22 Aug.

Offshore Finance, Financial Scandals and Contemporary Art: the 11th Gwangju Biennale

By Ismail Ertürk - The Banking Expert at Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester.

There was a time when artists were the source of scandals through their work and public deeds.  In contemporary art one of the founding fathers, Marcel Duchamp, owes his fame to his 1917 work called “The Fountain” which was a porcelain urinal turned upside down for exhibition.  At the time the organisers of the exhibition did not allow this “bad taste” to be included in an art exhibition where art was supposed to about beautiful things. The descendants of Duchamp in the art world in the 21st century, on the other hand, can not compete with the scandals created in the business world, especially in banking since the 2007 financial crisis in the U.S. and Europe.  So instead they yield to business and finance by choosing to reflect on rather than trying to create scandals.

Public around the world are continuously shocked with news how banks that people trust their money with have acted fraudulently in selling products to each other and to their clients, and are responsible for ongoing economic crisis.  The most recent scandal in banking and finance was the Panama Papers, a leak from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca, which revealed how the political and business elites around the world have moved their wealth to secretive offshore financial centres to hide the illegal source of their wealth or avoid paying tax.  And by doing so they deny governments around the world revenues that the governments desperately need to revive their economies after the 2007 crisis.  The leaks also embarrassed David Cameron, the ex-Prime minister of Britain after it emerged that he profited from an offshore fund founded by his father.  David Cameron oversaw one of the most severe public expenditure cuts that punished the poor people while he had personally benefited from tax avoidance that contributes to austerity measures.

The 11th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea between 2 September and 6 November 2016 will show the work of the Swedish contemporary artists Goldin+Senneby that is entitled “Headless”.  Since 2004 Goldin+Senneby have been producing work on contemporary finance and financial practices reflecting on the fictionality and virtuality of the financial world that gives rise to a headless modern economy, a real economy that is decapitated.  Their work “Headless” is a project that started in 2007 and is basically involved a ghost writer, working for Goldin+Senneby, writing a detective story on the secrecy of offshore finance.  As artists Goldin+Senneby consciously assume the characteristics of modern business and work like a modern company outsourcing their artistic work to playwrights, novelists, academics, derivative traders and hedge fund managers, etc.

Until its completion and the publication of their book, “Headless”, in 2015 from Triple Canopy there have been several exhibitions and performances of the work in progress, one of which took place at Manchester Business School and the latest exhibition will be at the 11th Gwangju Biennale.  The coincidence of the leak of the Panama Papers in 2016 and the publication of the book "Headless", which is about the secrecy of global finance and takes place in the Bahamas, is uncanny and reminds one of the expression “life imitating art”.  Usually “art imitates life”, artists reflecting reality around them in their art work.  But sometimes life is the imitator.  In this case of life imitating art, again finance is much more imaginative and morally scandalous than art.  Artists Goldin+Senneby could never imagine the level of fictionality and “heedlessness” that involves a very complex global network of relations between politicians, business people, lawyers, bankers and offshore financial centres that the leaked Panama Papers have revealed.

The creativity in financial scandals and the way secretive and fictional finance works have been attracting the attention of contemporary artists for quite some time.  Contemporary artists, just like ordinary people, have been mesmerised by the socially and economically harmful finance that is opaque and tends to benefit only financial elites and the wealthy.  Politicians do not seem to be willing or have the knowledge base to regulate the dysfunctional finance.  For example there has not been a global response to regulate secretive offshore finance after the revelations in the case of Panama Papers.  All countries expressed moral outrage to the revelations from the leaked Panama Paper but there has not been an international coordination to punish the illegal transactions or to tax the owners of such funds. 

The 11th Gwangju Biennale’s theme is “What does art do?” The Swedish artists Goldin+Senneby’s work at this biennale, "Headless", at least answers that question by contemplating on the fictive nature of finance and its secrecy that increasingly disconnect finance from social and economic welfare of masses.  Almost a decade after the 2007 financial crisis central banks in the developed world keep cutting interest rates to engage finance with the real economy, investments and jobs.  But most of finance has no longer interest in real economy because speculation generates quicker and bigger returns and moving wealth offshore keeps it untaxed.  But by doing so finance helps increase inequality and reduce the revenues of states.  The heedlessness of finance now amazes even the artists and is cause of great concern to most countries in the world.


Ismail Ertürk - The Banking Expert at Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester.

Ismail is a regular commentator in the broadcast and print media. He has taught corporate finance, bank financial management and international finance on both the School’s MBA and Executive Centre programmes. His research interests are in financialisation and financial innovation.

Apply Now
Download Brochure
Book a Consultation
Join our Event
Refer a Friend
Contact Us