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La lucha por la vida
By Susannah Thompson

“ I say ten australes
and I don’t say a thing’

La Lucha por la Vida (Struggle for Life) is an ongoing body of work which began in Buenos Aires in 1994 by Glasgow-based Argentinean artist Ral Veroni.

La Lucha por la Vida examines currency both as an object and a concept. Veroni screenprints his own drawings onto old banknotes, withdrawn from circulation, and re-distributes them via a process of exchange in which the screenprinted notes are swapped for ‘clean’ ones on which to work. The project has resulted in a continuing process of distribution and re-circulation of old currency and a series of artist’s books.

Ral Veroni’s work is a commentary on Argentina’s recent economic and political history and simultaneously an investigation into our response to money as a physical object. Unlike gold, silver or precious stones these pieces of paper, in which we invest our time and trust, hold no intrinsic value –banknotes rely upon a value or belief system in order to function. In an unstable economy this system collapses, and society is plunged into financial chaos.

For the last century Argentina has suffered a roller-coaster economy during which periods of rapid growth were followed by severe depression, resulting in extreme fluctuation of inflation. Rising and falling retail prices, increased cost of living and a decline in agricultural and industrial production were coupled with repressive military rule and an almost constant turnover of governmental power – each with a different approach to stabilising the economy.

Veroni’s work refers directly to events experienced by the artist and his family, and the circumstances that surrounded them. He explains; “ When I started to draw the series of bills, which I would later call ‘Struggle for Life’, I had in my house, wherever I looked, different bills which had belonged to my grandparents, parents, or had been mine and which rapid devaluation had kept us from spending… I would observe in those bills the different designs, the succeeding correlation of zeros, the name changes: austral, pesos ley, pesos moneda nacional – and remember some of the obscure political periods of my country…Inflation only reveals the condition of money as a piece of paper. My intention is to talk about our relation to this object, the strange way in which it dictates our lives against which we can hardly offer resistance.” In 1983 the ‘austral plan’ was implemented, replacing the peso, as another attempt to reduce inflation. The design El Calvario del Mango (The Crucifixion of Money) represents the fall of the ‘Mango’, a colloquialism for the peso.

As James Buchan notes in his book Frozen Desire: “The banknote was an outcrop of some vast mountain of social arrangements… (money) was not a simple object, whose function could be deduced quickly. The engraved swirls and signs, even the King’s portrait, did not suddenly reveal the note’s purposes to someone who knew nothing of money.”

La Lucha por la Vida is a personal testament to the experiences of Argentineans during a nine year ‘reign of terror’ during the military rule of the 1970s and early 80s in which there was an abuse of civil rights unprecedented in Argentinean history. The military government created an economic upsurge, at a time when the national currency was as strong as the dollar. The boom encouraged foreign travel and remains a nostalgic memory for Argentineans who travelled and enjoyed their money abroad. The short-lived economic prosperity was paid for in full with the economic collapse which followed. Between 1976 to 1979 such temporary economic benefits were used as a diversion from the atrocities of kidnap and torture. In 1978 the World Cup was seen by the military as an opportunity to accelerate such atrocities while the nation was distracted by sport – the opium of the people. In the 80s Galtieri instigated the Malvinas War as another diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the appalling economic situation on the mainland.This brought further financial disaster in only 10 weeks.

Veroni remembers the emotive and courageous scenes of the marches of the group Mothers of the Square of May who were the mothers of the desaparecidos (the disappeared ones) as they walked in silent protest in Buenos Aires wearing symbolic white headscarves. A report to investigate the atrocities of military terrorism and the ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s was commissioned in 1983 – it found the armed forces responsible for 8,971 disappearances as well as acts of torture and other crimes. Statistics differ on the exact number of the disappeared, but figures range from estimates of 6,000 – 24,000 during military rule, many killed by illegal right wing death squads. Unknown kidnappers would knock on doors in the middle of the night and family and friends would be taken away – and never heard from again.

