By: Anna Stielau 2018
Here’s something I keep thinking about, looking at the delicate banknote petals of Gerald Machona’s Lotus (India).
In the language of economics, a currency that isn’t backed by physical commodities – which means most currencies in this age of virtual, volatile riches – is called fiat money. The pompous religiosity of that phrase isn’t accidental. ‘Fiat’ is Latin for ‘let it be so’, as in dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux("And God said let there be light, and there was light”). A fiat is a directive decree that calls something into existence by sheer force of will. Fiat money declares, “Let this thing be legal tender.” This piece of molded metal or printed paper. This number flickering in cyberspace.
The word fiat exposes something we all already know, but which merits saying more often. Although it obviously has real effects, money isn’t real. Or at least it isn’t of the same order of reality as the labour and commodities for which it is a proxy. With little value of its own, any banknote or coin is merely a standardized measure of the relational value between other things. It’s a vehicle through which an idea of worth is transmitted, gaining meaning from the act of exchange itself.
Money is a medium, in other words, and what passes through it is belief.
That belief rests in the social contract of capital, for sure, but it also belies a deep investment in the mode of belonging that money makes visible. Domestic currencies are an expression of collective national identity and an instrument of nation-building. They’re the economic face of a nation, and every day their use, along with their elaborate iconography, identifies us and encourages identification. And yet aren’t nations as much an exercise in shared imagination as money? In an object as ordinary as a bill, so many lines of faith converge.
Part of the power of Lotus, as is often the case in Gerald Machona’s work, is that it invites reflection on all the invisible organizing systems that we’re inclined to take for granted, from the flows of global commerce to the borders that carve up a continent and draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s worth pointing out that decommissioned currency is something of a signature material for the artist, perhaps because it neatly distills this larger project. When money is transformed into a literal medium, an intervening substance with which to make something, it doesn’t cease to be a bearer of imagined value or a token of faith in the nation and the market, but that faith does become effectively impotent. What Machona’s repurposing hints at is the hollowness of the original investment – this is only paper, we’re reminded, simultaneously worth too much (isn’t ours the era of the economization of everything?) and nothing at all.
But the word transformation is important to hold onto, as both the work’s form and driving desire. There’s more to Lotus than a critique of how belief – in place, identity and presumptions of value – can make us unfree. Machona’s banknotes are re-imagined as something else entirely, a flower. Held lightly together with gold thread, the pale petals of multiple currencies unfold from a single stalk rooted in sand. The whole object is enclosed in a blown-glass dome that serves the dual purpose of separating it from the world and exposing it more completely to the gaze. Given this new shape, the currencies inside it are uncoupled from any illusion of worth and indigeneity. Growing in soil that surely shouldn’t sustain life for an aquatic flower, so is the lotus.
In the specific traditions of faith and nationalism signaled by the parenthesized (India) of the title, the lotus represents creation and renewal. Set loose from its moorings as a ‘national flower’ by the diverse currencies that comprise it, the plant makes for a generative symbol, as its orientation is so absolutely toward imagination itself. After all, what is a signal of renewal but the hope that something else might happen, something that has yet to be fully thought? With that in mind, it becomes easier to see that the encasing glass of Lotus isn’t a dome. According to Machona, it’s a time capsule. “I imagine the objects I embed in [capsules] as catalogued for a future generation to unravel and interrogate,” he says. The flower is more than the sum of its parts. It heralds a future yet to be created, one which won’t surrender to the hard limits that the present imposes upon belief.
Posterum fiat. Let there be a future.