How artists are mapping the flow of onshore and offshore global wealth, before and after the Panama Papers
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In an April 2016 exposé about the Panama Papers, produced by German television station ARD, reporter Christoph Lütgert uses US$ 3,000 and an online form to found a private company, Antje Overseas S.A. In a few clicks, he demonstrates how easy it is to establish a so-called shell company – whose only purpose is to hide financial assets from scrutiny – in one of the world’s many tax havens. After receiving the new street address and even a copy of the minutes of the first official meeting of the ‘board of directors’ of his fake company, he flies to Panama City to visit the offices where it apparently resides. He ascends to the 19th floor of Global Plaza Tower in search of the mysterious Suite H. Instead, he finds a bare shell of an office, with concrete floors, exposed wires and expansive windows overlooking the Panamanian skyline. ‘Too bad,’ he remarks, ‘It would actually make a nice office.’ Too bad 6,000 other shell companies are also registered to the same address. This enormous void is an ironic metaphor for the vast and inscrutable offshore banking system that the Panama Papers helped expose. Even with over 11 million leaked documents and more than 400 journalists analyzing them, we see a fraction of the dealings that the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca helped conceal. Estimates suggest there are 800 other firms worldwide helping to shelter up to US$32 trillion of wealth from taxation and regulation. Eleven million documents are just a glimpse into this parallel, shadow financial world.
Before the Panama Papers were made public, photographers Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti made their first trip to Grand Cayman in 2012 to begin a two-and-a-half-year project aimed at documenting and demystifying the world’s tax havens. It took them to 13 countries, sovereign states and jurisdictions. What they found was a firmly entrenched system, shielded by laws and, in some cases, accounting for up to 60 percent of a country’s GDP. They also found a subject that was ‘profoundly unphotogenic’. As Woods described it: ‘Tax havens were shrouded in this image […] of a James Bond movie, of people going around in dark glasses and suitcases full of dollar bills. But it’s not that.’1 To document it, they created a photographic series ‘far away from the approach and the aesthetic of the “stolen photograph”, of “gritty reportage”’. Their project, ‘The Heavens LLC’ (2015) – which exists as both a publication and exhibition – combines striking, large-format photographs with informative captions: a format reminiscent of Taryn Simon’s deadpan, fact-based investigations into similarly shadowy worlds. Though both image and text are not fully adequate descriptive systems to map this baroque and complex phenomenon, the series is revelatory. The photographs lay bare the contradictions and harsh ironies of tax havens from Jersey to Luxembourg and unveil the surreal, excessive or banal physical realities of these secret jurisdictions of virtual wealth.
Woods and Galimberti purchased their own offshore company, The Heavens LLC, and the accompanying publication of the same name serves as its Annual Report. But the work was initially facilitated by partnerships with various business trade magazines, which allowed them to undertake the project financially and gain access to people and places that normally avoided publicity. (A major partner publication opted not to publish the story in the end and, despite requests from several American outlets to print it, as Woods explained it, publication always stalled ‘when it got to the desks of their lawyers’.) The Heavens: Annual Report features an essay by Nicholas Shaxson, author of Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens (2012), which contains the clearest and liveliest account of any financial system I’ve ever read. ‘Tax havens are places where you can put your wealth in order to escape the rules at home,’ Shaxson spells out plainly. ‘You don’t necessarily have to put your wealth itself in a tax haven. It is the legal structure that owns the wealth – the shell company, the trust or whatever – that usually needs to be located in the tax haven. The asset itself – the thing you own – can be anything, anywhere.’
