On May 19, just one day after a Japanese billionaire purchased a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting for a record $110.5 million at auction and a little over a week before President Trump officially announced plans that would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, among other cultural agencies, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) opened 99 Cents or Less, an exhibition that confronts the commodification of art and the value of objects, as well as the impact of free trade, manufacturing, and global consumerism on society.
The exhibition invites a diverse, multigenerational group of 99 American artists to make new work using items purchased for no more than $99 in one of the country's pervasive chain bargain stores. The show features big names including John Baldessari and Rob Pruitt working alongside emerging, lesser-known artists. Jens Hoffmann, the museum's Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Large, conceived of the idea.
"One main reference point for the exhibition is, of course, the 100th anniversary of Duchamp's readymade. Over the past century, Detroit has played a major part in the development of industrial mass production. I am interested in how that form of mass production has been exported to many countries around the word and what has happened to it. Now, we are looking at mass-produced items in 99 cent stores that are mostly coming from developing countries and are shipped halfway across the world," says Hoffmann. "The show is a critique of excess, but it also looks at the complicated system through which art institutions are funded in the United States."
Artists responded to the proposal with creativity, humor, compassion, and cynicism, including acts of charity or subversion. Michael Wang's contribution, PEPKO, is part of his series, Rivals, in which, the artist says, "finance becomes a medium itself." The artist uses funds from the sale of the artwork (consisting of a certificate, alongside a sculptural installation of Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke cans) to purchase equal shares of common stock in two rival companies, producing what he calls a "neutered gesture." For 99 Cents or Less, Wang explains, "I was thinking about the forces that construct the universe of consumer goods—the environment out of which the readymade emerges. I wanted my work to act directly with and within these corporate powers." The piece is for sale through the artist's gallery, but because it has not yet been sold, it remains incomplete.
Artist Hamilton Poe uses his $99 to purchase the sneakers off a store clerk's feet at D's Dollar Place on Detroit's west side, and then memorializes the moment by bronzing them like a doting parent might have bronzed a precious pair of baby shoes generations ago. The two men have since become friends. "I visit Mark every other week, and we share a pizza," Poe says. "At its core, my piece is about the tension between abstraction and the everyday." He adds, "You can't solve problems with art. It's the artist's job to imagine potential."
99 Cents or Less resonates in Detroit, especially upon the 50th anniversary of the city's 1967 rebellion, an uprising caused by class warfare and precipitated in part by American car manufacturer layoffs. The event led to violence and the looting and destruction of local retail stores, many operated by small business owners. This exhibition presents a daring, thoughtful and unconventional public discourse, which turns the "Dollar Daze" we're living in, also known as our 99 Cent Dreams or 99 Cent Dynasty, depending on your neighborhood, on its sinister head.
99 Cents or Less runs through August 6 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.