Best Wishes

John Haber
in New York City

Rivane Neuenschwander and Brion Gysin

Rivane Neuenschwander treats everything as an occasion for brightness and the fulfillment of wishes. Even her version of sound art, an installation of surveillance microphones, depends on silence. It spotlights the New Museum's boxy spaces and increasing accommodation to the mainstream. Mostly, though, it presents a decidedly upbeat version of performance and installation. Rivane Neuenschwander's The Tenant (New Museum, 2010)

Does her retrospective, which shares the museum with Brion Gysin and his Dreammachine, earn that good cheer? Sometimes, especially in her previous exhibition, when colors descended like a passing shower. And sometimes she had me wishing for more. A floating moment could recall birds at dawn or an artist trapped under surveillance late at night. It could also evoke neither one. Cross your fingers.

Does time always fly?

Rivane Neuenschwander is certainly informative. Did you know that a pinhole will empty a bucket in four hours, but a soap bubble can last and last? Did you know that the old digital clocks in railway stations, before LEDs, when four black cards of white numbers landed firmly on the hour, are called flip clocks. I can picture the face of my first love so much less vividly than I ever admitted. People have too little to wish for.

Neuenschwander takes real pleasure in her own wishes and memories, but pleasures can be fleeting. She has an eye for what chance can bring to a gallery's white cube, but she needs to take more chances. A childlike innocence can find surprise in adult fears, but also infantilize them. Midcareer retrospectives always have a way of making too much of too few ideas. Yet the Brazilian artist has some lovely ideas, the kind that can dance before one's eyes. She also comes at a very good time.

Neuenschwander scrubs the New Museum clean of macho posturing, right after it handed over the joint to Jeff Koons and a tasteless donor. She follows a MoMA retrospective of Gabriel Orozco, who shared her fascination with spare installations and the fragile marks of the human body. Yet he ran out of ideas after an intense few years. She follows renewed interest in the conceptual art of her native land, often labeled Neoconcretism or Tropicália, but without its decorative excess or outlaw posturing. Born in 1967, she also picks up on Fluxus. People still debate whether the late 1960s represents childish impulse or permanent transformation.

Above all, she still believes in wishes, and her last Chelsea installation, in late 2006, kept one wishing. Colored paper disks circulated above a translucent drop ceiling and, now and again, fell through slits to the floor. She might have taken a ceiling fan to Sol LeWitt—or the high-tech mystery out of video games and digital art. As paper drifted and landed, it came as a relief, but also a fall from grace. When the gallery swept up each evening, it showed that installations do not have to act like car wrecks and ego trips. One can always, she promised, begin again.

Neuenschwander still nurtures both new beginnings and everyday changes, in a retrospective that she calls "A Day Like Any Other." They do not lead very far this time out, though, not even over three floors. They also seem to have lost their technical and formal experiment, along with her ability to subject both to chance. The circles are back—in her film of a soap bubble slowly navigating her studio, in old-fashioned tin buckets, or in scuff marks on the floor. She left sticky circles here and there, of various sizes, to pick up dirt from passing shoes. Yet her motifs increasingly seem little more than a personal quirk, much like the theme of water uniting buckets, soap bubbles, and maps soaked to paper pulp.

Her other preoccupation, of course, is time—associated ambiguously with progress or recovery. She invites visitors, one by one, to describe their first love to a police sketch artist. The buckets form a crude but reliable clock. They hang at different heights, paired with identical buckets as receptacles on the floor, and the museum regularly switches or replenishes them. Flip clocks throughout the museum, one for each hour of the day, show only zeroes. Time does not fly when one is not having fun.

Chance of showers

Not so very long ago, new media always meant not sound or nature but video—or an artist's grainy, underground film. Today data-driven art makes up a hefty share, and already its early examples look as awkward as Windows 3.1. That can translate into the awkwardness of Degas's ballerina, family photos on MySpace, or a ham-fisted painter. It also showed what Neuenschwander only a few years ago could do right.

