5:48 min., color, sound
With soundtrack by O Grivo
Courtesy of the artist & Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/ Los Angeles; Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, Brazil; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

In reference to one of her works, Rivane Neuenschwander stated, “What fascinates me … is the collaboration between chance and control,” and this sentiment can be applied to numerous pieces by the artist in which she explores possibility and uncertainty with the lightest touch. Neuenschwander also blurs and crosses boundaries between other seemingly opposed dynamics, such as nature and culture, artist and spectator, and public and private. Even the term “ethereal materialism”—which she has used to describe her manipulation of ephemeral items to investigate time, language, narration, perception, and social interaction—suggests her art is a study in contradictions.

Born in 1967 in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil, Neuenschwander currently lives and works in São Paulo. She received a BFA from the Federal University of Minas Gerais and completed her MFA at the Royal College of Art in London. Solo exhibitions of her work have been held at Linda Pace Foundation, San Antonio, Texas (2016–17); Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (2014); New Museum, New York (2010); Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2007); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (2007); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2003); and Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis (2002). Neuenschwander was the winner of the Yanghyun Prize in South Korea in 2013, and she was shortlisted for the Guggenheim Museum's Hugo Boss Prize in 2004.

Neuenschwander’s oeuvre comprises various media, including films, collages, photographs, and installations that often are compared to the art of Brazilian Neo-concrete artists in the 1970s, such as Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica. These artists sought to incorporate subjectivity and sensory experiences in their work; however, Neuenschwander also cites Marcel Duchamp, Cildo Meireles, and Joseph Beuys as major influences, since her work “offers concrete manifestations and discrete objects to be observed, considered, analyzed and understood for significance beyond the verbal.” In particular, the imagery in Neuenschwander’s series Carta Faminta (Starving Letters, 2001) appears familiar, but ultimately cannot be identified. It consists of sheets of rice paper mounted on boards after the artist’s pet snails had gnawed through them. The remnants of the paper figure as “maps,” presenting familiar yet unknown territories.

Involuntary Sculptures (Speech Acts) began in 2001 and, like many of her works, is constantly updated by Neuenschwander. Its title and concept came from Brassaï’s 1933 photographs of graffiti and other ephemera and consists of a collection of small constructions the artist found in various bars throughout Brazil. These arrangements of corks, napkins, coasters, glasses, and drinking straws were made by unknown people as they conversed over drinks and are the remnants of intimate moments and conversations. Neuenschwander mounts them on pedestals as works of art for public consumption. The video Love Lettering (2002) also utilizes small animals to display seemingly random fragments of language that combine to form fleeting moments of intimacy. Neuenschwander attached tiny banners to the tails of goldfish that swim through a tank filled with bright blue water and blades of green grass. The strips of paper display typed words that express love, loss, and longing, including “sweet,” “my dear,” and “no.”

Rain Rains (2002) is a poetic reference to an everyday phenomenon in Brazil that is not unfamiliar across the globe—leaky roofs. The installation consists of several buckets hanging from the ceiling. Water leaks through tiny holes into the buckets placed underneath, forming a soft rainfall and inviting contemplation of passing time, as well as a Sisyphean work. That is, whenever a bucket on the floor is filled, gallery assistants must climb a ladder to empty the water back into the bucket above to begin another cycle of rain.

Outside involvement figures more prominently in other works by Neuenschwander, ones that rely on the participation of the viewer and human exchange for their completion, such as the installation I Wish Your Wish (2003). This work was derived from a popular tradition of the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Visitors have ribbons tied around their wrists as they make a wish, believing that when the ribbons eventually fall off or disintegrate, their wishes will be granted. In I Wish Your Wish, Neuenschwander stamped silk ribbons with the wishes of others, previous viewers of the piece, and mounted them to the wall. Visitors are invited to take a ribbon in exchange for their written wishes, selections of which Neuenschwander will stamp onto ribbons for future displays of the work. Overall, the installation is not simply a display of people’s desires, but consequently their fears and anxieties. As Neuenschwander contends, “If you wish for health for yourself and your family, it’s because you fear a disease.” Yet, the piece also suggests hope in the acts of strangers, who demonstrate their identification with and willingness to be responsible for the wishes of others.

First Love was conceived in 2005 and inspired by Samuel Beckett’s novella of the same name.  For each iteration, Neuenschwander hires a police sketch artist to sit with visitors as they give detailed descriptions of the first person with whom they fell in love. The artist then produces sketches of individuals based on these memories and Neunschwander hangs them in the gallery. By hiring a police sketch artist, Neuenschwander made a subtle comment regarding first loves. Utilizing someone used to speaking with people in distress, rather than a portraitist or caricaturist, suggests that the recollection of a past love often is not a welcome experience. In First Love, the drawn subjects therefore figure as missing persons, the ones that got away, or perpetrators that stole or broke someone’s heart.

Secondary Stories (2006) take a restrained yet random approach to elements associated with the hedonism of Carnival, a four-day celebration with parades and parties throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The work is a room-sized installation wherein fans blow large circles of brightly colored tissue paper above a false ceiling made from translucent plastic. Visitors watch the forms float above them and occasionally observe individual pieces fall to the floor through one of the several holes Neuenschwander has cut into the plastic. The large circles are a reference to the confetti used in Brazilian Carnival, but rather than multiple pieces being thrown by revelers at once, they occasionally and gently float to the ground one at a time. The circles do appear in the gallery space unexpectedly, similar to the unpredictable tossing of confetti; however, the setting of Secondary Stories is silent except for the hum of the fan, and the pace of its activity is measured. Visitors therefore enter a both capricious and controlled environment.

Confetti is a recurring element in Neuenschwander’s works that include the video Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue (2006), for which the artist teamed up with filmmaker Cao Guimarães. Quarta-Feira de Cinzas translates from Portuguese as Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent—a holiday of fasting, order, and control—and the last day of the abandon of Carnival. Filmed in Minas Gerais, the video focuses on the activity of red and black ants as they collect and organize brightly colored, manmade discs of confetti (coated in sugar by the artist to lure the insects) left over from the prior days’ festivities and scattered about the floor of the Brazilian rainforest.

The ants’ plans for the paper are unknown. They appear to be cleaning up after humans, but as they carry the multicolored paper they seem to produce a parade of their own, particularly as the ants and the glittering multicolored discs they carry grow in number in each scene as Quarta-Feira progresses. Moreover, their activities are accompanied at first by ambient noise and eventually by a samba played with matchsticks by the experimental band O Grivo. The ants’ appearance thus wavers between a festive, colorful promenade and the orderly tasks of removing debris. The video enigmatically concludes when the ants arrive at their destination and disappear into a deep, dark crevice in the soil.

Neuenschwander stated about the work, “Here, we are able to compare both the Carnival and Lent, where at first we find the excess, delirium, and the apparent lack of rules, while the afterward historically deprivation of pleasure, control, concentration and order are brought to attention.” The ants then can be viewed as representative of humans and the return to the normal rhythms of work and life after Carnival. As Quarta-Feira demonstrates that with play comes work, it also draws parallels between the behavior of the ants and the rituals and social strata of human communities. It takes viewers down to the micro level of ants to speak about the macro level, class-based organization of human beings and demands that we observe such details more closely. Quarta-Feira thus does picture a celebration, not of the excessive consumption of Carnival, but the thankless tasks of those who maintain our surroundings until the next affair.  —Kanitra Fletcher