By Weston Pagano
Carlos Aires’ collaged dollar bills are simple: The Spanish artist carves political imagery into bank notes and frames them, making stark statements on war and poverty. But his X-Acto-knife creations are more than just razor-sharp but playful commentary: They underscore the need to tear down these injustices in a small but literal way.
As our country debated whether to keep slave owner Andrew Jackson on the face of the $20 bill or replace him with abolitionist Harriet Tubman and collectively hails the neoliberal wet dream of a superficially diverse musical based on Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill, the symbolic dogma of currency is undergoing a sort of renaissance, and Aires’ collection is all the more prescient for it.
Few are safe from Aires’ blade, as he’s positioned conservative English politician Boris Johnson into boxing the Queen on the £20 note and inserted coffins into Saddam Hussein’s papered gaze. But in his latest gallery showing “Acts Of Sedition: A Group Exhibition” in New York City’s WhiteBox gallery, the Spaniard skewers American hawkishness and economic disparity with a set of Washingtons embedded with, among other things, a flag-draped coffin with “IN GOD WE TRUST” floating just above the lid and a homeless citizen splayed out on a bench.
To have one’s likeness immortalized on U.S. currency, the subject has to be dead, thanks to a law passed in a post-Monarchal era wary of living leaders instating totalitarian rule. The former colonists thought this recognition was best served posthumously. Aires appropriately displays the image of a soldier killed in war, sent to die in a foreign land by a still-living president. The Founding Fathers may not have intended this, but it makes for great provocative art. Another depicts a barely living, destitute black man sleeping on a slab of granite. Just as our neoclassical monuments and congressional halls are built on these stone foundations, so too does the government and corporate industry thrive off the back of the lower class.
The fact that Aires manages to evoke so much by combining things we pass on the street with something we all have in our back pockets is a testament to his tact. And his own mint is a productive one: In addition to working with money from over 15 countries, he is also known for circular arrangements of other cutouts and collages, most notably 2012’s “Money Makes the World Go Round.”
At WhiteBox, Aires’ work joins a bed with barbed wire springs under a red neon light that read “El Enemigo Esta Dentro, Disparad Sobre Nosotros” (roughly, “The Enemy Is Within, Shoot Us”). Outside is a recreation of the N.A.A.C.P.’s “A Black Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” banner. In an era of increased social and political unrest heightened by an election cycle, America looks inward, predictably and repetitiously grappling with its internal demons of institutionalized racism, disastrous foreign policy, and a predatory financial system bolstered by political corruption. Aires similarly sets these problems within our own horcrux: cash.
They say 80-90% of our dollar bills contains traces of cocaine. While this is exaggerated by one bill contaminating many others via equipment or handlers, for every hyperbolic factoid passed along there are five more pieces of incriminating evidence conveniently overlooked: Over 50,000 U.S. troops have been killed or injured in war since 2001. As of 2015 there were over half a million more individuals without housing in this country. For a nation so fixated on profit at any expense, Aires does well to put the issues that need focus in the only place the powers that be would ever bother to look.