rivane neuenschwander

a day like any other
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
23 June - 9 September 2010

The everyday is a term that can cover a lot of ground but its expansiveness indicates a paradox. When used to denote anything that doesn’t ordinarily fall within the purview of art, the everyday, at this point in the history of modernism, can seem pretty small indeed. MIT’s Documents of Contemporary Art series’ eponymously titled volume tracked the term’s provenance through surrealism, situationism, fluxus, feminism, conceptualism and beyond, emphasising its oppositional potential. But thinking of what’s outside art—a problem announced by Duchamp in the middle of World War I—isn’t necessarily best served by an oppositional rhetoric. In the work of Brazilian-born Rivane Neuenschwander, recently the subject of a mid-career survey at the New Museum, the quotidian serves as a source of poetry and wonder, a passed-over possibility for the miraculous, for something that is missed or otherwise failed, and a gap between the ideal and reality. Neuenschwander works across painting, photography, film, sculpture, installation, collaborative actions, and participatory events—a range that features in a lot of contemporary practice and which she compounds by working in the different roles of commissioning agent, collaborator, social organiser, curator and editor.

The variable degree of control that results from Neuenschwander’s manner of working can result in a body of work that looks, at least to some critics of the New Museum’s ‘A Day Like Any Other’, incoherent. But what looks like incoherence might be nothing more than Neuenschwander’s fondness for things that would otherwise slip by. (Tenuousness in fact might be the principle holding things together here.) In First Love (2010), a police department sketch artist, hired by Neuenschwander, worked with visitors to produce a pencil image of their first loves, and the resulting sketches accumulated on view during the course of the exhibition. First Love displayed images that would otherwise not exist but for the social encounter orchestrated by Neuenschwander. While her authority enabled their production, it is nevertheless the individual visitor as commissioning agent who can understand the ‘gap’ between memory and recollection, verbal description and finished image. For other viewers there is simply the accompanying sense of lost opportunity or what-might-have-been.

Like a lot of contemporary practice, Neuenschwander’s work can ape the look of non-art objects found almost immediately on the other side of the museum door. The sketches that comprised First Love were not far removed from the work of streetside portraitists, in New York and elsewhere. So too her I Wish Your Wish (2003) installed in the New Museum’s lobby which referred specifically to the church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil where supplicants tie silk ribbons to both their wrists and the church gates: tradition dictates that wishes are granted when the ribbons eventually fall off. Currently at least one mid-town Episcopal church in Manhattan has an almost identical arrangement of yellow ribbons adorning its fence. (The universal wish here is for peace.) In the New Museum work hundreds of multi-coloured ribbons listing visitors’ wishes from past projects hung from the walls and current visitors were invited to remove a ribbon, tie it to their wrist, and replace it with a new wish written on slip of paper. Constantly renewed, like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s wrapped candy works, and with a strong participatory element, not unlike Spencer Tunick’s massed photo shoots, the installation favoured participatory action—taking up another’s wish, contributing a new one—over Neuenschwander’s execution.

The participatory mode within contemporary practice is not without its critics and Neuenschwander’s practice, while situating itself within Brazilian conceptualism’s tradition of inter-activity, cannot be so narrowly defined. Not all the works on view made a direct appeal to participatory response; Involuntary Sculptures (Speech Acts) (2001–2010) might be said to have engaged it by stealth. Here Neuenschwander collected graphic and three-dimensional doodles made by strangers she met in local eateries and installed them according to unannounced but visually specific criteria, in a set of vitrines. The found objects, made from the ephemera of restaurants and bars, show the twitchy fidgety intelligence stalking boredom: metal bottle tops twist and flex, sushi wrappers rediscover themselves as boats, and sugar cubes erode into totemic plinths. These delicate objects were completely beguiling as examples of unschooled, unconscious art but this is only part of their story. As with the could-have-been of First Love, the social encounters they mark like registrations of tedium go otherwise unglossed. Playing the roles of collector and anthropologist, Neuenschwander withdraws her hand only to exercise it elsewhere in the work as formalist and curator.

Involuntary Sculptures demanded a certain intensity of looking; by contrast At a Certain Distance (Ex-Voto paintings) (2010) could easily slip by unnoticed. Modeled on ex-votos—religious paintings commissioned commemoratively out of gratitude or made in order to seek grace—Neuenschwander’s suite of small scale versions removed all captions or references to pictorial drama, leaving only brightly coloured abstracted spaces. Installed with an orange carpeted floor, the paintings suggested a domestic scale but pictures of absence, particularly when the reference is unfamiliar, are difficult conceptually: how does one look at something that isn’t there?

Two works installed in adjoining spaces offered variations on this theme. For The Conversation (2010) Neuenschwander filled a room with surveilance devices and prior to the exhibition’s opening trashed the space in an attempt to reveal them. The devices recorded her actions and subsequently replayed them in the disassembled exhibition space. While Neuenschwander nodded to Coppola’s 1974 film of the same title, there was little of the film’s all-encompassing paranoia. Instead, the installation felt staged; all control rested with the artist. Yet one of the most ‘controlled’ of Neuenschwander’s works was also one of the most compelling. The Tenant (2010), a ten-and-a-half-minute video loop made with Cao Guimarães and O Grivo, tracked a large soap bubble through a deserted house. From this slender scenario Neuenschwander contrived a gently suspenseful analogue to a certain kind of looking: ever moving, never arriving. Here, and in the other films included in the exhibition, it was enough to be a viewer, no ribbons or sketch artists required.

Rivane Neuenschwander, Eu desejo o seu desejo/I wish your wish, 2003. Silkscreen on fabric ribbons, dimensions variable. Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Juan and Pat Vergex Collection. Courtesy New Museum. Photography by Benoit Pailley. 

Rivane Neuenschwander, Eu desejo o seu desejo/I wish your wish, 2003. Silkscreen on fabric ribbons, dimensions variable. Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Juan and Pat Vergex Collection. Courtesy New Museum. Photography by Benoit Pailley.