"Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth."-Pablo Picasso
Give a group of artists the chance to display what they think of banking and the results can be pretty bizarre:
A branch vault turned into a nest of eggs and straw, with a video of chickens playing in the background. Or teller windows lined with grass and soil to represent money growing.
How about automated gypsies handing out fortunes from an ATM machine?
These and other artistic interpretations now inhabit a former branch of Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City's Chinatown.
According to Perry Hoberman, one of the artists contributing to the exhibition (it is open for public viewing until Nov. 2), banks have changed from community meeting places into "virtual spaces that zip money around through the economy, and you don't see it."
The artists approached Chase after its merger with Chemical Banking Corp. last year, which prompted the closure of 100 branches. The bank volunteered this location, one of several it has in Chinatown. The branch officially shut its doors earlier this year, but Chase's lease does not expire until April 30.
After Chase gave the green light, each artist got to choose a corner to decorate. Brenda Nielson picked the four L-shaped loan officers' desks because of their "beautiful, rhythmic quality."
"The desks were here, so I decided to use their rhythm, to use a realistic loan officer desk as a counterpoint to the more abstract variations," Ms. Nielson said.
One desk is festooned with Silly Putty imprinted with images of stock tables-symbolizing the elasticity of financial markets, Ms. Neilson explained. One desk has a cup of coffee spilled on a loan application; one has a photographer's proof sheet on it; another is covered with a shellacked burlap sack, a reference to Arab open-air markets where terms are negotiated by hand signals under a cloth.
"To me there's no separation between creativity and business," said Ms. Nielson, who also works as a financial analyst. "It's all choreography to me."
Ms. Nielson had a prior brush with banks. Early in her artistic career, she worked as a teller.
Alex Ku, another New York-based artist, spent much time ruminating on banking before filming his contribution: a three-minute video, playing continuously on a large-screen television, in which animated figures representing George Washington and Abraham Lincoln face off in a duel staged inside a bank branch. The soundtrack features chanting monks.
"There's this whole Buddhist undercurrent that undercuts the antagonism," Mr. Ku observed.
Mr. Ku said he has "O.K. feelings" toward banks but sees a "sad quality" in them. When gathering ideas for his work, "I just thought of waiting in line a lot, and this kind of quotidian existence where you make your money and pile it into your savings account," he said. "There's a fruitless quality to it, and also an antagonistic one."
Antagonistic, Mr. Ku said, because of the contrast between the way a person lives versus the vision of an ideal life. "There's an idea of saving yourself for some kind of better existence," he said. "It's somewhat ironic, and it leads to this idea of Buddhism and how to lead one's life."
Religious and cultural themes recur in the works. One small room has been transformed into a church confessional, with the wry title, "Teller All." And in the branch's former counting room, a Chinese artist has hung origami fish printed on fake dollar bills, and draped a black fishing net.
"In Chinese culture, fish are a symbol of 'more than enough'," said Jian-Jun Zhang, a native of Shanghai who now lives in Brooklyn. "People want to catch more money."
The most arresting exhibit is the Dada-style teller line, carpeted in real grass. The artist, Maura Sheehan, said the sod was withdrawn from her native Ireland and deposited in Chinatown. Visitors are invited to walk on it.
"People are very interested to walk behind the teller booth-it's kind of off-limits," said Chris Gillespie, an official with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council who helped organize the exhibit. "People come up to it and touch the grass as if they've never touched grass before."
Mario Chioldi, a filmmaker who worked on one of the installations, marveled that the branch could lend itself to such creativity. "When I first saw this space, it struck me as a dry space to have an art exhibit in-I mean, banks are culturally dry," he said. "It was nice to see all the different poetic responses people came up with."
Bankers might dispute Mr. Chioldi's label. Chase more typically underwrites shows at established institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has a storied corporate art collection that adorns its corporate offices and can be viewed, in part, on the bank's Internet site. Another big bank art patron, Wells Fargo & Co., has been expanding its chain of history museums dedicated to artifacts from the Old West.
Mr. Hoberman, for one, said banks should pay more attention to their office aesthetics.
"Banks today have these drop ceilings, synthetic materials, ugly colors, cheap-looking ATMs," Mr. Hoberman said. "There used to be a time when they were made to look grand, but today they're sort of like McDonald's."