Cuentos de Cuentas
(K. Verlag and Amant, 2022)
Cuentos de Cuentas (Accounts of Accounting) by the artist Carla Zaccagnini is a book about money disguised as a memoir. Or an exhibition about photography and memory disguised as a book that is really an analysis of money. Or a book of appropriated and other images and stories heavily nostalgic for almost everything—including and especially money. Cuentos de Cuentas is small enough to be carried in your purse or pocket, which is a perfect metaphor for how its six vignettes live with a reader: like coins in that pocket of your mind you keep turning over.
But that may be exactly what Zaccagnini wants you to avoid. Or at least what she wanted to avoid in writing these pieces, which originally appeared as online posts and are printed here in both English and Spanish. As she writes in the book, “There is a lot to leave aside … to be able to knit together that chain of epic events that history recounts as a family photo album.” To recover what lies outside the familiar stories and even the cherished memories is the challenge of any self-accounting. It amounts to nothing less than finding other doorways to the past, almost as if you came upon them as a stranger. Zaccagnini discovers the doorways in an archive of personal ephemera, from newspaper clippings and childhood drawings to paper money and pages from tourist brochures—as well as photographs the artist herself took. They may not have been consciously saved but somehow managed to avoid being discarded. “We need those documents which were kept without care and which could, by being left to themselves, change in hiding,” she writes.
The narratives are nested between clipped reproductions of those documents, recontextualized in art-world parlance. The texts often don’t refer to the reproductions directly, but they set an ambience of recollection and not quite casual selection that gives a vivid sense of Zaccagnini’s childhood, spent partly in Brazil and partly in Argentina. I say not quite causal because the exhibition that accompanied the books’ publication, at the Brooklyn art space Amant, dispersed the photographs in a more performative way. Likewise, the selection refracts the wider world of Latin American development of the period, as well as middle class desires and pleasures. A tourist brochure extols sugar cane harvests in Salta, and an ad for Helena Rubinstein Skin Dew offers a distinctly un-Latina image of female beauty for Argentine women. Zaccagnini practices a visual anthropology by other means, arriving at the general through the particular and personal.
Puzzling at first, if only from a design perspective, are the chapter breaks, suites of blank pages, each a different color. They give the book a changing palette, and each set of colors appears to be coded to certain words of the same colors in the preceding chapter text. The linkage here is a bit difficult to intuit and may be a sort of red herring for anyone with an interpretive bent. The colored pages themselves, however, suggest another motive that links to the book’s underlying theme, revealing that the doorways of memory opened by her archive are anything but fortuitous.
The colored pages remind us of money before it is printed. And money is the artist’s theme. “Accounting,” or taking accounts, is a coming to terms with the tangible, physical importance of money in a world where currencies are unstable and value has only one ultimate arbiter—the US dollar. Recent articles have described Argentina’s mind-bending inflation over the last several decades, but the problem is more entrenched and widespread than that. In the book’s final chapter, “From Real to Real,” Zaccagnini describes the valuations, devaluations, and revaluations of the Brazilian real since the country’s independence in 1822. Based on the number of zeros that have been lopped from the currency, she calculates the current value as 2.75 × 1018 of the original.
Nominal value is a game played with zeros, but it is lived materially, as her cuentos wonderfully describe. Value is the family’s attempt to hide dollars below the bathroom floor only to discover that time and moisture have turned them to mush—but not so far that they can’t be dried, salvaged and carried to the United States, where they focus suspicion on her father for smuggling. Value is her grandmother’s sewing skills mobilized to create a vest for Zaccagnini’s mother that will be filled with one hundred dollar bills to make a down payment on a house in Brazil. Value is the various schemes the family must defend against—and sometimes fail to—in order not to lose what allows them something like a middle-class life.
At least according to media descriptions, it’s all different now, nothing but capital flows and crypto bubbles. But Zaccagnini the artist rescues reality from the abstractions even as she rescues the world of her childhood from forgetting. “Money used to be a thing,” she writes, “concrete, present, solid. At the same time so easy to disappear or make disappear.” As with money, so with memory: it’s fleeting.