Micah Lexier’s I AM THE COIN fills the BMO Project Room’s main wall with a grid of 20,000 custom-minted coins. It’s an impressive sight: light shimmers over the coins, the reflections shifting as you move around, and little circles of light are scattered throughout the room. It’s tight quarters in the gallery, which is not much larger than a tiny bedroom, but a larger space wouldn’t offer this same quality and containment of light; it’s the ideal venue for experiencing Lexier’s clever installation.
Each coin contains a letter, making the work appear at first glance to be a massive word-search puzzle. But the letters spell out a story (commissioned by Lexier) by the Toronto writer Derek McCormack. Devoid of punctuation or spaces, the text is doubled—echoing the action of flipping a coin—so that the readable text is in the bottom 50 rows, while the top 50 invert the story. There’s a lot of bending over and skirting back and forth involved in reading the story, but McCormack’s simple phrasing has been expressly designed for this unorthodox presentation, and a scattered reading approach is enough to reveal its essence. The narrator is one of the coins—hence the installation’s title—and explains the piece in a roundabout, quirky fashion. The coin is not without a sense of humour, by turns corny (“What do you call a penny that thinks? Centient”) and a little bit dirty (“I do not have a brain but I have a head and a tail. Everybody loves head, everybody loves tail. Wink, wink”).
All of the crouching and squinting required to read the text is part of Lexier’s multi-layered game. “You want me to stop fooling around,” the coin says. “You want me to be serious. I am art and art is serious and money is serious. You want me to be deep, well good luck with that. I am a coin, I am all surface.” Is this a bit of an ironic jab at contemporary art? We work so hard at studying and unravelling art that sometimes we risk losing faith in the whole endeavour. It, too, can be perceived as a kind of game. But I AM THE COIN is equally a game about money and commerce, necessarily loaded within this finance-centred environment.
Amid the teasing tangents and ego-driven remarks (if money could talk, how could we assume it’d be anything but self-serving?), the narrator occasionally rewards our efforts with nuggets of insight. At one point, the coin explains that “the artwork considers the complicated exchanges that our culture conducts between money and art.” It’s a thematic framework that begs to be addressed in an art venue of this kind, and Lexier’s precise presentation and conceptual layering make this piece a rare find.