‘The Heavens LLC’ reveals the places where this virtual network – so resistant to transparency and so dependent on secrecy – leaves its physical traces on the landscape. Woods and Galimberti’s image of the reconstruction along the Panama Canal shows a sprawling, empty corridor of torn-up concrete. What the Panama Papers conjure as a sophisticated nexus of wealth is here pictured as a languishing, broken, physical infrastructure. In another photograph from Panama City, a woman in a bikini floats in the rooftop pool of the Trump Ocean Club overlooking the night skyline. The caption explains that the high-rises are darkened because most of their offices and apartments are unoccupied. I can’t help thinking one of them is the office of Antje Overseas, though the caption points out these vacancies are ‘the result of a real-estate bubble that most observers agree is fuelled by drug money from Colombia and Venezuela, laundered through property in Panama’. Woods and Galimberti’s series also reveals the stark economic disparities that these ‘centres of wealth’ perpetuate: in a picture taken in a poor neighbourhood of Grand Cayman, a mother and her three children pose in their litter-strewn front yard, giving faces to the invisible and impoverished work-force that is enlisted to protect overseas wealth from taxation and regulation. While ‘The Heavens LLC’ tarnishes the James Bond fantasies, it opens up new, bizarre visions – like the portrait of elderly twin women in matching holiday jumpers, who stand amid a blindingly bright Christmas light display, decorating the immense lawn and palm trees of their stately home. ‘The Boddens,’ the caption explains, ‘one of the Caymans’ oldest families, run an array of different businesses, ranging in diversity from aircraft registration to the island’s main funeral home.’ Another photo taken on the island shows a jolly tourist tied to the mast of a local ‘pirate trip ship’, while a ‘pirate’ pretends to behead her with a long sword. Unable to represent invisible wealth or hidden assets, Woods and Galimberti are left to photograph the margins and map the visible surfaces – the terrain on which the offshore world casts its shadow.
Unable to represent invisible wealth or hidden assets, Woods and Galimberti are left to photograph the margins and map the visible surfaces – the terrain on which the offshore world casts its shadow.
Among the criminal activities of narco-traffickers and global terrorists, and the shady dealings of global leaders, the Panama Papers also highlighted the key role that offshore finance plays in the art market. A rash of stories after the leak exposed how antique and contemporary artworks are among the goods being protected from taxation in freeports across the globe. Though the existence of freeports is no secret, their contents remain opaque and their infrastructures inaccessible to most of the general public. An article in The New York Times by David Segal in 2012 described the Geneva Freeport as a ‘surprisingly drab series of buildings’, a 2013 article in The Economist called it ‘a fiscal no man’s-land’ and a recent article in The New Yorker declared that ‘everything about the place tells you to look the other way’. There are rumours of works by Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko stashed there (alongside commodities like wine, gold bars, cigars, carpets, soap, luxury cars, even grain), gathering monetary value while avoiding import and transaction taxes.
Woods and Galimberti’s photographs of freeports in Geneva and Singapore don’t reveal much more information from the inside, other than walls lined with steel vaults and safe-deposit boxes. An image in the basement of the Singapore Freeport shows the head of the Singapore Diamond Exchange admiring a small velvet box containing a single diamond. ‘Duty-Free Art’, Hito Steyerl’s 2015 e-flux essay, includes some of the artist’s own unphotogenic snapshots of the freeports taken from behind their fences, but the text describes them in much more vivid terms: as ‘an offshore or extraterritorial museum’ closed to the public’ Steyerl writes: ‘If biennials, art fairs, 3D renderings of gentrified real estate, starchitect museums decorating various regimes etc., are the corporate surfaces of these areas, the secret museums [freeports] are their dark web, their Silk Road into which things disappear, as into an abyss of withdrawal.’
Steyerl weaves a heavily symbolic story in which freeports are a speculative metaphor for the art world itself, a place where ‘things cheerfully hang in a permanently frozen failing balance’. Her literary approach to this financial sector shares the spirit of another project about tax havens, by Swedish conceptual artists Goldin+Senneby. The duo launched ‘Headless’ in 2007, ostensibly to investigate an eponymous offshore company based in the Bahamas, which they believed was ‘a re-incarnation of Georges Bataille’s secret society, Acéphale, from the 1930s’. Goldin+Senneby’s ongoing, labyrinthine project represents ‘offshore’ as a fictional space rather than a physical location. Over the years, they have ‘outsourced’ performances, lectures and texts to various real and fictional characters, culminating in a ghostwritten mystery novel, Looking for Headless (2014), by K.D., a fictional whistleblower who formerly worked at a company not unlike Mossack Fonseca. As K.D. writes in a journal excerpt: ‘After working for so long in the murky world of offshore finance […] I’d come to understand that my whole career had been spent inside a completely fictive world, where names are devised from thin air and locations mean nothing but the words on the page. I had lived and worked in a fiction, and I was going to turn that fiction into a work of art.’2 The visual component of ‘Headless’ includes a series of etchings of a desk in front of a window overlooking a shoreline and nondescript snapshots of the Bahamas posted on the blog of writer John Barlow, whom the artists commissioned to investigate the company. ‘Headless’ itself is a meta-narrative that is meant to be as complex and opaque – with as many red-herrings, smokescreens and fake names – as the offshore system it depicts. If Woods and Galimberti’s series is an earnest attempt at demystification, Goldin+Senneby’s project self consciously lives in obfuscation.
