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Rivane Neuenschwander’s Tropics: Damned, Orgasmic and Devoted at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery is an exceptionally pertinent exhibition in this fraught time.
The show encompasses lush, unsettling tapestries; acrylic paintings and drawings; an installation of vintage postcards paired with silkscreens; and an embroidery that lists whopping fears. Each work resonates with the staggering conditions afflicting so much of the world: COVID-19, escalating authoritarianism, resurgent racism and sexism, environmental mayhem, poverty. In Neuenschwander’s home country, Brazil, the COVID-denying, blatantly racist, right-wing extremist president Jair Bolsonaro is wreaking his special havoc.
Fear — so pervasive these days — has long been an important theme for Neuenschwander. Several years ago, she conducted an art-making workshop in Bogotá during which children composed drawings of what they feared: ghouls and monsters, a scary insect containing a devil, demons, a creature that’s part ghost and part crustacean, a volcano blowing its top. No doubt the workshop was cathartic for the kids, as it inspired them to give form to their raw fears.
Neuenschwander has previously incorporated her own versions of these drawings into immersive interactive installations — for instance as looming projections from transparencies that viewers could manipulate, thus changing the installation. Interactivity is now out, due to the pandemic, and so in the series À espreita (translated from Portuguese in the press release as “on the lookout” or “watching”) Neuenschwander repurposed and transformed 24 of her drawings as small (14 by 10-inch) acrylics on paper (all 2020), displayed as a grid on the gallery’s front wall. Her versions are luminous, mostly white reverse silhouettes, with bursts of red, on inky black grounds. While they still resemble children’s drawings, the artist lavished care on them, with her spare yet vivid palette and fastidious brushwork.
A boxy, low-slung creature with webbed feet and evil eyes, inside an irregularly shape red outlined, advances on viewers from the dark (“À espreita [Escuridão]”), while a ghostly figure, in what looks suspiciously like a priest’s robe festooned with a red cross and dripping blood from the sleeves, reveals the black outline of a skeleton (“À espreita [Morte]”). In “À espreita [Minhocas],” what looks like a coiled snake (although Minhocas means “earthworms”) protrudes from the head of a shocked girl. Her arms are dangling worms or serpents and her dress or body displays a similar creature. The vulnerable body invaded by dangerous things strikes quite a nerve now. Together, Neuenschwander’s drawings tell a collective story of vulnerabilities and anxieties.
These potent images mesh with those in the tapestries and paintings of Neuenschwander’s series Trópicos malditos, gozosos e devotos (Tropics: Damned, Orgasmic and Devoted), in the main gallery space. The title is from Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s 1984 collection of poems Poemas Malditos, Gozosos e Devotos. With their tropical colors, organic shapes, and beguiling textures, the works — especially the tapestries made from cotton, wool, and acrylic fiber — are gorgeous and seductive. They are also harrowing.
In one (number 13 from the series), a humanoid reptile and two insect-like creatures in opulent clothes assault a woman with an exposed vulva and a plant for a head. The details are captivating: the adamant, triumphal look on the reptilian assaulter’s face, black pincers and antennae from the other assaulters ecstatically waving about. Ominous, abstract black shapes hover at the top while red pools at the bottom, suggesting blood.
Rape and other forms of violence seem ritualistic and routine, part of a plan to exert domination and elicit fear. A female figure with a bird head is seemingly assaulted by several fantastical creatures in number 15, although this could also be a crazed version of group sex. Throughout, human bodies with animal heads, animal bodies with human attributes, and plants with human appendages writhe in sexualized combat. Vulvae, phalluses, claws, beaks, leaves, fronds, and blood abound in these reeling scenes, which scramble distinctions between the human and non-human.
Photographs don’t convey the visual and material dynamism of these tapestries, composed of intricate needlepoint, tufts, ridges, and subtle slopes; it’s best to experience them up close and at length. While hardly didactic, they address forces starkly impacting Brazil and many other countries: Colonization, control, and authoritarian power; obedience and resistance to that power; hyper-sexuality (such as is often projected on Brazil and the tropics) and sexual violence; intense religiosity, and its support of right-wing zealots like Bolsonaro; and right-wing disregard for the environment and its inhabitants — Bolsonaro is hellbent on exploiting the Amazon and heedless of the terrible effects of this on the environment and Indigenous population, including the spread of COVID-19 to remote villages.
