At the entrance to the Miami Art Museum's new exhibit, a work called I Wish Your Wish (2003) fills three walls with thousands of shiny, rainbow-hued ribbons flowing not unlike hair plugs from pencil-width holes drilled into the walls. At first, the sprawling installation gives the impression of a massive, richly textured abstract painting that glimmers under the gallery lights.
But closer inspection reveals that each ribbon is silk-screened with the plea of a visitor who has engaged the work before.
The installation is one of several interactive works in a new traveling show of work by artist Rivane Neuenschwander. It's inspired by a tradition at the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Bahia, Brazil, the country of her birth.
The faithful there tie brightly colored silk ribbons to their wrists, knotting them three times; they make wishes and wear the votive bands until they fray away, at which point their pleas are believed answered.
At MAM, the ribbons bear the wishes of visitors to earlier incarnations of the piece. The ribbons appear not unlike colorful streamers, each the length of the Christ statue's arm inside the church in Brazil. Notably generic, the pleas range from help becoming a rock star to conquering anxiety or earning entrance to grad school.
The idea is to evoke the desires people share and also the passage of time. In essence, museum-goers "adopt" the wishes of former visitors, becoming responsible for their fulfillment while their current desires are left in the hands of future guests .
Neuenschwander's first museum survey, "A Day Like Any Other," spans 11 major works created over the past decade. It opened last year in New York's New Museum and will travel to Dublin after leaving Miami. The artist revisits themes of time's fleeting nature and concepts of mapping, measuring, trading, and categorization. Poetic and engaging works make a forceful argument for why she has earned comparisons to key figures in Brazilian art such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica.
Brazil has long been a locus of conceptualism, and the show unveils why the Brazilian artist is garnering international attention.
A major installation that immerses viewers is Rain Rains (2002), which converts MAM's central ground-floor gallery into a slow-drip, acoustical summer shower. Neuenschwander has suspended an array of 33 water-filled tin buckets on steel cables hanging from the ceiling and then placed corresponding buckets under each one.
Each of the airborne pails has a small hole drilled in its bottom, causing continual droplets. The serene symphony of ambient drips is meant to evince a liquid notion of time. At the edge of the installation is a ladder used by museum staff to refill the drained containers with the water collected below every four hours.
On surrounding walls, Neuenschwander's suite of paintings titled After the Storm (2010) further blurs boundaries on the subject of water by directly interacting with nature.
For these works, she placed maps of New York counties outside her studio in Brazil during a torrential downpour. The rain reshaped the geography of the maps, upon which she later painted abstract landscapes. They make a subtle counterpoint to the water theme evoked by the buckets while suggesting new territories to explore.
Just like the recycled droplets, a circle motif repeats throughout the show. Ovals are of primary importance to Neuenschwander's work, which employs bubbles, eggs, hole-punched confetti, moons, and constellations, often as symbols of fragility, the feminine principal, or the natural world.
For example, in The Fall (2009), a short looped video, viewers are confronted by a POV scene of an egg carried in a spoon, giving the impression of running in some type of carnival game. Earphones pipe in the sound of heavy breathing, ratcheting up the tension. The eerie mood is heightened further when one realizes the unseen protagonist is entering deeper and deeper into a gloomy forest, with the bouncing egg and spoon, precariously clenched in his chattering teeth.
Equally mesmerizing is The Tenant, inspired by Roman Polanski's 1976 thriller of the same title in which a man believes his neighbors are conspiring to force him to commit suicide.
Neuenschwander's ten-minute video loop features a solitary soap bubble floating through a dark, empty apartment and coming perilously close to bursting as it veers toward walls, a stairwell, and tiled floors. The artist collaborated with the Brazilian duo O Grivo on the uncanny film, whose soundtrack of ambient rasping makes the bubble's delicate flight all the more ominous.
Another film reference can be found in The Conversation, an installation created specifically for the exhibit and isolated in its own room. Taking its title from Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 movie classic in which Gene Hackman played a paranoid surveillance expert, Neuenschwander's Orwellian opus deals with the notion that Big Brother is no longer the subject of a dystopian nightmare.
Prior to opening the show, the artist hired someone to install ten bugs in the room and then cover the entire space with carpeting and wallpaper. Afterward, she and a team of assistants entered the space and conducted a frenzied search — not unlike the one that Hackman's addled surveillance expert performed in the movie's last scene — leaving the room a shambles.
Visitors entering the creepy installation can listen to the group's frantic search — sounds of carpet and wallpaper being ripped — on speakers attached to the exposed listening devices. The experience evokes the sensation of the invasion of privacy or being observed by spying eyes.
The artist also references literary sources, such as in a striking piece that functions as a calendar and is a collection of collages titled One Thousand and One Possible Nights (2008).
She hole-punched Scheherazade's classic collection of fairy tales and sprinkled the confetti on a black background like stardust. The resulting imagery conjures deep space and dreamy, Milky Way constellations.
Each piece on display suggests a different night or story from the book and is arranged in four distinct grids, corresponding to the days and months of the exhibit's duration at MAM.
Another compelling work that alludes to a literary reference is First Love (2005), named after a Samuel Beckett novella, for which the artist has recruited a police sketch artist to render portraits of participants' recollections of former flames.
At MAM, Det. Paul Moody, forensic artist with the Palm Beach County's Sheriff's Office Violent Crimes Division, will collaborate with museum guests to conjure portraits from memory during a process that takes about an hour and a half. The public can contact MAM to make appointments for sittings.
The results, displayed on a wall, create a catalogue of faces and features evoking references to crimes of passion and eschewing notions of sentimentality. Pencil sketches from former incarnations of the project are reminiscent of criminal perps and exude a distinct noirish vibe.
Savoring each chapter of Neuenschwander's career reveals she is a natural storyteller gifted with an insatiable curiosity and clever use of diverse mediums.
Unfortunately, the limited space allotted for her work at MAM makes more for a condensed digest than a leisurely reading. But hers is a tome full of tales that stick in one's head until dog-eared.