NN Made in Argentina and Night and Fog. Made in Argentina refer to this period. ‘NN’ is an abbreviation of ‘No Name’, the designation given to corpses found in collective graves during the 1980s. Groups such as Mothers of the Square of May, and environmental art projects such as Veroni’s, exemplified that the population felt frustrated and poorly represented. In 1987 Alfonsin, against overwhelming public opposition, ended prosecutions of most low rank military for human rights abuses on the grounds that they had ‘simply carried out orders.’ Again, in December 1990, under President Menem, the opinion of 80 % of the population was ignored when a pardon (in the name of ‘national reconciliation’) was issued for almost 200 top military commanders and officers accused of human rights abuses and atrocities during the ‘dirty war’ (these included two former presidents who continued to serve sentences).

Veroni’s own memories of the period reflect the personal and collective insecurity brought about by corruption and economic decline. Much of La Lucha por la Vida reflects on the period in which Galtieri governed Argentina. The government preceding Galtieri had managed to reduce inflation to 100 %. After Galtieri’s take-over in November 1981 the GNP fell by 7% and by 1982 the annual rate of inflation had become the highest in the world – at an incredible 500%, highlighted by Veroni in drawings such as Corre por tu Guita (Run for Your Money).

Ave, Dollar. Morituri te Salutant (Hail Dollar. Those Who Are About to Die Salute You) represents the political and economic influence exerted by the USA over Latin America. The dollar became a symbol of stability of value, and it was the dollar that highlighted the daily devaluation of local currencies during periods of inflation and hyperinflation in Argentina. The dollar here is likened to the power of Caesar over gladiators. The image is one of the face of fear, which wears the helmet of a gladiator.

In 1989 the foreign debt was $60 billion, with payment on the debt at $6 billion per year (at a time when the country’s earnings were below $3 billion). New loans taken on to cover the debt served only to increase Argentina’s dependency, resulting in shortages and energy rationing, with long daily blackouts. Inflation had become hyperinflation. Declining production, rising unemployment and an annual inflation rate of an unbelievable 12,000% (with prices rising four times a day) sparked food riots, and looting. Wages dropped 35% and a state of emergency was declared, with all strikes and demonstrations banned. Industry as a whole was operating at only 30% of capacity with auto and steel industries virtually paralysed.

When supermarkets were raided during the food riots money was left untouched in the cash registers. In a recent newspaper interview Veroni explains “ One day a note would buy a pint of milk; the next day half a pint; the following day only a spoonful. You needed a wheelbarrow full of money for gallon.” It is against this background that Veroni notes; “ In the inflationary and hyper inflationary periods it is as if money takes its mask of value off. Then, it is no longer the representative symbol of the price of things and it shows its real face: an old piece of paper, with numbers.” Argentineans had traditionally been taught to save, to invest. In the years of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s to spend was the best way of retaining wealth. Even when rendered worthless and removed from circulation, people held onto their money and found it difficult to discard old banknotes.


Veroni’s intention, however, is not simply didactic. As the son of an Italian printer he chooses banknotes for the physical qualities of the material as well as their political and historical connotations. Veroni acknowledges that his father’s profession, his love of books, paper, and text, influenced his own choice of medium. In the introduction to the book La Lucha por la Vida Veroni writes: “To draw on money is the cheapest thing there is – bills out of circulation, without value. The paper is excellent and it is very pleasant to see how the brush slides over the resin of the different inks of its impressions.” Necessity was the mother of invention in Veroni’s choice of cash as the blank canvas on which to explore ideas of money and as a billboard for political comment. “I started to draw on them because I had money problems…at that time I didn’t have money to paint. Painting is a terrible, absorbing creditor.” By exchanging screenprinted notes for clean ones Veroni had a constant new supply of material on which to work.

In Eduardo Orenstein’s film, made in Buenos Aires in 2000, Veroni’s Struggle for Life project is documented. The film follows Veroni as he discusses the imagery and symbolism in specific notes. He cites the work of fellow printmakers Hans Holbein, Guadalupe Posada, Alfred Rethel as influences in terms of symbolism and imagery and regards them as printmakers whose work also incorporated irony and a moral principle; “ I made my series of bills under the influence of this genre: whilst the typical images (such as skeletons and scythes) are no longer present a certain connection between these old engravings and my work still remains.”

