New York

Rivane Neuenschwander

New Museum

An introductory catalogue text for “A Day Like Any Other,” a mid-career survey of work by Rivane Neuenschwander, makes the rather obvious point that the circle is one of the artist’s favored motifs. It does appear frequently: as a soap bubble, as bucket rims, as dots, as zeros, and as holes punched in film. Although there is something at once too hardworking and too easy about the circle—able as it is, in its emptiness and suggestiveness, to carry all manner of allusive weight—this exhibition sets up a neat formal and metaphysical call-and-response that lifts the shape from the realm of symbolic catchall.

In Neuenschwander’s hands the circle often functions as a portal linking two things, as in As mil e uma noites possíveis (One Thousand and One Possible Nights), 2008, a set of eighty-nine collages, one for each day the exhibition is open, in which tiny circles punched from the pages of A Thousand and One Nights are affixed to black paper. The effect is a procession of galaxies or enormous cosmic explosions, neatly arranged in sets that suggest calendar pages, thus connecting time and outer space—a timeless work of literature used to evoke something infinitely vast with which to represent the march of something invisible—with breathless economy (not to mention a great deal of visual pleasure). Holes punched in the bottoms of buckets of water in Chove chuva (Rain Rains), 2002, transform an everyday object into an instrument of both music and timekeeping. In Andando em circulos (Walking in Circles), 2000, invisible circles of glue applied to the gallery floors gradually become visible as they attract dust and debris tracked in by visitors, thereby shifting the audience’s role from that of passive wanderer to that of active contributor.

Our participation, too, has a circular reciprocal element. Eu deseo o seu desejo (I Wish Your Wish), 2003, is a wall of ribbons in bright candy colors, each printed with a wish and stuck in a little hole (circular, of course) gouged in the wall. In a ritualistic transaction based on the tying of ribbons to the gates of the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Salvador, Brazil, visitors may take a ribbon and then write their own wish on a scrap of paper and leave it in the empty hole. The ribbons, we are told, should be tied around the wrist, and the wish will come true when the ribbon falls off. These wishes, taken from those left in the holes during previous executions of the work, vary from the cynical (“I wish democracy was real”) to the heartfelt (“I wish I loved myself”) to the deeply silly (“I wish I had my own reality show”) to the oddly specific (“I wish I was a little taller”), and it’s not unusual to see a spectator holding his or her place with a finger on one ribbon while hunting for another, presumably better wish. This seems to play on a tendency to keep shopping, to believe that something better is out there (Neuenschwander has, in previous works, taken advantage of the collective behavior of ants and snails), and it adds an undercurrent of ambiguity to the work’s generous premise, as does the unclear nature of its multiple reciprocal relationships: When a ribbon falls off a wrist, for whom does the wish come true? The wearer, or the original wisher?

When Neuenschwander’s artworks are not circular, they are marked by shape shifting: In Depois da tempestade (After the Storm), 2010, maps of New York State left out in the rain become maps of an imaginary place; Esculturas involuntárias (Atos de fala) (Involuntary Sculptures [Speech Acts]), 2001–10, is a collection of bits of food service debris—coasters, wrappers, straws—turned into sculptures by the idle hands of the artist’s conversation partners in bars. Thus channeling the forces of nature, human and animal behavior, and the laws of physics, Neuenschwander situates herself as a kind of medium, a conduit for signs, accidents, and coincidences drawn from ephemeral materials and left to us to interpret. For such an open-ended and resonant practice, a circle is an appropriate motif indeed.

Emily Hall