Tender Minded

Artist J.S.G. Boggs hand-draws depictions of U.S. banknotes and exchanges them for goods and services — he’ll trade a drawing of a $100 bill for $100 worth of goods. The drawings are one-sided, and the patrons understand that they’re not actual currency; they’re choosing to trade goods for artwork rather than for money.

Is this counterfeiting? Well, what is money? A $100 bill is valuable only because we all agree that it is — it’s an arbitrary social convention. If someone can create an alternative that people value equally, shouldn’t he be free to trade it in the same fashion, if all parties are informed?

“It’s all an act of faith,” Boggs says. “Nobody knows what a dollar is, what the word means, what holds the thing up, what it stands for. … That’s … what my work is about.”

Great Minds

boullee newton cenotaph

In 1784, French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée proposed building an enormous cenotaph for Isaac Newton, a cypress-fringed globe 500 feet high. A sarcophagus would rest on a raised catafalque at the bottom of the sphere; by day light would enter through holes pierced in the globe, simulating starlight, and at night a lamp hung in the center would represent the sun.

“I want to situate Newton in the sky,” Boullée wrote. “Sublime mind! Vast and profound genius! Divine being! Newton! Accept the homage of my weak talents. … O Newton! … I conceive the idea of surrounding thee with thy discovery, and thus, somehow, surrounding thee with thyself.”

As far as I can tell, this is unrelated to Thomas Steele’s proposal to enshrine Newton’s house under a stone globe, which came 41 years later. Apparently Newton just inspired globes.

Language Arts


Johann David Steingruber fulfilled his literary ambitions on a drafting table — his Architectural Alphabet (1773) renders each letter of the alphabet as the floor plan of a palace.

Antonio Basoli’s Alfabeto Pittorico (1839) presents the letters as architectural drawings:

Perhaps next we can actually build them.


As a boy in Romania, György Ligeti had been enchanted with the story about a widow who lives in a house full of clocks. “Nobody comes, maybe for a hundred years,” he said. “Nothing happens. So there is a combination of movement, which is machine-like, and absolutely nothing … a timelessness … no beginning and no end.”

When he became a composer, Ligeti set out to capture this feeling with Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes. At a conductor’s signal, each of 10 players winds up 10 metronomes; after an interval, the conductor gives a second signal, at which the players set the metronomes running, each at a unique tempo, and the performers leave the stage.

As soon as some of the metronomes have run down, changing rhythmic patterns emerge, depending on the density of the ticking, until, at the end, there is only one, slowly ticking metronome left, whose rhythm is then regular. The homogeneous disorder of the beginning is called ‘maximal entropy’ in the jargon of information theory (and in thermodynamics). The irregular grid structures gradually emerge, and the entropy is reduced since previously unpredictable ordered patterns grow out of the opening uniformity. When only a single metronome is left ticking in a completely predictable manner, then the entropy is maximal again — or so the theory goes.

All this went right over the heads of the Holland audience for whom the piece debuted in 1963. “The last tick of the last metronome was followed by an oppressive silence,” Ligeti remembered. “Then there were menacing cries of protest,” and a planned television performance was canceled. Undaunted, Ligeti later altered the performance so that the metronomes were already running when the audience entered the concert hall, “so that the piece truly runs like a machine: metronomes and audience are confronted with each other without any human mediation.” “Radicalism and petit-bourgeois attitudes are not so far from one another,” he wrote. “Both wear the blinkers of the narrow-minded.”



Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman set a 26-meter inflatable rubber duck floating around the world in 2007. So far it has visited Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, Belgium, France, New Zealand, and Brazil, and it will eventually reach the United States.

“It brings joy, obviously,” Hofman told ABC News. “It brings people together. We are living on a planet, we are one family, and the global waters are our bathtub.”

Saber Rattling

This musical map, by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto, presents all 2,053 nuclear tests and explosions that took place between 1945 and 1998, at a rate of one month per second. Each nation is represented by a different tone.

Hashimoto said, “I created this work for the means of an interface to the people who are yet to know of the extremely grave but present problem of the world.”

He undertook the work in 2003, so it doesn’t reflect North Korea’s tests in 2006 and 2009.

(Thanks, Larry.)



There’s a museum on the moon. As Apollo 12 prepared to depart in 1969, New York sculptor Forrest Myers commissioned drawings from six prominent artists and had them engraved on a ceramic wafer, then arranged for a Grumman engineer to smuggle it onto the lunar lander.

Two days before launch he received a telegram confirming that the engineer had been successful. If he was, then the tiny museum is still up there, bearing drawings by Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, Forrest Myers, and Andy Warhol. Perhaps they’ll attract some patrons.

Trojan Horse

In 1933 sculptor John Skeaping carved a horse of mahogany and pynkado and sent it to be displayed in Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire. “Perhaps I ought to tell you that I have concealed something in the belly of my horse,” he told the Daily Mail. “It is a little bundle of papers containing my private and personal views and opinions about my contemporary artists and their work! … Posterity (if my horse survives) may get some fun out of what I have written. I hope it will, at any rate!”

Skeaping died in 1980. In 1991, conservation workers at the Tate Gallery found a folded document inside the horse:

This is practically my only opportunity of
Saying exactly what I think about
In truth I am only interested in
myself and my own pleasure. I think that almost everyone I know
in the artistic world are just one mass
of stupidity
Henry Moore is a good
sculptor in a very limited way.
Barbara Hepworth has hardly got an
original idea in her head.
There are no other sculptors except
J. Epstein is one of the best artists
that we have
_____ Cedric Morris is one of the
_____ painters
__ and _____ ____ people I am ______.

The missing sections had faded or been eaten by insects. “I found this concealed artefact strangely moving,” wrote poet Paul Farley. “It was as if the art object, built from sound materials and designed to endure, had admitted something very human and very fragile.”


Image: Wikipedia

Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 conceptual artwork An Oak Tree presents a glass of water with a plaque explaining that it’s a tree — not symbolically but literally: “The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.”

This is a comment on transubstantiation and, by extension, on the patron’s faith in an artist’s presentation of his work, but it backfired: When the National Gallery of Australia bought the piece in 1977, customs officials barred it as “vegetation.”

Corporal Violet

canu - corporal violet

When Napoleon left France for Elba, his supporters wore violets as a secret sign of their allegiance. This 1815 colour print by Jean-Dominique Etienne Canu, Le Secret du Caporal La Violette, conceals images of the exiled emperor, his wife, and his son. Where are they?