“Each burns for gold, All turns on gold. Alas for us! Poor creatures!”1 These famous words spoken by Margarete in Goethe’s Faust, as she unexpectedly discovers a casket of precious jewels in her chamber, fittingly describes the profoundly ambivalent relationship man has with gold. Countless legends and tragedies revolve around it, since gold stands for material wealth, for beauty and luxury, but also for security and the hope for a better life. From the appeal of its shine and its preciousness stems a desire to own it and to hoard it. We refer to this desire literally as a goldrush or gold fever, for which treasure-hunters will risk everything to this day.
A treasure hunt in the museum
Somewhat less existentially, but nevertheless with links to the aforementioned connotations, in his installation “Golden Ghost (Welcome Back The Spirits)” the artist Surasi Kusolwong presents a quest for gold in the museum space. To this end, he created a space-consuming installation that initially consists of a huge mountain of piled-up industrial yarn remnants, as well as a large, right-angled wall mirror on which the title of the work is written in large letters. Anyone who is not yet familiar with the work will first observe other visitors routing through the yarn remnants looking for something. Climbing through and touching the colorful tangle of threads is clearly permitted.
Anyone who is not yet familiar with the work will first observe other visitors routing through the yarn remnants looking for something.
Those who seek further information will then discover that these people are on a treasure hunt, because amongst the yarn remnants, so the communication goes, the artist has hidden gold chains he has made. As a new arrival you are then confronted with a number of questions: Should I also join this search and thus succumb to the lure of the gold? Or perhaps it would be better simply to observe the scene from the outside? But what if it’s me of all people who makes the find of my life? Or is there perhaps nothing to find at all anyway? Do I want to take on the frustration of a fruitless search for the proverbial needle in a haystack? Or is the whole thing just a big scam – the title “Golden Ghost” does, at the very least, raise doubts?!
Surasi Kusolwong, who lives and works in Bangkok, is an important representative of relational art. In his interactive installations he repeatedly examines consumer culture and the interweaving of life, economy and art. Here it’s always about the participation of the recipients. Often they are entangled in various relationships of the market and exchange, which the artist stages spectacularly in the museum space. For “One Pound Turbo Market (You’ll have a good time)”, for example, which he exhibited in 2006 at the Tate Modern in London, he transformed the huge Turbine Hall into a “pound shop”, flogging colorful, cheap products for one pound each. Here, the visitors were able to give free rein to their consumer cravings, even in the environment of the museum.
The meaning to be attributed to this reconversion of the museum space remains open to the public’s interpretation. In this and other works, Kusolwong frequently uses industrial products, everyday items made of plastic and other cheap materials, which he gathers in bulk. The accumulations of materials testify to absolute excess and, alongside a not insignificant curiosity, also raise questions about our contemporary consumer culture: Who needs all that? Who produced it and where? And what happens to it when it is not needed (any more)? These questions then automatically determine the reactions of the recipients, who inevitably become part of the artwork, regardless of whether they are participating or simply watching.
Golden Ghost: just an enormous playground?
The “Golden Ghost” installation is similar, as it initially appears like an enormous playground. Actually for many people it is primarily in the joy of the search and the game that the pleasure of the staged treasure hunt lies. This is the impression you get, at least, from the blogs and Instagram accounts in which countless visitors have posted, with pictures aplenty, about their experiences of the installation in previous exhibitions. The playful approach to the work incorporates not only the search, but also the touching and experiencing of the unfamiliar environment, the frolicking in the tangle of cotton fibers, the immersion, burying and then excavating of oneself and others. Yet the work – the mirror may make this more than evident – also has a thoroughly critical dimension. A mirror is literally held up to the seekers.
First, the question is raised of how such masses of yarn remnants come about; after all, before yarn became an industrial waste product, it had value, the cotton was plucked, died and spun by many hands, and then clearly never actually used. The routing for treasures in this industrial waste may also prompt associations with images of people whose desperate situation means they are forced to search through heaps of rubbish for food or usable goods. The search for gold could also be interpreted as an allegory of modern capitalism and a pioneering spirit of curious speculators taken to the point of absurdity. Or is it not rather, in the positive sense, about a search for enlightenment, since gold also stands for purity and light? A comparison with other works by the artist reveals that it is precisely this fluctuation between playground, criticism and enlightenment that runs through his work like a common thread.
Or is it not rather about a search for enlightenment, since gold also stands for purity and light?
Although “Golden Ghost”, unlike many works by Kusolwong, does not represent a market in the conventional sense, the artist nevertheless entraps his audience in a kind of bartering relationship. Anyone who finds a gold chain is allowed to keep it as a gift. But first the seeker must invest energy, so their participation in the artwork is the reciprocal gift to the artist, on which the success of his works depends. The incentive to participate is enhanced a great deal by the gold here; after all, how else would one draw well-off exhibition visitors out of their reserve but with the kindling of their desire for a moment of happiness, for the discovery of gold? This desire, this state of excitation of the human psyche – if we are to believe Jacques Lacan and other theorists who have examined this basic human drive – represents even a basic prerequisite for every form of human interaction. The invisible driving force of desire is made visible through Kusolwong’s work, with all its positive as well as negative effects. “Each burns for gold, All turns on gold.”
Lisa Beisswanger is an art historian and teaches at Justus Liebig University Giessen. She is currently writing her doctoral thesis on the topic of performative art forms in museum contexts.