Digital art can still bring back memories of that screen saver you ditched ages ago, but what if you could walk into the picture? What if its shifting, colored pixels became cobblestones and the white space between them the clouds above? I had that sensation when I entered a gallery in Chelsea. Across the broad ceiling, palm-size colored dots circulate, as if following an indecipherable algorithm. They stand out brightly against the translucent glass, but also against apparently less regular arcs that I mistook at first for paint on the floor. I imagined that Neuenschwander was contrasting the virtual space of digital art with the real space of older media, with the ample space of a room, and with the still ampler and more virtual space of perception.

In point of fact, the drop ceiling held circles of tissue paper, and fans blew them freely about. Those static patches on the floor had simply slipped through the cracks, and visitors before me had trodden them underfoot. One could wait quite a while to see their fall, and it brings perception further down to earth to catch not a falling star or a shower of rose petals, but gravity pulling their masses equally and inexorably to the ground. At least one woman artist has broken the glass ceiling. And then, for one last twist of perception, one has to marvel at their number—all from that very day. The gallery swept up every evening.

I see new media not as the message or as merely a technology, but as mappings of contemporary art. When Neuenschwander skips high-tech algorithms, she alters the landscape. Minimalism, as with LeWitt, confronts conceptual logic with the viewer's perception of something organic. So do digital interpretations of real-time data. In contrast, the Brazilian artist uses a mechanism that incorporates chance to probe one's own imposition of order, like Lygia Clark in Paris and Brazil before her. I think of the colored paper as less nostalgia for the hand-made than surrender to simplicity and happenstance.

Still, Neuenschwander does like to pull the plug as another Brazilian, Tunga, never can. The back room for that same show displayed a manual typewriter, and the rest of her exhibition depended on it. Arbitrary characters coalesce into large block letters and simple images. Nearer the entrance, she displayed apparent night skies constructed from paper circles, all punched out of The Arabian Nights—as if she has no more tales left to keep herself alive. These works feel like throwbacks, to familiar classroom exercises or Dada poetry. She does best when she abandons literal disruptions of textual narratives so that visitors can create their own.

Thanks to Bill Dolson that same month, one could still hope for a passing shower. He fills the Manhattan skyline with meteor showers, and he fills a room at Eyebeam with multiple projections, each from a different vantage point. The cosmic events do not look apocalyptic. They do not even look terribly real. However, the surrounding images defamiliarize space, much as the synthetic tracks across otherwise unvarying landscapes disrupt time. Besides, New York's own magic beats out digital wizardry—and these artists question the primacy of science and technology, too.

A wish for destruction

In Neuenschwander's retrospective, the everyday remains, but the formal and antiformal instincts alike have largely vanished. So, for the most part, has the unpredictable. I mistook the scuff marks for the usual wear and tear as on my favorite museum floor, the Marcel Breuer design of the Whitney. Another work collects scraps of bar conversations—crumpled napkins, twisted straws, standard-issue cardboard coasters with an impatient scrawl. They bear little visual or conceptual weight. One can her putting them all on a pedestal as a wry joke or simply overreach.

Without the shocks or the posturing of Marina Abramovic and Tino Sehgal, she still has childhood pleasures, like doodles and soap bubbles. Another video takes the point of view of someone racing while balancing an egg on a spoon. The object looks rather like ET, accompanied by the heavily amplified sounds of crushed leaves and shell against metal. Fun and games can go only so far, though. Without a genuine sense of wonder, they border on sentimentality, very much like memories of one's first love. Sentiment takes over entirely in the lobby cafeteria, with an actual promise of wish fulfillment.

After the spare attendance upstairs, the crowd there comes as a surprise. Then again, the lobby is free. She also brings to it an inviting visual density and the most interactive part of the show. Brightly colored ribbons hang from more than eleven thousand closely set holes in the wall, each ribbon bearing a wish. One can take a ribbon, wrap it around one's wrist, and replace it with one's own wish, using paper and pencil left out front. In Brazilian legend, one's wish comes true when a ribbon wears through and falls away.

Who can resist, and who can resist peeking at other wishes? These, too, though, could stand more surprises. The ribbons—based on the work's previous incarnations—wish for such things as happiness, a cure for cancer, and becoming a rock star. As if to rub it in the banality, the wishes repeat, because there are naturally way too few to go around. I looked guiltily at three or four new ones, on paper, expecting a crankier imagination from the Lower East Side. Once again, New Yorkers have let me down.