It is difficult not to be reminded of Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ imagery in many of Veroni’s bank notes, particularly when he cites 19th Century Mexican artist Posada as a role model.
Posada was the master of the Calavera, a witty epitaph written for friends and celebrities while they are still alive – often providing an opportunity for political satire and comment. Using skulls and skeletons Posada, like Veroni, aimed to expose the transitory nature of earthly pursuits. Posada’s vignettes of skeletons in various situations, often humorous are paralleled in Veroni’s own Danse Macabre imagery which began in his 1990/91 project ‘La Muestra Nomade’ (The Nomad Exhibition) and continued into La Lucha por la Vida in drawings such as Debt stabs like a Dagger (Deudas ke se clavan como Punales) and Fortune Rules the World (Fortuna Imperatix Mundi). In the introduction to the artist’s book of La Lucha por la Vida Veroni explains; “ At the time when I started this piece I was designing a ‘Macabre Dance’, a series of graffitied skeletons done in stencils which I would put on water tanks and my friends dormitories.” The traditional message of the Dance Macabre was to convey that we are all equal before Death. This was portrayed in medieval prints, paintings and literature which showed death as an equaliser, striking down the binary opposites of rich, poor, powerful, weak, young and old.

In the banknote designs, money and politicians are personified as grotesque or grimly humorous symbols, using currency as an appropriate canvas on which to comment on politics - another institution concerned with power, hollow promises and misplaced trust and capable, like money, of the success or ruin of a nation.

Bienvenidos Al Circo (Welcome to the Circus) 1991/95 was a series of clownish self-adhesive designs of bones, eyes, horns, mouths and ‘Pinocchio’ noses. The silk screens on stickers were distributed to Buenos Aires residents of diverse political affiliations, inviting them to vote their criticism by pasting stickers to the posters and billboards of candidates. ‘Voted’ candidates thus assumed the appearance of clowns, devils, and lunatics: a playful comment on the gap between political promises and reality. La Lucha por la Vida, in designs such as Parsley in the Service of the State (a pun on the colloquial use of the word parsley to mean stupid) continued Veroni’s criticism and mockery of politicians and their false promises and, through the public distribution of the banknotes, encouraged the wider community to make up their own minds, rather than bowing to propaganda.

Veroni equates money with time and with death – with the pursuit of money as the thief of time – Blinded by Money, Ave Dollar. “How could one explain that someone spends their life time, their hours of pleasure, sacrificing everything in the pursuit of this paper currency? Money itself represents a payment of time, a payment of life in order to live.”
The printed image which shows the spectre’s hand emerging from a coffin in Till Death Do Us Part portrays the severed relationship of man and money at death. “Even though we all march to its rhythm, money and the grief its absence brings to us is something incomprehensible, far from the divine and only related to God when the person who wins the lottery feels blessed.”

The choice of printmaking as a medium for La Lucha por la Vida is similarly democratic. Prints are the most economical way to produce and collect ‘original’ artwork. Patrick Merrill, curator of the group show Cultural Critics which included Veroni’s banknote work stated “ Currency devalued to zero by inflation and therefore homogenised to a uniform sameness is re-valued by art and once again becomes unique.”

Veroni’s process of distribution of the banknotes is as subversive as the images themselves. Through exchange, barter and editions made for ‘the common pocket’ Veroni ensures that his work is accessible to all. The designs and objects themselves can be appreciated on their own merit, for their aesthetic value, regardless of political significance. In Orenstein’s film Veroni sets up a market stall in Buenos Aires at which notes can be exchanged. Jamie Reid recently said that money is a symbol of man’s mistrust for man claiming that bartering is better and more honest. Veroni’s project, using devalued money which has been removed from circulation is a unique project which makes money itself the object which is bartered – as old banknotes are exchanged for others.

Part of the motivation behind La Lucha por la Vida was cathartic – Veroni notes; “To draw on these bills of currency, to talk about them, was my way of cleansing, purging myself.” A poem, written by Veroni during his adolescent years, is poignant when viewing his later work:

(Translated from Spanish)

‘ I have my pockets full of bills one by one
I look through the store windows
With the hope that someone
Has forgotten to raise the prices
But the store owners are more and more determined
They have nerves of steel for this!
Since I was a child
I used to dream of travelling through time
To the past
And that with the same money today
I would buy the entire Rolling Stones discography

I say ten australes
And I don’t say a thing.’

Susannah Thompson


Ral Veroni’s artist’s books, including La Lucha por la Vida, and the film by Eduardo Orenstein, can be seen at a forthcoming exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh from 28 July to 9 September 2001.


(This article originally published in Exhibit: A magazine, Issue 9.)

 
 
 

 


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