In this playful installation titled Secondary Stories (2006) by Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander, viewers enter a luminous white room. The floor looks like the aftermath of a cracked cascarón. There’s a scattering of colorful tissue circles at one’s feet, while overhead, confetti blows around, visible through a translucent ceiling.
Every now and then, a piece of confetti falls through holes that have been cut out of the ceiling. For Neuenschwander, who is from Brazil, the reference is not Fiesta, but Carnival, the colorful, parade and samba-filled festival that precedes Lent.
The gallery at 111 Camp St. will host an opening reception for Neuenschwander’s multi-media installation which includes the “snow globe,” two series of photographs and a video installation, this Friday, April 29 at 6 p.m. The installation will be up through July 29, 2017.
Though there is a Carnival reference, “Secondary Stories is fundamentally an existential rumination on what could be the difference between an accident, chance or contingency,” Neuenschwander told the Rivard Report.
Many of the ideas provoked by Neuenschwander’s art occur in philosophy and literature: the passing of time, the limits of our perceptions, the intersections between chance and fate. Her poetic choices of subject matter, such as the dust from cleaning house (Day’s Work, 1998), or the objects people make while conversing at a bar, (Involuntary Sculptures/Speech Acts, 2001-10), give her work a graceful subtlety; her ideas are succinctly yet adroitly presented in a way that allows a feeling of discovery for the viewer, like the magic that happens between the lines of a poem: when the reader absorbs the meaning, sparking new ideas and feelings.
“The more I think (about it), the more I see an autobiographical content in my work, considering subjectivity as a sort of filter for a bigger context or a deeper question,” said Neuenschwander. “Despite the political context in my country (a dictatorship), I had a very rich childhood in Brazil, with a big family, full of adults, kids and pets, being exposed to all sorts of personal or social dramas, an effervescent micro and macro-sphere.”
Neuenschwander does not work with one single medium but instead uses whatever is necessary to express her ideas.
“It is all very open in terms of concept and media. … By intuition, I have always tried to escape the urgency of labeling in contemporary art,” she said. “I have tried to avoid a certain classification in terms of gender, culture, generation and so on, pre-concepts that could narrow my practice on a long term basis.”
This flexibility allows her to invent unusual ways to help viewers perceive life and the everyday world in surprising, captivating ways. What she chooses to concentrate on in her art is often overlooked and on the periphery of either of our consciousness or our physical reality. For example, in A Place Not Far From Here (2009), she photographed the background, the faux habitats, of animals at the Frankfurt Zoo. In First Love (2005) people described their first loves to a police sketch artist.
During her time at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brasil, Neuenschwander learned various types of media such as painting, engraving, film, drawing, photography and sculpture, which gave her “a basis to keep experimenting with different kinds of materials.” For Neuenschwander, “experience is more important than the object.” She welcomes failure over a non-risky situation, and she prefers instability and transformation rather than rigidity.
Her conceptual-based work may be, in some cases, more about the idea than the object. For example, when Linda Pace acquired the installation piece, Secondary Stories, in 2006, she purchased the instructions to make the piece, not the actual objects of the installation. For Secondary Stories, the Foundation used new material to create the exhibition, and modified their exhibition space to create this room as well as the room for the video installation.
Despite her resistance to being categorized as working in one particular media or style, Neuenschwander “still perceives a common thread that crosses all my practice, which might be a special attention to what is a bit irrelevant (such as supermarket lists), invisible (such as dust), neglected, underestimated (such as childhood), obsolete (such as typewriters or pinhole cameras), annoying (such as ants), superfluous, ‘secondary’ or inferior (such as anonymous design), for most of people.”
Much of Neuenschwander’s art evokes childhood, as seen in the two series of photographs in Secondary Stories. Belongs Does Not Belong (2000) was created during Neuenschwander’s participation in Artpace’s International Arist In Residence program, and it evokes a child’s fascination with bugs and bubbles. Using mathematical set theory, Neuenschwander illustrates all of the possible combinations of three bubbles and three beetles. Accidental Alphabet (2003), is reminiscent of the games children play to pass the time on road trips. The photographs document alphabet letters found throughout the landscape.
“Maybe playfulness is a way I found in order to communicate and reflect about deeper and more serious questions,” said Neuenschwander. For example, in Globes (2003), she modified various sizes and styles of balls to represent the flags from every nation in the world.
“While playing with balls (and) flags, you might not immediately think about the absurdity in terms of geographical borders or the political implications of having Syria next to France, or Cuba next to Brazil, or the concept of a nation or a country when you roll the flag of Palestine. Or the number of countries you had back in 2003 and today. Or how your movement/action can be influential for the geopolitics in the world.”
Neuenschwander’s video installation is a collaboration between videographer Cao Guimarães and the musical duo O Grivo.
“I like thinking also about ants, snails, wind and people as collaborators… even museums/institutions, as it is the case now,” she said. “Most of my collaborators are people who I feel comfortable with, who I share friendship, ideas, trust and so on.”
The snails she refers to are her collaborators in Starving Letters, (2001). Neuenschwander mounted sheets of rice paper that have been partially eaten away by snails against a background, highlighting the details of the papers’ contours.
The title of her video, Qarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue (2006) alludes to Ash Wednesday, when the festivities conclude and a period of fasting begins. The footage features ants holding colorful pieces of confetti in Herculean grasps as they struggle over decaying leaves, stone, and other obstacles to reach their hole. The soundtrack is a mix of ambient noise and music composed by O Grivo, based on samba music and the sound of matches falling to the ground.
Neuenschwander coated the confetti pieces with sugar water to coax the insects into participation. The resulting attempts by the ants to clean up and order the random scattering of confetti may be an allusion to post carnival behavior. This video will run until October 21, and will be followed by two other Neuenschwander videos in Pace’s collection, Love Lettering (2002) and Inventory of Small Deaths (Blow) (2000).
Neuenschwander continues working along the theme of childhood.
“I have been working on (an ongoing project based on) the childhood memories from my friends, kids that were brought up in the same period (’70s in Brazil),” she said. “The specificity of memories is something absolutely individual, nevertheless, altogether, the memories end up depicting a country, that belongs to a bigger historical, social and cultural context of the world. I am also working with kids through educational programs, trying to understand and formalize their fears, expectations, dreams, etc.”
In The Name of Fear, Neuenschwander collaborates with a fashion designer and friend to translate children’s drawings of their fears into wearable capes.
Her influences are always changing, but currently, she said, “I am studying a bit deeper the work of Fernand Deligny, a French thinker, educator, and poet, who has worked with autistic children.” She is also learning “about Augusto Boal, an important figure in Brazilian theatre.”
Neuenschwander’s art functions like poetry set into motion. In Gastronomic Translations (2003), when she found a grocery list on the floor of a supermarket in Frankfurt, Neuenschwander invited two Sao Paulo chefs to create dishes using all of the ingredients on the list. There’s almost always an element of action in her work, whether through documentation or through conceiving a way for viewers to engage with her art. By presenting new perspectives, she awakens dormant parts of our minds.
“I always thought of the word ‘transformation,’ that you could enter a gallery space and see a different work everyday, something that is not only about your perception, but about entropy,” said Neuenschwander. “Not only about entropy, but also about us being an essential part of a daily transformation.”
Top Image: “Secondary Stories,” Image Courtesy of Linda Pace Foundation