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The Artifacts of Inflation

Heather Thomson, 100 000 Mark 25 Juli 1923, lithograph, 2018

When artist Heather Thomson inherited a collection of German Papiermarks from her Scottish grandfather, it set her on an investigative journey into the history of war-time economics, currency design, and the art of forgery. Awarded Open Studio’s Don Philips Emerging Artist Scholarship in 2018, Heather dedicated this past year to uncovering the hidden secrets of her unorthodox inheritance, using it as an opportunity to fine-tune her technical skills in photolithography while conducting an in-depth material analysis of the social history of (hyper)inflation. The resulting exhibition Beyond Statistics: The Artifacts of Inflation, meticulously deconstructs and reproduces the printed Papiermarks, offering a microscopic reading of macroeconomic forces viewed through the lens of the material artifact.

Papiermarks were issued by the German government following the outbreak of World War I in 1914 when the direct link between the Goldmark and gold was severed. They continued to be printed during the intense period of hyperinflation from 1920-1923, as the Weimar Republic attempted to pay off its war-time reparation debt. This ultimately came at the expense of German citizens’ savings and fuelled the populist rise of Adolf Hitler. During her research, Heather discovered that the volatile currency inflation rate during this later period could fluctuate by the minute, prompting merchants to reduce their exposure to the Papiermark by limiting their business hours. Likewise, consumers would frantically attempt to offload their Papiermarks as quickly as they could, buying up whatever was physically at hand as the value of their currency plummeted (for only material objects had any real value).

At the peak of hyperinflation in 1923, such enormous amounts of paper money were required to buy even the most basic commodities that apocryphal stories circulated of people pushing wheelbarrows piled high with banknotes to buy a simple loaf of bread. To keep up, the German government constantly printed new denominations of money in an attempt to stay ahead of the 'wheelbarrow scenarios'. When the Papiermark was eventually replaced by the Rentenmark in 1924, it was virtually worthless, trading at the astounding rate of 1 trillion to 1.

Heather Thomson, 100 000 Mark 25 Juli 1923, selections .01 to .06 (installation), lithographs, 2018

Yet holding the inherited Papiermarks in her hands, Heather felt that the printed notes as material artifacts suggested a more complicated ‘lived’ story than mere statistical analysis could relay. On close examination, the artist noticed that the surfaces of these banknotes did not necessarily reflect the austerity of a war-time nation, as one might expect, but rather incorporated highly decorative fonts and intricate layered patterns, rosettes, and seals, all of which would have been carefully hand-designed. From 1920-1924, sixty-six different main designs for Papiermarks were officially issued by the Weimar Republic, many exhibiting portraits and monuments by celebrated artists. Moreover, beyond their aesthetic designs, the wear-patterns on the paper display evidence of the handling and exchange of notes between individuals, baring the intimate corporeal imprint of socio-economic transactions.

Heather Thomson, Beyond Statistics: The Artifacts of Inflation installation, lithographs, 2019

In Heather’s printed editions of these banknotes, every stain, crease, and tear is painstakingly reproduced. Printmakers, of course, are masters of mimicry, obsessive in their attention to detail and adept in the art of the copy. But the finer points of currency printing are notoriously guarded (for good reason), even if the risk of counterfeiting is moot, as one assumes would be the case with currencies of hyperinflation! So Heather often had to rely on the artifacts themselves to reveal their secrets. In this, lithography served as an investigative methodology; a way of materially knowing and understanding an object through the meticulous process of remaking it. Heather’s aim was not to create a counterfeit to deceive, but rather to reveal its truth, crafting a copy that is original in its own right, while remaining faithful to its referent.

Each of Heather's lithographed objects is composed of seven or more transparent layers of ink, building colour and texture gradually while increasing the capacity for detail. In several of the pieces, she isolates a specific area of a Papiermark to reproduce, in some cases printing it on the paper in the position in which it appears in the original, thus compelling the viewer to hone in on its individual design features. Ultimately, printing the notes on this magnified scale emphasizes their unique materiality while reclaiming their value as historically and aesthetically significant objects.

Heather Thomson, Beyond Statistics: The Artifacts of Inflation installation, lithographs, 2019

It perhaps should come as no surprise that Heather considered majoring in history at university before finally settling on art. In truth, she is equal parts artist, historian, and alchemist, while recovering the hidden narratives of the object-artifact through strategies of deep material reading.

Heather Thomson immersed in her research, 2019

Beyond Statistics: The Artifacts of Inflation is on at Open Studio until Saturday, February 9, 2019. If you missed the exhibition, Heather’s prints are available through Open Studio’s Sales Program (Suite 104, 401 Richmond St. W, Toronto, ON, Monday-Saturday 11 am—5 pm).

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