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Alan Smith, '£1512', Ceramic Workshop Edinburgh, 1977

In Ikon’s challenging Tower Room space, Alan Smith’s mythical ‘£1512’ 1977 radiates trouble, like an apparition locked away for its own good. The piece does not actually have a relationship to money in any real sense; its monetary value is nobtainable, a mirage.

The work has an undeniable claim as a central post-war Scottish artwork, but is now largely forgotten. Ostensibly, ‘£1512’ came into being through the closure of Ceramic Workshop Edinburgh (CWE ) in 1974. A commercially founded organisation, which realised significant artistic projects and exhibitions during Scotland’s supposed artistic wilderness years, CWE was overreliant upon the physical energy of its directors, some of them working at all ends of the reception scale in art. Their approach to the Scottish Arts Council for sustainable funding levels became embroiled in bureaucracy, and they determined closure as preferable to stumbling dejectedly into the unknown.

Smith found himself deliberating over the organisation’s remaining assets under the ‘ragged, uncomfortable clause in the constitution which said we had to give the money to another organisation with similar aims’. He explains, ‘I came up with the idea—we won’t surrender the remaining funds, we’ll change the constitution and invest it, and the investment will be a work of art’. The London-based art law specialist Henry Lydiate noted that this side-stepped both the law of perpetuity (preventing the inheritance of money by unborn generations) and taxation. Thus was conceived ‘a work of amassing money towards a future where people hadn’t yet been born’.

Initially exhibited in 1977 at Edinburgh’s Roxburgh Hotel, the piece was represented by a locked executive briefcase sitting on a greycarpeted plinth—redolent of minimalism’s recurrent cube motif—accompanied by a brushedaluminium plaque engraved ‘£1512’. The value of the enclosed investment certificates, through compound interest, was to be verified through the periodic issue of a print (credited to the final board of the workshop, whose members included Merilyn Smith, Graeme Murray and Cordelia Oliver) yet the piece’s true condition was ‘the activity by the entombed sum of money’.

From mud to clay, the remains of CWE were moulded into a final, allotropic artwork, its substance now infinitely expanding in banking hyperspace. And as it cannibalised its funds, ‘£1512’ wittily dodged the Scottish Arts Council. Its intention was—in Cordelia Oliver’s words at the time—to ‘turn the tables’.

In one of his periodic returns to ‘the money work’, Smith’s essay ‘Art In Security’, published in Art Monthly, 1985, cites precursors of ‘£1512’ including Carl Valentin’s ‘Deutsche-Bank’ 1923—a park bench coated with millions of worthless German marks. Equally revelatory was Smith’s ‘discovery’ in the early 1970s that there had been inaccuracies in the technologies used to date the standing stones at Calanish. Smith considered these ‘fantastical mathematical constructions sitting for thousands of years, staring at the stars, measuring them for themselves … an art “Minimal”, “Conceptual”—but 6000 years old.’

Smith’s conception of the collaborative artwork is now incorporated into his new installation. Included in ‘In Perpetuity’ is the candlelit ‘Donor Painting’. On oak panel with gesso grounds, it reinforces other aspects of Smith’s work, which he was unwilling to address within the context of 1970s Scottish art—particularly his dismissal of the viability of painting. Surrounded by a tabernacle frame, and rendered in trompe l’oeil, a floating square of linen is represented falling perfectly through time.

The hallowed hush of ‘In Perpetuity’ whispers of an apparatus of power—the donor relationship between artist and money man, empowering or disempowering the artist. A painted text appears on the frame: ‘DONATOR FECIT’ (‘The Donor Made It’). And here, again, ‘£1512’ is revealed, a broken key now sealing the briefcase lock.

Growing in value, it continues to insist upon art’s acknowledged link with money (in Clement Greenberg’s famous phrase, ‘the umbilical cord of gold’). This was the way of the past, which now speaks via ‘£1512’ through a time-lapse of 28 years—a mere blink of an eye in its future life.

Craig Richardson is an artist and lecturer in art at Oxford Brookes University