THE NEW MUSEUM | JUNE 23 – SEPTEMBER 19, 2010
Summer exhibitions in the New York gallery scene tend to fall into one of two categories: they are either relentlessly saccharine or inexplicably chaotic—a mishmash of greatest hits waged in kaleidoscopic color and shortwave critical theory often heralded by artstar cameos and/or crowd favorites. Exceptionally, the work of Rivane Neuenschwander speaks to both aspects of this season’s dichotomatic heat wave. In her mid-career retrospective, A Day Like Any Other, currently on view at the New Museum, the 42-year-old Brazilian artist offers a taste of the quotidian, flecked with gravitas and anecdotal nods to her native country’s art historical canon. Featuring a disparate array of mediums that range from performance and video to sculpture to painting and installation work, Neuenschwander’s creative arsenal knows no formal boundaries but is grounded, rather, in the complex relationships that define and govern everyday life.
Taste, touch, sight, and sound—these are the sovereigns that comprise Neuenschwander’s narratives. In “Chove Chuva/Rain Rains” (2002), one of her most subtly austere installations, smatterings of aluminum buckets filled with rainwater and extending from the ceiling, occupy a sizable portion of the fourth floor gallery space. Over the course of four hours, the water slowly drips in a calculated symphony of sound into identical buckets below. A metal ladder stands at the center of the installation, a reminder that the piece is not technologically rigged. In a Sisyphean system of renewal, the museum staff must continually replace the draining water supply by hand. This sort of transparent gesture defines much of Neuenschwander’s work in the retrospective. Everything here is as it seems.
Neuenschwander has a specific knack for translating this idea into video with an ethereal outcome. A Zen-like persistence courses through the frames of “A queda/The Fall” (2009), and “O inquilino/The Tenant” (2010), respectively. The former features an egg delicately cradled by a silver spoon extending from the artist’s mouth as she slowly traverses a forest. Because the viewer’s vantage point is identical to Neuenschwander’s, we experience the act firsthand, as if we too were on the journey with her and her ivory shelled companion. It is this very sort of cutting, the specifically narrowed vantage point (one that recurs throughout the video, “The Tenant,” as well) that endows the work with its majesty. As Neuenschwander walks, the sounds of the forest come to life—gravel crunching beneath the Brazilian’s feet; the shell of the egg lightly clicking against the rim of the spoon; the pulsing rhythm of the artist’s breath. The film, made in collaboration with Sergio Neuenschwander, offers no denouement, no resolution. It is simply a 15-minute glimpse into what might be classified as l’art pour l’art’s present-day manifestation—the appreciation of beauty for the sake of beauty, movement for the sake of sound.
This kineticism of the body—the fusion between internal and external worlds—holds particular significance for Brazilian art history. Three decades before the term “relational aesthetics” was coined by Bourriaud (circa 1996), Brazilian artists such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica were actively engaging with its nascent principles, namely those of viewer participation and shared collective experience. Defining much of the Neo-Concrete movement with which they would come to be associated, the work of these artists and others, such as Lygia Pape, emphasized the social and interrelational arenas of artistic engagement as experienced outside of the traditional museum space. Consequently, a considerable amount has been written regarding Neuenschwander’s ties to these cultural antecedents. And while there does exist an overlap between the artist’s performance-based actions and those of the Neo-Concretist ideal, one particularly realized in the inter-subjective work of Clark’s “Nostalgia of the Body” series, Neuenschwander’s utilization of the movement’s founding tenets is more docile in comparison. Indeed, some of the artist’s most accomplished relational work is that which excludes her hand altogether.
“Involuntary Sculptures (Speech Acts)” (2001–2010), comprise some of the most affecting pieces in the exhibition. Made by strangers in conversation with Neuenschwander at local eateries in Brazil, these delicate objects, constructed from bar and restaurant detritus, transform the everyday experience of looking, feeling, and talking into an artistic exploit. Here, sushi wrappers become miniature boats and bridges; sugar cubes metamorphose into granular molars; straws and foil form three-dimensional Ab-Ex reliefs; and soiled napkins serve as a canvas for Minimalist gestures in coffee and spit. Collectively, the diminutive artifacts reveal a fidgeting of the mind that is both endearing and enthralling. As opposed to Lygia Clark’s confrontational and often forced interactivity (one typified by the introduction of masks, hoods, and eye-occluding devices), Neuenschwander promotes a sense of emotional balance and therapeutic healing achieved by establishing a comfortable distance between the artist and her audience. Similarly, the monolithic “I Wish Your Wish” (2003), housed in the lobby space of the museum, utilizes participatory action in place of authorial execution. Thousands of rainbow-colored ribbons adorn the gallery in vertical strips. “I wish I could tell my parents I’m gay,” “I wish for an easy death,” and “I wish I had the strength to divorce my husband,” are only some of the repeated invocations, desires and fears that mark the colorful display. Brazilian tradition states that tying the ribbon around the wrist facilitates the fulfillment of such appeals. When the ribbon falls off, one’s wish is supposedly granted. In Neuenschwander’s version, visitors are asked to take a ribbon in exchange for a wish of their own making, thus maintaining a constant exchange of connective energy.
Such duration-based pieces are elegantly intensified in “One Thousand and One Possible Nights” and “Arabian Moons” (both 2008). Here the element of time takes hold of the ancient story of Scheherazade and her narrative ploy for survival. In Neuenschwander’s account, text-riddled confetti, forged from the document itself, peppers ebony-hued backgrounds in galactic constellations, while in the latter exactly 1000 holes perforate a reel of 16mm film—Arabian Nights itself set to ragged animation. The meaning of the work is two-fold: to document the lifespan of the exhibition (the number of collages represents the number of days the retrospective is on view), and to illustrate, through non-verbal means, the power and elasticity of the spoken word.
Neuenschwander’s work, in both subject matter and execution, speaks to the pluralism of everyday existence. Conceptually, this is what endows the artist’s voice with staying power. As a result, however, the exhibition does not always cohere formally. Some pieces—“At a Certain Distance (Ex-Voto paintings)” (2010), “The Conversation” (2010), with its paranoia inflected overtones, and “First Love” (2010), which pairs visitors with a police sketch artist—while innovative in their own rights, seem out of place amidst the viscerally organic elements that define the rest of Neuenschwander’s oeuvre. The heart of this issue may not reside with artistic revision so much as with curatorial responsibility.
At the age of 42, one might argue that a mid-career retrospective of Rivane Neuenschwander is somewhat premature. The fact of the matter is, nevertheless, that the New Museum needed this. After the critical backlash that came to define Koons’s “Skin Fruit” exhibition, the museum was, in no uncertain terms, desperate to make amends. Summer in the city poses an ideal time to proffer such a peace offering—to tender a little something for everyone before the critical mass of the high season descends. A Day Like Any Other affords all parties that breathing room.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.