PARIS — How best to visually portray confidential globalized money transactions when they are an obscured and dematerialized phenomenon? Responding to this question through the use of ineffectual capture technology is Italian artists Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s Les Paradis, rapport annuel (or “The Heavens, Annual Report”), a superficial photographic culture jam developed undercover in tony offshore tax havens. This whistle-blow show, which premiered in 2015 at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, is now at Centre Assas in the law school Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas, where it has been augmented with two roundtables on the subject of tax evasion and supplimental materials.
Through the diversity of photo locations featured in their project, Woods and Galimberti make the judicious point that tax havens are not tropical eccentricities, but rather structural instruments of the globalized economy. Enormous amounts of money are continuously placed offshore by very wealthy individuals and by companies that use these very low-tax jurisdictions (often legally) in order to reduce their taxes, thus retaining resources that countries could devote to education, health, public art, and the safety of their citizens.
My own reading of the 1%’s world of tax evasion in connection to the secondary art market suggests that hush-hush havens and brassy, big-name art objects work together to dominate the underprivileged in a melding scheme that blends money-as-data with art-as-data. This data ploy is now a salient feature of our time in that much blue chip modern and contemporary art functions as market-transcendent coinage, turning art into a vessel for storing wealth. This became glaringly obvious on September 15, 2008, the day of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when Damien Hirst sold over £60 million worth of his art in an auction at Sotheby’s that would total £111 million over two days. In conjunction with such demonstrated secondary art market stability, leaked tax haven data — like the Panama Papers, Swiss Leaks, and Lux Leaks — have become unavoidable themes of political and cultural deliberation. The relevance for art could not be more serious, as more and more big-name art functions perversely as a wealth investment hedge while the rest of artistic production goes largely ignored by collectors bidding up the secondary auction market.
One of the best photographs in Les Paradis is of Tony Reynard and Christian Pauli looking at each other in one of the high-security vaults of the Singapore Freeport. Reynard is the Chairman of the Singapore Freeport and Pauli is the General Manger of Fine Art Logistics NLC. The Singapore Freeport, which was designed, engineered, and financed by a team of Swiss businessmen, is one of the world’s maximum-security vaults where billions of dollars in art, gold, and cash are stashed away. Located just off the runway of Singapore’s airport, the Freeport is a fiscal no-man’s land where parsimonious individuals and creepy companies can confidentially collect valuables out of reach of the taxman. But this phenomenon, indicating that many are investing their wealth in visual art they rarely see, is spread widely around the world. Freeports have been established everywhere from Luxembourg and Geneva to Beijing, Hong Kong, Delaware, and soon will be in New York.
Woods and Galimberti took notice of these greasy and greedy trends and, after being galvanized by poor Haiti’s juxtaposition alongside the neighboring tax haven of the Cayman Islands (the fifth largest financial center in the world), embarked on this three-year, Yes Men-like project to expose tax avoidance among the extremely wealthy. They started by setting up a shell company called The Heavens LLC and headquartered in Delaware (a state where, for $700 and without any documents, a company can be created in less than 20 minutes) at the same address as offices of Apple, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Google, Walmart, and 285,000 other companies. The show’s title refers to the annual reports of tax havens and corporations that set up systems of what those in the world of finance call “tax optimization.”
The same week I visited Les Paradis, rapport annuel, I saw Raoul Peck’s artistically bold and socially important documentary on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. Peck’s film and Les Paradis, when considered together, raise some conspicuous considerations. Peck brilliantly and emotionally cross-wove historical threads of poverty and racism with current events of black oppression, while Woods and Galimberti interject no historical context into their contemporary scenes of white-collar (and mostly white) conquest.
The duo went straight to the Cayman Islands to study tax shelters and realized there was nothing to photograph and no historical records to explore. There was no money (or no concrete traces of it) to be seen. So they crept on, traveling to 12 different countries on four continents to capture the cultural and geographical aspects of this opaque phenomenon. The best they could do to depict the dematerialized global network of capital is take photos like the one of a man floating in the 57th-floor swimming pool of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore’s financial district. There is a similar shot of another premium floater on the 66th floor of the Trump Ocean Club in Panama City; the view here is over-the-shoulder and down on a great number of dark, empty apartments, the results of a real estate bubble driven by drug money from Colombia and Venezuela laundered through property in Panama. Such luxury pool shots must stand in for the fact that most of the things that happen in these places are virtual and consequently hidden (so to speak) in computer hard drives and fiber optic cables. Tax havens are mostly places where companies receive email and mail. Unlike Peck’s much richer revelation through the words of Baldwin, Woods and Galimberti are only able to expose the face of places and actors currently profiting from or governing this connected system from which hundreds of multinationals benefit by shirking their social responsibility. It occurred to me that Mark Lombari’s conspiracy flow chart drawings do a better job of mapping and conveying invisible structures than current-event capture technology can muster.
