Across millennia, human beings have been concerned with ascertaining the value of everything around them. This primordial need to assign value to all facets of existence is what society is built upon. From the markets of the Indus Valley Civilization to Wall Street, and from time and labor to our very emotions, we’ve constantly sought to define the value of that which is around us. But value is inherently an abstraction, a concept invented by us to establish and maintain complex nexuses of socio-economic relationships. The very concept of value is an ideologically charged one. Philosophers have endlessly discussed the intrinsic value of things and the value ascribed to them by structures of market and power. Even the value of human beings has been expounded upon and forms the bedrock of humanistic thought.

“The individual, however, is constantly buffeted by the many narratives and discourses around the ontology of value, unable to find balance.”

This is of paramount importance in this time of uncertainty. At the peak of a global crisis, we find ourselves not unlike Ulysses, sitting by his still hearth, yearning for the sea. We put ourselves out there, chasing our dreams but our dreams come with risks now. Our lives and lives of those around us are what we weigh against desperation for a return to normalcy and prosperity. But haven’t these trade-offs always existed? The stakes were never this high, but every time we prioritize something, we value it above everything else, at least in that moment, be it family, personal time, or health. We are constantly weighing the value of one thing against another in hope to achieve balance in life. This struggle for balance is at the center of my sculpture Ethereal Value, embodied by an actual weighing scale within the frame of the sculpture made entirely out of currencies from around the world. It is this weighing scale in which we must weigh our individual perspective.

We must think about how we relate to our immediate reality, which demands we make several value judgements at every step. Brands, products, and even currency itself are not just material things that surround us. They are ideological categories, for the value of something isn’t ever really contained purely in its materiality. It is fundamentally contained in what it represents. Nothing is ever purely functional in its value, for even a handbag is designed to represent the social status of the one that carries it, rising above its utilitarian value of carrying other things.

We constantly strive to achieve balance in the things we value

What is sold is never just an object, but a narrative, about how we view ourselves. The question at hand then, is not to cast aside all narratives and return to some imagined “purely utilitarian” state of being, but to negotiate our identity vis-a-vis the many narratives that attempt to define us. We are interpellated from the day we’re born into countless narratives, but that which we are, we are.

We are influenced by countless narratives

The balance we need to seek is between our ideas of ourselves and how external forces influence and define us. We cannot be immune to influences, after all, influences make us grow. But we cannot let influences, especially biased ones, lead us away from ourselves. How we value the world around us, be it material things, people, or even our time and emotions, need to be a product of reflection and introspection. The weighing scale in the sculpture, although covered with the charging bull of wealth and materiality, represents that in the end, despite all influences, true value comes from within.

Sonal Ambani with her sculpture Ethereal Value