The Magic of Simple Things
No tropicalismo here: Rivane Neuenschwander’s works resist western clichés of Brazilian art. Instead, they combine conceptual thinking, participation, and poetry. An entire floor is dedicated to her works in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt. Sebastian Preuss on one of the most exciting young artists on the international scene.
||When by chance a Brazilian saw Rivane Neuenschwander’s installation in London, he immediately became homesick. Yet there was nothing there that a European would have identified as being typical for the country. Rain Rains is a veritable armada of buckets hanging all around the space from the ceiling. Water drips from each into a bucket standing beneath. Now, the work can also be experienced in the two-person exhibition at the Kunsthalle Lingen, where the Brazilian is shown with the Korean Haegue Yang. It can also be seen in the major retrospective currently coming to a close in Dublin after four stopovers in the USA and a widely acclaimed start in the New Museum in New York.
Neuenschwander’s Rain Rains resembles a Sisyphean work: when a bucket on the floor is full, the museum staff have to climb a ladder to pour the water back into the bucket above: a continuous cycle, a slow, absurd ballet to which the dripping water provides the soundtrack. One could read the installation as a parable on futility and transience, on the unstoppable passage of time and our attempts to arrest life’s trickling away. But there is also a more concrete source for this work: in Brazil, the dripping and buckets are part of an everyday phenomenon known to all, one that no one really thinks about anymore. When one of the tropical rainfalls occurs, the whole country starts scooping and baling. It always winds up leaking somewhere—particularly through the flat roofs of the elegant Brazilian modernist concrete buildings. Hardly anyone gets particularly upset about it; people simply place a bucket beneath the leak. Neuenschwander creates her very own aesthetic from this everyday observation, combining a cool conceptual approach with everyday phenomena and an obsession for time, numbers, and order systems. In Neuenschwander’s work, circles and circular forms repeatedly arise: water droplets, soap bubbles, confetti, eggs, moons, the starry sky, zeros. Like the raindrops in Rain Rains, they can become signs for fragility, the life force, nature, birth, and decay—symbols of feminine principles.
The basis for Neuenschwander’s works are these simple things, the seemingly random and ephemeral that no one is concerned about. Neuenschwander demands that we observe these details more closely, perceive the things that we encounter on a daily basis without ever really feeling them or giving them any meaning. Removed from their contexts, Neuenschwander imbues them with new life and translates them into clear "images" comprised for the most part of simple elements. These can be "real" images or pictorial arrangements—more often, however, they give rise to interventions, processes, and calls to participation to have new experiences. Neuenschwander utilizes all kinds of media, including room-sized installations, sculptural forms, readymades, assemblages, collages, painterly elements, printmaking, film, photography, and sound to the point of game or a kind of concrete poetry.
At the 1998 Biennale of Sao Paulo, she collected dust from a house and arranged it in two room-sized boxes; as visitors trekked the dirt throughout the space, it took on a subtle Arte Povera aesthetic while its "image" constantly changed. Neuenschwander has also worked with dead and living insects, for instance for the photo series Belongs Does Not Belong. In this work, she plays through all the various permutations that three beetles and three soap bubbles can form together according to the rules of set theory.
This, too, begins with personal experience: a typical Brazilian beetle and a memory of her childlike wonder at soap bubbles, which each of us carries with us throughout our lives. The result—the black insects, which seem as though choreographed; the fragile glistening bubbles before a sky-blue background—possesses a minimalist beauty. As though the world had stood still for a moment, we perceive nothing but this frozen sequence, which is nothing more than an encounter between two fairly banal things. In the video The Tenant, a soap bubble floats through the empty ruins of a house as though urged on by a magical power. And in the series One Thousand And One Possible Nights from the Deutsche Bank Collection, Neuenschwander pieced together confetti from the pages of the fairy tale 1001 Nights to form dreamlike star constellations on a dark background. Everything is art if we only look at it the right way: Neuenschwander breathes new life into this old message of Duchamp’s, who also elevated dust to the level of artifact.
The artist was born in 1967 in Belo Horizonte in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where she lives to this day—together with her husband, the German curator Jochen Volz, and her two children. Neuenschwander’s name comes from her Swiss forebears, but there is also Portuguese and Indian blood among her ancestors—a typical Brazilian heritage. She is one of a fairly small group of artists from the huge multicultural country that takes part in international exhibitions at important institutions. In her case, this can’t have been due to a "Brazil bonus," because her work doesn’t bear the slightest trace of Tropicalismo—there’s no colorful ornamentation as in the work of Beatriz Milhazes, no southern sensuous materiality as with Cildo Meireles, no direct references to the room-sized sculptures of the Neoconcretismo of the fifties, the influence of which can be seen clearly to this day, for instance in the work of Ernesto Neto.
Neuenschwander feels herself to be deeply rooted in the culture of her home country. She tells of how she grew up in a typical Brazilian house and was already attracted by its characteristic aesthetic at an early age. "The clear lines and open structures, the colored cement with bits of marble, decorative tiles, the space and the light, the garden—this was my earliest and deepest experience with modernism." Later, other important inspiration came from the Brazilian avant-garde movements in poetry and music, in film and photography. But Neuenschwander also places great value on the international context: "We are not isolated in our own culture."
When Neuenschwander includes people in the developmental process of her work, Duchamp and Dada come to mind, Beuys and American conceptual art of the sixties, but also Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica, the two great revivers of post-war Brazilian art. Deutsche Bank owns an entire set of photographs from the series Involuntary Sculptures. For this work, Neuenschwander collected objects for years—the little things people assemble while having a conversation in a bar or restaurant—and recorded them with a camera: small sculptures made of drinking straws and corks, napkins and coasters, but also meditative rearrangements of plates and glasses.
Regarding her participatory approach, Neuenschwander says:"I am fundamentally interested in the permanent state of change the works are in." Her "collaborators" can be people, but also nature or time. Thus, she let snails nibble at rice paper until it resembled the contours of enigmatic continents. Or she called upon exhibition visitors to describe the face of their first love to a police artist in order to create a phantom image.
Visitors to the Venice Biennale of 2005 wrote letters on typewriters for Neuenschwander that were manipulated to contain only empty keys or keys with punctuation marks—the results were reminiscent of Concrete Poetry. Several times, she has assembled monumental Scrabble games in cultural institutions using various different objects to hold the letters in place, such as oranges, soap, and eggs. She asked the public to write notes about their fears and hopes, or let exhibition visitors take little ribbons with wishes printed on them, which she borrowed from the pilgrims in Salvador de Bahia. These interactive works of Neuenschwander’s are only then complete when other people add their thoughts, concentration, and time. "Without these, I arrive at no form. Without them, nothing happens and the work has no power of expression."
Rivane Neuenschwander/Haegue Yang. Escaping Things and Words
October 15 through December 18, 2011
Rivane Neuenschwander. A Day Like Any Other
November 15,2011, to January 29, 2012
Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.