The title of the artwork was a clue to the artist’s intentions — “Take the Money and Run.”
A Danish museum gave about $83,000 to an artist to reproduce a pair of works displaying the cash, reflecting the nature of work in the modern world.
Instead the artist, Jens Haaning, delivered two blank canvases without a scrap of currency in sight, which are featured in the exhibition that opened last week at the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Haaning concedes that he did almost no actual work on the project after receiving a commission from the museum, in the northern city of Aalborg, but says he is keeping the cash — in the name of art, of course.
“This is only a piece of art if I don’t return the money,” Mr. Haaning said in an interview. “I believe that I have created a good and relevant piece of artwork, which could be hung on the wall.”
The reaction from the Kunsten Museum has been mixed — at least publicly.
Artistic merits aside, Mr. Haaning did not fulfill his original commission, Lasse Andersson, the museum’s director, said in an interview. He said the artist was given 532,549 Danish kroner to reproduce two of his previous works, in which he had framed piles of kroner and euro bills to represent annual wages earned by workers in Austria and Denmark.
Therefore, the museum expects Mr. Haaning — whose actual commission payment had been set at 10,000 kroner, less than $1,600, plus expenses — to return the money that was supposed to be contained in the artworks after the exhibit closes in January, Mr. Andersson said. Otherwise, he added, he is prepared to take legal action.
But for now, the museum is playing along. Mr. Andersson said that Mr. Haaning’s stunt was in the spirit of the commission, which was to prompt reflections on how and why people labor for money.
“The work is interesting to me,” Mr. Andersson said. “It is partly a humorous comment: why do we work, what is satisfying about being good at something?”
The episode, Mr. Andersson said, echoed the tale of Robin Hood: “The smart Jens Haaning cheats the bigger museum director — it is a story that is also funny.”
But some of his colleagues were not as enthusiastic, according to another artist in the exhibition, John Korner, who was at the museum when Mr. Haaning’s work was delivered.
“The curators were clearly disappointed,” he said. “I do not know what they expected. They actually asked me what I thought, perhaps because I was the only artist at the museum at the time.”
Mr. Haaning’s latest creation has not surprised those familiar with his work.
“He is the ultimate trickster,” said Merete Jankowski, an art historian and former employer and collaborator of Mr. Haaning.
The stunt mirrored some of his previous performances, she said, which are often meant as provocations to upset “our notion of what is fair and just in our society, especially when it comes to marginalized communities.”
Ms. Jankowski pointed to a particularly political piece from 1995 called “Weapon Production,” in which the artist invited a group of young immigrants to the exhibition space to participate in a workshop for making street weapons.
“It is a way to create an artwork for a museum, which he has done many times before, and I think that has been overlooked,” she said referring to his latest project. “Try to do a Google search for Jens Haaning and see what he has done before — how can this be a surprise?”