Rivane Neuenschwander Talks Surveillance and First Love at Miami Art Museum

The concept of a surveillance society is no longer the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Many people today believe "Big Brother" watches their every move with sophisticated technology.In most major cities digital cameras monitor streets, government buildings, airports, highways, shopping malls, public transport, even the elevator you rode alone to your office job today. Is it a wonder some are feeling a growing sense of paranoia?

This is the theme behind Rivane Neuenschwander's The Conversation, a provocative installation on view as part of "A Day Like Any Other," opening at the Miami Art Museum this Saturday. We met with the Brazilian artist as she was preparing for the first mid-career survey of her work at MAM earlier this week. She told us about her creepy work titled after Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 movie classic in which Gene Hackman played the role of a paranoid surveillance expert.

"In the movie, Hackman discovers his apartment has been bugged after obsessively working on a surveillance case and trashes his place trying to discover the hidden listening devices," explains Neuenschwander.

To recreate the tense scene from the movie, Neuenschwander hired someone to install ten bugs in a room at MAM then cover the entire space with wallpaper and carpeting. The walls and floors were then covered in a grid pattern as if modeled after a game like Battle Ship.

Afterwards the artist and a team of assistants entered the space and tore it apart while searching for the bugs, leaving the space in tatters. Visitors entering the room discover the chaotic remnants of shredded carpet and ripped wallpaper, and listen to the sounds of her search for the devices on speakers attached to the bugs that were planted.

"Initially we were following a pattern not unlike a game grid," said Neuenschwander. "This piece has a performative element. You can look at it and see a pattern mapping how intelligence was used to discover the bugs. We could have destroyed the entire walls and floor searching for the devices," she mentions.

"But after two hours, when the first two bugs were discovered next to each other, it only took 30 minutes to find the remaining eight hidden devices," explained the artist while sitting on the floor of the space that appears like a rat's nest evincing her frantic search and the movie's ending.

Neuenschwander, who says that this is the first time The Conversation has been isolated in its own room, adds that she has been tinkering with the notion of the project for a while. "This is an important thematic for me and an issue that's current for everyone." Her Orwellian opus leaves one with the sensation of the invasion of privacy or being observed by spying eyes.

Also on view will be First Love, an interactive piece in which participants work with a police sketch artist to create portraits of their earliest paramours.

She will employ Detective Paul Moody, forensic artist with Palm Beach County's Sheriff's Office Violent Crimes Division, to render the features conjured from memories in a process that take about an hour and a half to complete. The public can contact the museum for appointments for sittings during the length of the show. The sketch art will also available on select Sundays; see the schedule here.

But don't think this is a sentimental take on your first crush though. It evokes references to crimes of passion with the pencil sketches reminding one of criminal perps and exuding somewhat of a noirish vibe.

"So far this piece has resulted in about 200 sketches by different forensic artists who each have different styles," Neuenschwander says. "It works sort of like translating words to images and also an anthropological catalogue of faces and features," she observes.

"The point of having a forensic artist do these works creates contradictory feelings of love while balancing sentimentality," says the conceptual artist whose wide-ranging, interdisciplinary works also includes painting, film, and sculptures on view at MAM.

Along with her arresting perp walk of former flames, the museum's galleries will overflow with enigmatic and poetically evocative works. Rain Rains, a gallery-flooding environment of dripping buckets suspended from the ceiling, duplicates a downpour.

Swap your secret desires with a stranger in I Wish Your Wish, an installation of thousands of colorful ribbons printed with the hopes of others who have visited the installation. Simply remove one of the votive offerings and replace it with your own. Neuenschwander's inspiration comes from the tradition of a church in Bahia, Brazil, where the faithful bind ribbons to their wrists and believe their dreams become manifest once the ribbons wear away.

"A Day Like Any Other" Through October 16. Miami Art Museum, 101 West Flagler, Street, Miami. Call 305-375-3000 or visit miamiartmuseum.org.

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