Neuenschwander has a dark side to her delight, like the fall of colored paper and plastic zeros. The bubble could burst, the egg could fall, and one's wishes may never come true. Bars are sites of strange confessions, and police sketches always look menacing. I realized in sadness how badly I describe faces, even the face of one I love. The close-up of a bubble claims to tour an empty "apartment," as in Roman Polanski's The Tenant—about a man driven mad by a previous tenant's attempted suicide. The largest and messiest work pays homage to Gene Hackman's tormented isolation, in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation.

Like the surveillance expert in the movie, Neuenschwander withdrew into a room, and she tore into it until she found the bugs. Yet she also had the listening devices planted, she cut carpet into tidy rectangles to ferret them out, and she took care to peel away the wall's surface with minimal damage. For once, after so many trashy installations, I wished for an artist to destroy things. I want to find a dark side, while acknowledging every gesture of hope. When a ribbon wears away, will one have fulfilled another's wishes and not one's own? Does that make it a parable of frustration or of sharing?

Dream On

At her most colorful and open, Neuenschwander has filled the museum cafeteria with wishes. I could only wish for one thing more. How about a lot more vitality and relevance on the Bowery—and a lot less commercialism and spectacle? No fault of hers, but better keep wishing. For now, the museum is only a flashy building, oversized galleries, and a dream.

The New Museum in fact calls an exhibition "Dream Machine." It also borrows that title from Brion Gysin's signature work of art. His cylinder with vaguely organic pockmarks contains a light bulb, like embarrassing home decor from Yayoi Kusama and the summer of love. Dreammachine belongs very much to its time as installation rather than table lamp, too. As it rotates, a quaintly low-tech light show streams out onto the wall. In case one missed the point, nearby drawing mentions LSD. Picture yourself in a boat on the river—or maybe the Titanic.

For the first time, the museum exhibits an artist no longer living. To its credit, it is trying not to play safe, but to make a little-known artist's reputation. Unfortunately, everything within looks dated. Starting just before 1960, Gysin took up painting—with large brushstrokes in two near shades, such as orange and yellow. Brion Gysin's Dreammachine (with William S. Borroughs) (Royal Academy of Arts, 1962)The largest, painted a year before his death in 1986, fills five panels with green and blue. It serves the narrow passage behind the elevators as lobby decor.

While Gysin is likely to remain firmly in the past, not to mention the backwater of British painting, he has a not at all obvious relationship to his time. Born in 1916, he found new life in 1960s, when he served mod London as both acolyte and elder statesman. He had mingled in Paris with the Surrealists, to the displeasure of André Breton, and an early drawing brings the precision of André Masson to an abstract landscapes out of Yves Tanguy. He tried his hand at fiction and collaborated with William S. Burroughs (posing here alongside Gysin and Dreammachine), the text assembled from cutout letters. He influenced Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, the cult musician who has since made art out of changing his gender one surgical act at a time. While Gysin thought of his style as calligraphic, his drawings for Borroughs very much resemble handwritten music.

His place in his time is provocative, but also a problem. Films by Alfred Leslie with Robert Frank gave the Beats a more intimate voice. The abstractions amount to yet another bland retread of Abstract Expressionism. The collages with Borroughs replay Surrealism just when Robert Rauschenberg was doing so much more. The New Museum's big box makes a lousy space for works on paper anyway. And in show after show, a faded dream of contemporary art is fast approaching a daydream.

Gysin always engages his homosexuality, but never directly, and that, too, seems part of a discomforting past. His awakening as an artist, he wrote, came on the bus to Marseilles, both the dreamy Mediterranean and a notoriously gritty seaport. In the exhibition's banner image, he presses his face alone against Dreammachine, eyes closed and lips slightly parted. He looks sexually alive, coy, and ever so self-conscious. Maybe his real career lay in the pose. Was he prescient about gender identity—or only dreaming?

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Rivane Neuenschwander ran at the New Museum through September 19, 2010, and at Tanya Bonakdar through October 14, 2006, and Bill Dolson at Eyebeam through October 21, 2006. Brion Gysin ran at the New Museum through October 3.


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