Shortly after 9/11, the FBI called the Whitney Museum asking to see one of Lombardi's drawings, which traced the hidden links between George W. Bush and the financing of global terrorists.
It’s hard to look at these projects without thinking of Mark Lombardi’s ‘narrative structures’. In the 1990s, the late artist created intricate, hand-drawn pencil diagrams that plotted the transfer of global wealth and political power among companies, politicians and businessmen. He charted, in unprecedented detail, the major players in scandals from the Iran-Contra affair to the links between BAE and Margaret Thatcher. Through his own research – mostly done pre-internet – and an archive of 14,000 hand-written index cards, Lombardi devised a legible way to visualize convoluted relationships. He believed his diagrams could be read ‘the same as a newspaper story’, even if their revelations were rarely afforded equal status or attention. That is, until shortly after 9/11 when the FBI called the Whitney Museum, asking to see one of his drawings, which traced the previously hidden links between George W. Bush and the financing of terrorists. But Lombardi never saw his research vindicated, having taken his own life in March 2000, in mysterious circumstances.
In a similar ‘exercise in mapping’, Jacqueline Hassink’s ‘Table of Power II’ (2009–11) is a conceptual series that includes photographs and accompanying texts which serve as ‘diagrams’. In 1993, Hassink began photographing the empty boardrooms of the top 40 European companies on the Fortune 500 list, with the tables functioning as central symbols. ‘I’m interested in the complexity of information,’ Hassink stated in a 2012 interview in Foto8, ‘in the taxonomy that creates an identity.’ After the financial crisis, in 2009, she returned to the project to see if the financial world had changed. Her photographs aren’t revealing in themselves: the tables are almost invariably oval, made of wood and stainless steel, surrounded by leather wheeled chairs. The rooms contain little decoration and the surfaces are almost always cleared. But Hassink complements each photograph with a page of ‘Facts about the Table’ – answers to a questionnaire she submitted to the companies about the members of the board: where they sit, how they chose the table and what it’s made of. Her own ‘Special Notes’ remark on her visits and impressions, and the representatives who chaperoned her while photographing. ‘Facts’ about BP’s table note that it is made of ‘European sycamore’ while Hassink observes it as ‘an expensive version of IKEA’. The Volkswagen boardroom table is made of ‘Swiss pear wood’ and the artist notes, ‘Security told the spokesman never to let me out of his sight.’ The few clues that can be gleaned about the companies’ activities in these rooms are scarcely more revealing than the crossed out pages representing the organizations that refused to take part – including HSBC (recently rocked by their own tax scandal), whose email reply to her request reads: ‘Our boardroom is heavily used and generally not open to external guests.’ Woods and Galimberti took a similar photograph of a table of power in the City of London Corporation’s boardroom of their ‘Policy and Resources Committee’. Though the image shows the committee seated around it, mid-meeting, the goings on remain just as obscure and unknowable.
These rooms function as symbolic centres of global economic power, though the ‘power’ itself is located elsewhere, and nowhere. Its source remains opaque. Nevertheless, the tables – much like the empty office of Antje Overseas in Panama – give a visible, fixed locus to a less visible or accessible world. These projects use various artistic languages to describe a system that pervades, even drives, the global economy, while its details and its players remain inscrutable. They provide a legend to map the surfaces of these territories, even if they are a mere shadow of the world itself.
Lead image: Tony Reynard (on the right) and Christian Pauli, in one of the high-security vaults of the Singapore Freeport. Mr. Reynard is Chairman of the Singapore Freeport and Mr. Pauli is the General Manger of Fine Art Logistics NLC, which in addition to Singapore also has vaults in Geneva, Monaco and Luxembourg. The Singapore Freeport, which was designed, engineered and financed by a Swiss team of businessmen, is one of the world’s premier maximum-security vaults, where billions of dollars in art, gold and cash are stashed. Located just off the runway of Singapore’s airport, the Freeport is a fiscal no-man’s land where individuals as well as companies can confidentially collect valuables out of reach of the taxman. Singapore. Photograph: Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti, published in The Heavens: Annual Report, 2015. Courtesy: the artists
First published in Issue 182