“The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture,” Bolsonaro once announced (Campo Grande News, April 22, 2015), thus blithely dismissing people who have inhabited the immense, tropical region of Brazil since long before its 16th-century Portuguese colonization. One way to approach Neuenschwander’s series is to see it as a representation of the tropics under assault.
Neuenschwander is renowned for the eclectic knowledge that she brings to her work and for her use of many different mediums and materials. She excels at realizing probing, politically and culturally charged ideas, in concrete, sensuous forms. The press release relates her series to 17th-century erotic Japanese woodcuts, as well as northeast Brazil’s Cordel folk literature — pamphlets and booklets that combine narrative poems with woodblock prints (often displayed in marketplaces hanging from strings). I’d throw in animistic art reaching back centuries, along with Surrealism and the rich tradition of Brazilian Conceptualism.
In the back room is a surprising work, but one that makes sense given the context. A ordem e o método (The Order and the Method, 2020) is based on Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 antiwar film Les Carabiniers, in which two male peasants are lured into war by a military recruiter with the promise of spectacular rewards. Instead of plunder they return to their scruffy hamlet with a trove of postcards depicting famous world landmarks; all sorts of vehicles; exotic animals; wonderful vistas; and beautiful women. They’ve got mere images of splendors, not the splendors themselves, signs of the bountiful world, but no actual bounty. When the king abruptly surrenders and the war ends, they are summarily executed by the same recruiter who lured them to war.
Neuenschwander’s installation is composed of postcards that correspond to those in the film, and she went to great lengths to find exact matches (for instance on eBay or elsewhere on the internet). They are displayed as a horizontal grid in three rows. Each postcard is coupled with a silkscreen on paper (most red or black) showing the back of the postcard, whether it contains nothing, an address, a vacation report, or a heartfelt message sent to a loved one. Images in a fictive film are physicalized and suffused with actual history — not huge historical events but instead people’s travels, adventures, family connections, and relationships. At the bottom, in truncated black letters stretching from silkscreen to silkscreen, is a quote from the movie: “What do soldiers do before the battle? Before the battle soldiers are afraid.”
Encountering these dated postcards, and reading the messages sent by anonymous people decades ago, is deeply touching — for instance, “M” writing in German from the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator to send birthday greetings to “Mama.” Some of the images show places, like London in the 1930s, that would soon be engulfed by war. Others seem painfully remote, as travel is halted throughout the world.
However subtly or obliquely, Neuenschwander also suggests that the penultimate moment in Godard’s film from long ago is extremely relevant right now. Like Godard’s trusting peasant soldiers, many people are enthusiastically supporting authoritarians like Bolsonaro (and Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Orbán, et al.); Bolsonaro was swept into power, in part, by millions of working class and rural voters. It is dubious whether these supporters will be rewarded for their loyalty. Likely, these “kings” don’t really care about them one whit. In Godard’s film, authoritarianism and militarism depend on pipe dreams, misguided aspirations, and complicity. Neuenschwander’s work proposes that much the same thing is happening now.
On the opposite wall is “Fear of” (2020), a fabric, thread, and paint composition hand stitched by Neuenschwander. I imagine she accomplished this marvelous, painstaking work, which evokes folk art, in seclusion; under Bolsonaro, Brazil has been ravaged by the pandemic. Images and figures from the À espreita drawings now list their fears. Fear of war, church, end of the world. Fear of strangers and sadness. Fear of virus. Fear of rape. Neuenschwander focuses not on the machinations and harmful policies of powerful leaders, but instead on the experiences, visceral and emotional, of many people in this stricken time. I have not seen many exhibitions over the past several months. I am grateful that I have experienced this one.
Rivane Neuenschwander: Tropics: Damned, Orgasmic and Devoted continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.