Making Art Out of Inflation

Carla Zaccagnini was seated on a bench the other day, riffling through a pile of cash. “I’ve been collecting money that’s not in circulation anymore,” she said, looking up from stacks of bills sheathed in cellophane. “So, currencies that are dead.” It was five days before Zaccagnini’s first solo exhibition in the United States would open, at Amant, a nonprofit art space in Brooklyn, and three days before the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics would announce that consumer prices had risen 8.5 per cent in the past year, sparking panic about the cost of broccoli and gasoline. Zaccagnini’s show, “Cuentos de cuentas / Accounts of Accounting,” is based on her childhood in Argentina and Brazil in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, when hyperinflation drove people to hoard U.S. dollars. Zaccagnini recalled that grocery workers spent hours walking the aisles, replacing price tags throughout the day as prices went up.

In Brazil, for example, where annual inflation rates in the late eighties shot up above a thousand per cent, the currency declined so quickly that the government kept devaluing and renaming it. Before 1986, the Brazilian dollar was called the cruzeiro (a reference to the Southern Cross constellation); then it was renamed the cruzado (“crusader”), and existing bills were stamped with a new value until fresh bills could be printed. In 1989, the currency was devalued again, and a thousand cruzados became one cruzado novo. And on and on. (A publication accompanying the exhibit 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, money in circulation had to be traded in for new bills, and the old ones were retired. 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 bill worth five thousand cruzados, which featured a portrait of Candido Portinari, a famous Brazilian artist. “Then I came up with the idea of little boats.”

She folded the bill in half and pressed the corners down, before folding it again into quarters. “It’s the first thing you learn to do with paper,” she went on. “It’s something I kind of do when I’m bored and I have a paper in my hand. I make little boats.” After a few more folds, she stuck her fingers into the center and popped the sides out, revealing a trim vessel.

Ruth Estévez, Amant’s chief curator, walked in. In addition to dozens of busted-currency boats, called “Fleeting Fleet,” the exhibition was to include a six-foot-long mobile that, owing to an airport-worker strike in France, was stranded in Paris. Estévez had been calling FedEx for days, begging the company to turn the mobile over to a friend, who would bring it to New York. “But it’s in the warehouse there, and there is no way to take it out,” she said. “It’s like it’s kidnapped.”

Zaccagnini lives in Sweden, a country known for generous family-leave policies and a notable lack of financial upheavals. She was born in Argentina, which has been studied extensively for the number of times the government has defaulted on its debt (nine). Her mother was a Lacanian psychoanalyst, and her father was a car salesman and a part-time inventor; he created a machine that could test the ink on American dollar bills to determine whether they were authentic. It became highly useful as the trading of dollars blew up on 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 pool. Zaccagnini’s grandmother set up a sewing machine in her kitchen and made Zaccagnini’s mother a vest with special hidden compartments, in which about thirty thousand U.S. dollars could be concealed and secreted across the border. “She got really warm,” Zaccagnini said, remembering the flight. “But she couldn’t take it off.”

The family settled in São Paulo, and Zaccagnini’s father came up with a scheme to hide their savings and thwart potential robbers, putting some dollars in a safe that he built behind an electrical outlet, and thousands more dollars and German marks in a plastic jar that he buried under tiles behind a bidet. One night, Zaccagnini said, she came home late and found her father on his hands and knees, piecing together mutilated hundred-dollar bills. Water had got into the jar, and the money had congealed into a wet ball. Not all of the notes could be saved. Zaccagnini said, “My mother was super mad.” ♦

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