Faced with the impossibility of depicting financial transactions, Woods and Galimberti fell back on four types of photos: clichéd metaphors; aggrandizing portraits; architectural documents; and poignant, prosaic photos of tax havens’ coercive consequences on people — the inequality and exploitation rendered on the backs of the poor. In most of these images, the eye glides over the slickest of surfaces: computers, banks, storage buildings, and glassy offices — as in “The lobby of Ernst & Young’s headquarters in London” (2015). There are several portraits of rich people with their expensive toys in their colorful landscapes with amazing views. These infuriatingly aloof images exhaust themselves in that’s-just-how-it-is closure — they are “money porn” shots, if you will, of the 1% fucking the poor.
Happily, the installation supplements these depraved images with educational interviews on two video monitors and other informative texts by journalists and economists that expound on the magnitude of this phenomenon. The installation also features pungent quotes, like one from Warren Buffett — “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning” — that floats in gold above a photo of a large oil painting of billionaire Andreas Ugland and his family that hangs at the entrance of Ugland’s Cayman Motor Museum (an institution that houses his collection of Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and vintage motorbikes). At the center of the painting is the banal-looking Ugland House office building, where more than 19,000 companies are registered to facilitate tax avoidance. Just right of the Ugland image is a photograph of Nicole, a 34-year-old sex worker in Singapore who looks at us through the reflection in the darkened glass of a window. This juxtaposition of have and have-not images strengthens both singular images and allows a connective thread to be drawn between cause and effect.
In most of these images, Woods and Galimberti purposefully used the same type of visual codes that companies use in their communications, making photographs in the arcane photographic style of corporate self-promotion, which looks like advertising than art. Consequently, the status of these images is ambiguous — too ambiguous. All of the project’s faux-corporate images would have been greatly strengthened by being placed in direct diptych relationships with the photos showing the consequences of extreme global wealth inequality, like the image of poor 48-year-old Lam Po sitting in the tiny cage of an apartment he rents in Hong Kong.
Still, this is a revealing visual voyage that reminds us that tax havens are partially responsible for the growing inequalities in the world. Like slavery in centuries past, these money havens are not eccentricities but structural instruments of the capitalist global economy. Without pretending to deliver unambiguous solutions or to judge complex realities, Les Paradis offers those who wish it the opportunity to understand the deep structure of the time in which we live.
The exhibition may be aesthetically unsatisfactory, but it is a great pretext to talk about the world and the art world around us. Indeed, Les Paradis energizes art with confrontational juices, enriching it as a form of political discourse by provoking debate about photographic realism in our time of digital post-photography — a phenomenon perhaps best explained in Fred Ritchin’s book After Photography. In it, Ritchin offers an account of the dizzying impact of the digital revolution on the trajectory of the photographic image that changes the world in the very act of observing it. The myth of photographic objectivity has concealed fakery since the medium’s inception, but Ritchin stresses how digital media offer an appropriative and hyper-textual approach to photography that reinvents the authorial image into an evolving investigation among an infinite number of people. In a world where “the image” plays a central role, Les Paradis shows how difficult it is to see and investigate morally tilted systems. As such, the show reminded me of what Ursula Meyer proposed in her Conceptual Art anthology from 1972: “Art is not in the objects, but in the artist’s conception of art to which the objects are subordinated.”
Les Paradis suggests to me that framed photographic prints (such as these) and other art objects, when treated as a wealth repository and as stored financial data for high-end investment, lack the basic definition of art. All art-star images and objects in hermetically temperature controlled dark rooms are temporarily too philosophically and conceptually weak to remain art by Meyer’s standard. Perhaps these hoarded commodities merit the name “investment objects,” but such cultural artifacts, particularly when used to dodge taxation or to store and launder money, are the opposite of art: they are frozen limbo corpses caught up in the machine of the artless global economy, disconnected from the subjectivity of people at large. But Les Paradis isn’t only about art as frozen asset class. It is about the larger system of global capital dissimulation that abuses the moral responsibility of art through another form of de-materialization — the invisible, international flow of capital that still photography cannot capture. And that lack underlines a fundamental moral problem for art: the relationship between public and private, between the rich and the poor.
Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s Les Paradis, rapport annuel continues at the Centre Assas at the Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas (92 rue d’Assas, 5th arrondissement, Paris, France) through April 21.