We can’t get by without it. It can be seen in a negative way or a positive way – it’s a very loaded material to work with.”
Next, Smith turned her focus to creating a series of world maps crafted from cash. Rather than political maps that show every country, Smith’s artworks are money maps, which chart the world via the currencies of a given country, or group of nations that share a single currency. She explains:
“All of the pieces in my series of world maps feature every official currency in the world. Even if it’s just a tiny pin sized island, the idea that every currency is included is absolutely fundamental to my World Map series. Why would I spend 10 months making a piece, only to leave one bank note off? It needs to be complete.”
As well as showing what currencies are used where, Smith’s maps also tell the observer a lot about the countries represented. Smith explains:
“You can get a real insight into each country by looking at their bank notes, the images they choose to include, or even the name of the currency. For instance, some of the developing countries showcase their agriculture. Ghana’s notes used to have someone harvesting cocoa pods because that was an important crop for them. Other countries choose to show more historical aspects, for instance the history of society or important political or cultural figures.”
Given how important money is to us all, and how much meaning can be inferred into each of Smith’s pieces, we were interested to discover what kinds of reactions her work has sparked, especially as part of the process involves cutting up viable currency.
“Some people do find defacing and destroying currency problematic, but because I’m often trying to make a wider point, more often people understand that. I’ve been commissioned to create works for the Royal Mint and the Bank of England, so while my work might be initially shocking, it’s not really defamatory. Instead, my intention is to give pause for thought.”
One series featured in the collection of Smith’s works that are available at Enter Gallery now focuses on weaponry. Smith explains:
“A lot of my pieces depicting grenades and weaponry were created around the time of the Arab Spring, when there was a revolution going on. The pieces explore state power and how that power is used for good or bad. With the Chinese grenades, I was looking at control and human rights. The USA pieces were a comment on America’s position as the world’s current superpower. It is the wealthiest economy on earth and its wealth is what makes it a superpower. There is a very distinct link between power and money and there always has been. That’s something I’m interested in in my work.”
“America is the definition of a capitalist economy. The whole American Dream is based on people going there as migrants to pursue this dream. It’s based on the idea of amazing freedom, but you’re also free to fail really badly. You can go from rags to riches, but you can also end up on the street with little to no help.
These pieces are designed to make you think about America and how it has used its might to enforce regime change. People used to say that America was the world’s policeman, and that they would defend the freedom of the people they supported. They helped the UK out in the second world war and they’re supporting Ukraine now. All of the conflicting beliefs about America are in these works, which are intended as a starting point to explore all of these topics.”
In the Money
Whether exploring Brexit and the idea of nostalgia in her Oldland Isles series, interpreting the big bang, or recreating flowers from currency, it’s clear that Smith finds cash a continually fascinating material to work with, and an effective way of inspiring every observer to make their individual associations right away.
One prime example of how Smith creates her work and infuses it with meaning is her series of flowers and weeds. Speaking of these nature pieces, Smith explains that:
“The bank notes often act as my colour palette, so if I’m looking for a particular colour, I’ll be looking for a banknote that gets me as close to the colour as possible. For my primrose piece, I use a 20 Swedish Kroner for the yellow, and some Ukrainian banknotes have lots of soft pinks, which are perfect for wild roses.
“I’m interested in the idea of Natural Capital – that all our wealth comes from the EarthI’ve created a lot of works of plants and weeds that you find growing wild. What I’ve found interesting about combining these weeds with international currency is the thought that weeds are tough plants that self-seed. They don’t need much cultivation. They blow in and put their roots down, and start making their own little environment. I think of the banknote as a symbol of the person who earnt that banknote. I used to have a studio on the edge of the City of London and it made me think about the cosmopolitan nature of cities and how people flock to them to seek their fortune. Using these international bank notes to make native plants creates a discussion around people coming in and using their industry to create their own environments.”