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 …….