Making art with inflation
Carla Zaccagnini was sitting on a bench the other day, rummaging through a pile of cash. “I collected money that is no longer in circulation,” she said, looking up from stacks of cellophane-wrapped bills. “So currencies that are dead.” It was five days before the opening of Zaccagnini’s first solo exhibition in the United States, at Amant, a nonprofit art space in Brooklyn, and three days before the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics announces that consumer prices had increased by 8.5% over the past year. , triggering panic over the cost of broccoli and gasoline. Zaccagnini’s show, “Cuentos de cuentas/Accounts of Accounting,” is based on his childhood in Argentina and Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s, when hyperinflation caused people to hoard US dollars. Zaccagnini recalled that grocers spent hours walking the aisles, replacing price tags throughout the day as prices rose.
In Brazil, for example, where annual inflation rates in the late 1980s soared above a thousand percent, the currency declined so rapidly that the government continued to devalue and rename it. Prior to 1986, the Brazilian dollar was called the cruzeiro (a reference to the constellation of the Southern Cross); then it was renamed the cruzado (“crossed”), and existing bills were stamped with a new value until new bills could be printed. In 1989 the currency was again devalued and one thousand cruzados became one cruzado novo. And so on. (A publication accompanying the exhibition estimates that one of today’s Brazilian reals, as the currency is now called, would be worth 2,750,000,000,000,000,000 of the original reals used when Brazil became an independent country. , in 1822.)
Each time there was a change, the money in circulation had to be exchanged for new notes, and the old ones were withdrawn. A few years ago, Zaccagnini started buying them, on Mercado Libre, the Latin American eBay. “The first idea I had was to just make a list, printed on the wall, of all the dead currencies since I was born,” she said. “Currency is one of the identities of a country, like the national anthem. Can you imagine if we had a new anthem every three years? She picked up a bluish white note worth five thousand cruzados, which featured a portrait of Candido Portinari, a famous Brazilian artist. “Then I had the idea of small boats.”
She folded the note in half and pressed the corners, before folding it back in four. “It’s the first thing you learn to do with paper,” she continued. “It’s something I do when I’m bored and I have a piece of paper in my hand. I make small boats. After a few more folds, she stuck her fingers in the center and popped the sides, revealing a finishing vessel.
Ruth Estévez, Amant’s chief curator, entered. In addition to dozens of bankrupt boats, called “Fleeting Fleet”, the exhibit was to include a six-foot-long mobile that, due to a strike by airport workers in France, was stuck in Paris. Estévez had been calling FedEx for days, begging the company to hand over the phone to a friend, who would bring it to New York. “But it’s in the warehouse over there, and there’s no way to get it out,” she said. “It’s as if he had been kidnapped.”
Zaccagnini lives in Sweden, a country known for its generous family leave policies and notable lack of financial disruption. She was born in Argentina, which has been widely studied for the number of times the government has defaulted on its debt (nine). His mother was a Lacanian psychoanalyst and his father was a part-time car salesman and inventor; he created a machine that could test the ink on US dollar bills to determine if they were genuine. It became very useful when the dollar trade exploded in the illegal market.
In 1981, when the exchange rate was particularly favorable, Zaccagnini’s parents decided to move the family to Brazil, where their money would go further and allow them to buy a house with a swimming pool. Zaccagnini’s grandmother installed a sewing machine in her kitchen and made Zaccagnini’s mother a vest with special hidden compartments, in which about thirty thousand US dollars could be hidden and hidden on the other side of the frontier. “She really warmed up,” Zaccagnini said, recalling the flight. “But she couldn’t take it off.”
The family moved to São Paulo, and Zaccagnini’s father devised a scheme to hide their savings and thwart would-be thieves, by putting a few dollars in a safe he built behind an electrical outlet, and thousands of dollars and additional German marks in a plastic jar which he buried under the tiles behind a bidet. One night, Zaccagnini recounts, she came home late to find her father on all fours, piecing together mangled hundred-dollar bills. Water had seeped into the jar and the money had congealed into a wet ball. Not all notes could be saved. Zaccagnini said, “My mom was super crazy.” ♦