Hady Sy’s latest solo show explored the absurdity of money as a conceptual force and the all-too-real evils that come with it

“Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today,” sang Pink Floyd in 1973. “But if you ask for a rise it’s no surprise that they’re giving none away.” Money – or the lack of it – is one of life’s primary concerns for all of us, and yet talking about it remains largely taboo. People have killed for it and died for it, and they say you can never have enough of it. But just like power, money corrupts. Multimedia artist Hady Sy’s most recent solo exhibition, Sifr (Zero), which ran from January 13 to February 11 at Saleh Barakat Gallery, tackled this dangerous, intoxicating, coveted force head-on.

A long time in the making, Sifr goes far beyond the mere concept of money, and what it doesn’t and doesn’t buy, to explore its influence on every sphere of our lives, from our conceptions of time, love and death, to the value we place on art.

“This project started in 2008, when I left New York to move to Berlin. It was the financial crisis and I said to myself, ‘What is the value of an artist?’” he recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘The artist does art, but who does the artist? Is it the journalist? Is it the gallery? Is it the collector or the market?’ I had this idea of begging for money and making a collage, to see if the collage would be worth more than the money that made it. But I was not allowed by the police. You’re not allowed to stick money, just like you’re not allowed to burn it, because it’s not yours.”

Eventually Sy came to the conclusion that the intrinsic value of the artist was zero, which led him to research the zero itself. “I started studying it and I thought, ‘What a great genius the human being is, and how absurd he is, that from nothing he makes everything. Between 10 and 100 and 1000 and one million there is nothing. It’s the zero that makes everything.’”

This period of reflection led to Sifr, multimedia exhibition in which almost all the works are created using dollars – but dollars with a difference. Rather than using legal tender, Sy decided to completely redesign the dollar, replacing the denomination with a zero. His intricate, hand-drawn banknotes show that even notes with a self-professed value of nothing can be worth the very currency they negate.

Sy’s clever, self-conscious artworks tackle one of the biggest issues of our age, at a time when money, long represented by worthless sheets of paper standing in for gold, is increasingly nothing more than numbers on a screen, a totally abstract concept that nevertheless dominates our lives and our relationships and determines our opportunities.

“The idea that money doesn’t bring happiness is totally false, but if you don’t have humanist values it becomes a cancer,” the artist says, and many of his works explore the darker side of money and the lust it inspires. From a tongue-in-cheek piece called “My Pants,” a photo of the artists’ paint-stained trousers with valueless money spewing from the pockets, to the grim brilliance of “Big Business,” a photo of a bullet-riddled wall with rolled up notes stuck into each bullet hole, invisible from the front but protruding eerily from the side, his work is powerful, provocative and thought-provoking.

By Irene McConnell