Confetti carried by processions of ants; a symphony of drips dripping from suspended metal buckets; a collection of little sculptures made from the detritus of bar conversations; paper maps half-dissolved by the rain, rescued and repainted; Scrabble games remade using lettered eggs… Rivane Neuenschwander’s art may be diverse in its use of media, but her guiding interests are remarkably constant, turning on how material forms interact with sociable cultures and the desires of the individuals who are part of them, while delighting in how chance, uncertainty and the chaotic life of natural processes tangle with more human orders.
Neuenschwander’s work often attracts comparisons to earlier Brazilian avant-garde artists such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. The younger artist’s unrepressed fascination with materiality, colour and the everyday qualities and associations of objects, alongside her interest in the social dimension of art, certainly suggests that she shares many of their concerns, but the artist also cites her admiration for older artists such as the constructivist sculptor Amilcar de Castro and the outsider artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário. And while it’s easy to see parallels in her work with 1990s ‘relational’ art – she came to London to study in the mid-90s – Neuenschwander is quick to point out that relational aesthetics itself owes a great debt to precursors such as Clark.
This eclectic weaving of influences, along with earlier studies in the social sciences, seems to inform the artist’s subtle combination of systems – natural, social or linguistic – with the imaginative fancies of everyday culture. Purely happenstance processes influence the sound of the bucket drips of Rain Rains (2002), or the fan-blown elements that form above the viewer’s head in Continent/Cloud (2007). Such works involve the human capacity to project sense, meaning and delight into what might be entirely arbitrary phenomena, and it’s that habit of projection which also informs the anthropomorphic humour of The Tenant (2010), a video that purports to track the movements of a soap bubble as it floats, unpopped, through an old house, as if looking for something, or the strange procession of the ants and their colourful confetti discs in Ash Wednesday/Epilogue (2006).
In such works, the cosmic indifference of material processes is countered by the human desire to invest the world with meaning – witness the myriad constellations of hole- punch paper dots, scattered on black backgrounds, the dustlike remains of a copy of the grand romantic fable One Thousand and One Nights. In her more participatory works, such as the wish-ribbon exchange I Wish Your Wish (2003) or First Love (2005), in which participants describe their first love to a forensic illustrator, there’s a tense standoff between individual longing and its disappearance into the anonymous mass of human society. More recently, a darker sentiment comes to the fore, such as the paranoia of a gallery riddled with hidden listening devices in The Conversation (2010). For her forthcoming show at Saõ Paulo’s Galeria Fortes Vilaça, Neuenschwander is working on a complex installation that focuses on barriers, boundaries and lines of demarcation, both political and environmental, mixing modern topographical images with the imaginative astronomy of early indigenous Brazilian culture. Art, for Neuenschwander, is the troubled, sometimes euphoric encounter between desire and reality, given shape.
This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue