May 30, 2014 - Swiss Institute - The St. Petersburg Paradox
May 30, 2014

The St. Petersburg Paradox

Kaspar Müller, Tropic of Cancer (“Piggy Bank Lion / Bank Leu, piggy bank from the former swiss bank Bank Leu 1755-1997, call to purchase, 004917690988107”) (detail), 2014.*

The St. Petersburg Paradox
May 28–August 17, 2014

Swiss Institute
18 Wooster Street 
New York, NY 10013
Hours: Wednesday–Sunday noon–6pm
FacebookInstagram / Tumblr

Giovanni Anselmo, Jean Arp, Ericka Beckman, Barbara Bloom, Alex Mackin Dolan, Marcel Duchamp, Cayetano Ferrer, Douglas Gordon, John Miller, Kaspar Müller, Sarah Ortmeyer, Tabor Robak, Amalia Ulman

In the St. Petersburg gamble, the house offers to flip a coin until it comes up heads. The payoff doubles each time tails appears, with this compounding stopping and payment being given at the first heads. By conventional definitions, the St. Petersburg gamble has an infinite expected value; nonetheless, most people share the intuition that they should not offer more than a few dollars to play. Explaining why people offer such small sums to play a gamble with infinite expected value remains a contentious question in economics and philosophy.

Based upon the theory of the same name developed by 18th-century Swiss mathematicians brothers Nicolaus and Daniel Bernoulli, The St. Petersburg Paradox invites artists to consider notions of risk aversion, expected value, and gaming. An early experiment in the use of chance procedures as a means to suspend artistic agency, Jean Arp’s 1916 Collage géométrique is one in a series of collages drawn from the random composition of tossed pieces of paper. Eighty years later, Douglas Gordon’s Bad Faith gambles with the very creation of a new artwork by betting its entire production budget on the unlikely occurrence of snow on Christmas Day in Stuttgart. Furthering this conflation of artwork and monetary value is a group of Marcel Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bonds (1924–1938), a playful attempt at bankrupting the Monaco casino through a flimsy financial scheme. With Remnant Recomposition (2014), artist Cayetano Ferrer has created a site-specific installation composed of dozens of different carpets specifically manufactured for casinos, where frenetic visual stimuli are designed to both obscure the wear and tear of 24-hour gambling palaces and to brighten up the cold mechanics of adverse probability.

Tabor Robak’s new video, A* (2014), which was commissioned for this exhibition, channels the intensity of the gamer’s ups and downs, ricocheting between the euphoria of an elusive win and resignation to inevitable loss. John Miller’s painting Labyrinth 1 (1999) renders a zoomed-in frame from the perennially popular TV game show “The Price is Right” at the height of mass media’s ubiquity. Ericka Beckman’s film You the Better (1983), drawing upon the adversarial nature of team sports, animates the absurdity of blithely entering into a game that cannot be won.

New works created by Alex Mackin Dolan, Kaspar Müller and Amalia Ulman engage with the internet’s refraction of aspirational consumption. Elements of Dolan’s painting are culled from disparate images and memes born out of financial anxieties, while Ulman’s large digital prints of found postcards revel in the romanticization of what American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen has described as “pecuniary canons of taste” (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899). Müller’s stack of prints, titled Tropic of Cancer (2014), exploits the rote vocabularies and unpredictable social dynamics of online peer-to-peer commerce, as the artist offers the entire contents of his Berlin apartment for sale via a dedicated phone line (T +4917690988107, 24/7). The Swiss Institute’s website will encourage bidding on a different item each day.

Barbara Bloom’s 1992 artist book Never Odd or Even (whose title itself is a palindrome), along with four works from her eponymous series of butterfly cases, illustrates the possibility of the zero-sum game conjectured by the Bernoullis’ famous paradox. Sarah Ortmeyer’s new sculpture series, SANKT PETERSBURG PARADOX (2014) scatters a miscellany of chessboards across the main gallery. The whole surface is strewn with 109 eggs of various sizes, types, and therefore, values, arranged in a precarious equilibrium.This sense of tension and an undercurrent of mortal jeopardy charges Giovanni Anselmo’s 1968 untitled sculptural installation, in which a pair of 250-pound stones maintain live wires in close proximity. This masterpiece of Arte Povera is an extreme testament to artists’ enduring interest in relinquishing authorial power, sustained across historical avant-gardes and guided to this day by what Georges Bataille calls, “the giddy seductiveness of chance.”

“Gambling generates by way of experiment the lightning-quick process of stimulation at the moment of danger, the marginal case in which presence of mind becomes divination—that is to say, one of the highest, rarest moments in life.”
–Walter Benjamin, Notes on a Theory of Gambling, 1929

Swiss Institute is grateful for the additional support from Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv and thanks each of the lenders to the exhibition: Dvir Gallery, Marian Goodman, Mark Kelman, Yvon Lambert, Metro Pictures, Francesca Pia, Rhonda Roland Shearer, Team Gallery, Roger Walton, Tracy Williams Ltd. Thanks to our hospitality sponsor Chelsea Hotels.

Please visit our website and follow our social media accounts to stay informed of our full schedule of events. Our next program, Amalia Ulman in conversation with Dr. Fredric Brandt, will be on Wednesday, June 4 at 7pm. This event is free and open to the public with RSVP to rsvp [​at​]

Exploring the relationship between identity, consumerism, and beauty, artist Amalia Ulman will discuss the idea of bodies as objects and investments with world-renowned cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Fredric Brandt.  Amalia Ulman lives and works between London and Gijón, Spain. Her work analyses social stratification, cultural capital, class imitation and seduction. Her aim is to scrutinize matters such as hierarchies, power relations, charity and empathy. Dr. Fredric Brandt is a physician, researcher, lecturer, author, radio host, and pioneering cosmetic dermatologist. He is also an avid contemporary art collector, and has recently been described by The New York Times as “the designated magician responsible for keeping faces both well known and otherwise in states of extraordinary preservation.”

*Image above: Kaspar Müller, Tropic of Cancer (“Piggy Bank Lion / Bank Leu, piggy bank from the former swiss bank Bank Leu 1755-1997, call to purchase, 004917690988107”) (detail), 2014. Stack of laser prints on A3 paper, 12 x 15.5 inches each. Courtesy Galerie Francesca Pia, Zürich, The Green Gallery, Milwaukee, and Federico Vavassori, Milan.

Swiss Institute
Share - The St. Petersburg Paradox
  • Share
Click to subscribe to e-flux and be the first to receive the latest news on international exhibitions and all e-flux related announcements
Subscribe to e-flux
Be the first to receive the latest news on international exhibitions and all e-flux related announcements.
Subscribe to architecture
Explore the most recent content from e-flux architecture and urbanism
Subscribe to e-flux programs
Keep up-to-date on all upcoming talks, screenings, and exhibitions at e-flux in New York