On ViewAmant Foundation
April 14–August 21, 2022
In Una película hablada (Spoken Movie) (2017–19), playing in one of the three spacious Williamsburg galleries of the experimental art center Amant, Carla Zaccagnini tells a story about an Italian immigrant in Brazil who goes to buy a bottle of contraband alcohol and is told, “Guarde,” which in Italian means, “Look,” and in Portuguese means, “Keep it safe.” From the Italian speaker’s confusion, the film extrapolates an idea about what it means to safeguard a possession, highlighting the various methods of doing so, from surveilling it to hiding it out of sight.
The sculptures, installations, films, and videos in Cuentos de cuentas/Accounts of Accounting, Zaccagnini’s first solo show in the US, contain similar anecdotes that are at once purposely naïve and endearing. The artist—who has been celebrated in Latin America and Europe for her works dealing with displacement, repetition, and difference—approaches money not only as a metonym for US-Latin American relations but also as a charged object, particularly for those who find themselves geographically and culturally uprooted. Organized by Ruth Estévez, Amant’s Director and Chief Curator, with Isabella Nimmo, Assistant Curator of Exhibitions and Education, and Sarah Demeuse, Head of Publications and Communications, the exhibit presents installations, films, personal artifacts, and written materials that illustrate the deleterious influence of the US dollar on Latin American economies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Together, the works tell tales of hidden safes, con artists, political distrust, and survival. At their core, they probe at the idea of inheritance, using money to tell an even more elusive story about family.
Depending on who you ask, amassing and protecting one’s savings are acts that take varied, sometimes incomprehensible, forms. The relative weakness of the Argentine peso and Brazilian real in the latter half of the twentieth century made it common for families like Zaccagnini’s to lose their savings overnight, causing the artist’s father to hoard US dollars in a plastic jar buried in the family’s bathroom floor. It is fitting, then, that Zaccagnini meet American audiences in a city whose residents regularly react to rising rent prices and pandemic-induced inflation in highly improvisational ways, where cars sport decals of fortune cats and plastic game tokens are used to pay for bus fare on the sly.
“Just like the way in which each different layer in a cake has its own taste and texture, so also does each layer of color in a well-built stack of bills have its own density and sweetness,” Zaccagnini writes in an exhibition text, delighting in money’s materiality in a dematerialized economy. Her newly commissioned work Fleeting Feet (Flota fugaz) (2021–22) takes the form of paper boats made of devalued banknotes. By folding the voided bills into boats, each with its own color and dignity, Zaccagnini hints at an alternate economy in which such items circulate not as tokens of anxiety but as emissaries of imagination. However, just as the past is likely to dictate future actions, attitudes toward money and precarity are often inherited from watching previous generations and stored in the memory as disquieting images, and these come to light in Zaccagnini’s title piece, Cuentos de cuentas/Accounts of Accounting (2022). This five-channel video installation centers on stories from the artist’s childhood, when unstable currencies made it difficult to manage family finances and even more so to recoup the hours of labor lost to hyperinflation. At one point, the artist’s hands, which protrude from a red curtain, rescue a hundred-dollar bill from a jar of water and gently iron it dry. Title cards supply a mental image of the artist’s father digging feverishly beneath the family’s bidet for the jar of cash he’d hoarded.
Zaccagnini sketches more detailed portraits of her family members in a series of short stories published bilingually in Spanish and English, in conjunction with the exhibition. In “Black Dollars,” her father nearly falls prey to a pair of swindlers who offer to buy five cars from his dealership using dyed bills that could only be cleaned with an expensive fluid that the conmen sold. In “The Vest,” the artist’s mother travels from Buenos Aires to São Paulo, grasping Zaccagnini’s hand and wearing a puffer vest in which is hidden thirty thousand US dollars. Young Zaccagnini realizes, in the story’s final sentence, that the hand holding hers is sweating.
Money—especially in the tangible denominations in which Cuentos de cuentas traffics—carries, for so many, complicated histories and associations. A story about clever con artists is also one about a proud father being taken for a fool; a story about covertly transporting banknotes across national borders is also one about a child realizing her mother is frightened. In this subtly haunting way, the exhibition surfaces the shame and desire that circulates in the shadow of global capitalism.