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Money-cutter makes political statement with his art


Sharlene King
5 August 2019

John Reid has spent three decades cutting up his savings to highlight human rights abuses uncovered by Amnesty International.

Now the controversial artist brings his carefully crafted politically powerful artwork to Southern Cross University to continue working alongside students in the Faculty of Business, Law and Arts at the Gold Coast campus.

Reid has been working on the same ominous, visually compelling work for more than 35 years. The detailed collage is made from Australian legal tender – cold hard cash – that has been cut and shaped into a haunting writhing human figure on archival card.

“Amnesty International had a major campaign in the early 80s triggered by the criminal political climate in Central and South America, to draw people’s attention to political disappearances – a form of oppression exercised in many countries to prevent people from protesting their economic exploitation,” said Reid, who originally anticipated the work would take about five years to complete.

“At the time I was also concerned about the Australian government’s relationship with Indonesia and policy on East Timor. The image depicts a body of a political prisoner undergoing a brutal form of interrogation. The subject matter is gruesome, but it needs to be addressed.

“The real heroes of Amnesty were those who write letters but given that visual imagery is my chosen medium of eloquence I decided to create a picture. It made sense to use money as the medium for this particular work as we know that behind the perpetration of political disappearances lies money – or more specifically, greed.”

Reid says he wasn’t sure at the time if the project was illegal.

“After a year of intensive collaging someone stole some of the cut bank notes from my work desk and sent them to the federal police. The feds came around and I sat them down to explain what I was doing. I think they expected to find a paper mache-type work. When I showed them my studio space and the scale of the undertaking they freaked out and within minutes the scientific squad arrived and they confiscated all my cut money and laid charges,” Reid said.

Ian Temby, the then Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, took over the case and legal proceedings took about four years (1984 to 1987). Special permission to proceed on the artwork was eventually granted by the Office of the Treasurer. Paul Keating was Australia’s Treasurer at the time.

“It was a lesson in the workings of the law,” Reid says. “This particular case did restore my faith in the system. Although a lot of my money and resources went into fighting the legal battle rather than going into the artwork, the case raised public awareness of political disappearances.”

By this time Reid had a family and work on the piece became intermittent. It has now become a mobile studio and exhibition space.

“Talking about the work has become just as important as the work itself,” he said.

Working in the law study space at Southern Cross University earlier this year enabled meaningful conversations with students, who helped inspire the latest addition to the work about a person’s right to silence being taken away.

Reid guesses around $5,000 of cut notes have been used in the piece, including one and two dollar notes that were in circulation at the time he started.