Rivane Neuenschwander’s miscellany of work fufills the aspiration of today’s audience-hungry curator. Global? Check: Female from the third world, Brazilian inheritor of Tropicalia receives a “mid-career” survey. Neuenschwander is interdisciplinary as well. Her creative toolkit includes painting, photography, video, sculpture, installation. Her medley dutifully fulfills everything contemporary art appraises itself as. It is, however, her collaborative actions and participatory events that bring her “international praise.” The spectrum of participation ranges from Walking in Circles where adhesive circles on the gallery floor progressively collects dirt from visitors shoes, to the constantly amended tiny ephemera Involuntary Sculptures (Speech Act) comprised of objects she appropriated from bars displayed on pedestals. Even the visually enthralling works abandon themselves to the prioritization of event and participation. Relational participatory art, for all its bowing to the fugitive and ephemeral, is here to stay.
Neuenschwander is not far from claiming one of the top seats next to ‘on the margins’ artists like Gabriel Orozco and Felix Gonzalez Torres–or so the New Museum wants to claim. Her work imports sufficient recognizable elements of contemporary art–simultaneous concern with the global and the local, warping the everyday with the unusual–and just enough difference to be distinguishable from the rest. Neuenschwander’s particular aesthetic hitches histories of the sculptural quotidian to the ambitiously relational.
A take on the Brazilian tradition of magic ribbons occurs In the lobby of the New Museum with I Wish Your Wish (2003), welcoming or bidding farewell to visitors. The offering: 60 wishes stamped on thousands of ribbons are to be exchanged by visitors for a new wish they can then insert back on a slip of paper. But the beautifully colored silk ribbons can’t mask the melancholia of contemporary life; What passive viewer leaves empowered by carrying a lime green ribbon declaring, “I wish I had the strength to divorce my husband”? How many children will be persuaded to believe their wish for “Peace in the Middle East” might just come true? We must not lose sight of the perennial returns of false promises and take the ribbon that wishes Obama to be re-elected. The wishes point at our impotence and our desires, and reveal themselves as fantasies momentarily satisfied. Just like a fortune-cookie or horoscope, desire seems fulfilled without actually experiencing it. If Tropicalia – specifically the participatory art of Ligia Clark and Helio Oticica – were about social agency, and at times proved the lack thereof, I Wish Your Wish not only reinforces lack of agency to make what we wish happen, but masks it in a colorful silk rainbow of optimism and participation.
The site-specific sound and sculpture installation, The Conversation (2010), is either banal or ineffective. Walking over the partially ripped-out grey industrial rug tiles of the exhibition room one hears unidentifiable noises coming out of small speakers placed on the floor. Are those supposed to be rats going through the trash? After hearing a few thumps and perhaps a clang or two you might wonder whether it is a raccoon instead. The walls have been exposed to reveal small microphones connected to the speakers on the floor, but as we might expect the noises we discern are not our own. It is unclear where the sound is coming from. It is unclear why the wallpaper has been meticulously removed out in squares or why rectangular sections of the rug have been cautiously lifted. These shortcomings are left to The Museum Itself to explain; the impression of walking into a theater after the main event is confirmed by the New Museums’s wall description. It is revealed to us that The Conversation is about paranoia. Neuenschwander requested surveillance experts to implant the speakers, or “bugs,” only for her to later visit the gallery and rip out everything until she found all the speakers. Thus, the installation–inspired by a Francis Ford Coppolla film of the same name, in which a wiretap specialist thinks he is being observed and eventually destroys his house in search of a microphone–is the residue of a theatrical event. A deceitful theatrical event at that: A true paranoid schizophrenic does not really know whether or not there are speakers to be found. The visitor does not experience any anxiety or fear with such calculated “destruction” coming exclusively from the performer. The installation had no impact, as the volume was too low, the space too orderly–the installation failed to fulfill any of its supposed intention. Perhaps the installation ought to have been a performance, perhaps its best incarnation was to be left in the film, but perhaps it would have been better not to have known at all.
The inferior of these direct audience participation installations is First Love. Inspired by a Samuel Beckett Novella, Neuenschwander offers museum visitors the services of a forensic artist who sketches your first lover while asking you questions about their facial features. This paltry conceptualism produces a wall display of dozens of sketches that do not feel intimate, nor remind us of our first youthful infatuation. What is so compelling about seeing your first lover reemerge from memory into a forensic frontal-head sketch? The photograph of your first lover hiding in some secret (or random) cabinet or computer file you have not had the guts to throw away has a more potent effect. Taken as a whole Neuenschwander’s interventions don’t reach much deeper than the “art works” being made on the sidewalks of Times Square. If this is what the artist’s adoption of relational aesthetics amounts to, it is to her impairment.
Neuenschwander, however, does not always shy away from an object centered material practice. The enthralling and delicate video, The Tenant (2010), follows the gentle movements of a permanently suspended soap bubble as it wanders through an empty house. Ephemerality and unmonumentality are seamlessly aligned in what is one of the strongest works on display. The viewer curiously watches as the bubble floats, and worries about its destiny as a mother observes a child as he enters a playground for the first time. Here there is no control, only the desire to see the soap bubble survive. After ten minutes of mounting suspense it neither bursts nor pops and the video commences again. In the video only aesthetics speak, and contemplation and absorption return as valuable experience in the realm of contemporary art.