BY Márcia Fortes in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
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Issue 42

Bili Bidjocka, Los Carpinteros, Rivane Neuenschwander

BY Márcia Fortes in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

There were some fine things in the New Museum of Contemporary Art this summer, courtesy of five young artists showing for the first time in New York. Bili Bidjocka from Cameroon, the collaborative group Los Carpinteros (Alexandre Arrechea, Dagoberto Rodriguez and Marco Castillo) from Cuba, and Rivane Neuenschwander from Brazil.

Comprising three site-specific installations, with no overriding theme or style, the exhibition served as a welcome introduction to the particular issues and inspirations of each individual artist. In a white, oblong room, Neuenschwander created a light, noiseless world populated by extremely fragile pieces whose presence was so subtle you couldn't immediately perceive them. This Brazilian artist, now London-based, is guided by notions of the immaterial (or 'ethereal materialism'), making art with ephemeral organic matter, which she gathers in and around her house. Much of it comes from her own kitchen - pepper, oil, tomato sauce, for example. An earlier work consisted of numerous unbroken garlic peels glued together. In the New Museum she covered the corner walls and floor with transparent adhesive panels containing household dirt and other small remnants (hair, breadcrumbs, onion peel...) that had accumulated on her kitchen floor. Crystalline, geometric collage-drawings on another wall were made of tiny squares of scotch tape and vacuum-cleaner dust.

The spotless aesthetics of Minimalism outline the work, and the ethics of humble materials condition it. The choice of contrasting high formalism with 'poor materials' emerges from Neuenschwander's intimacy with what surrounds her, from her devotion to the realm of everyday things. Through her work the evanescent becomes significant, the fleeting is elevated to a state of (quasi) permanence. For once dirt becomes interesting.

Another piece consisted of a meticulously drawn pattern of plucked insect wings, floating on top of a large soup bowl filled with olive oil, water and silicon. Tiny dead ants formed a perfect circle on another plate. Neuenschwander's pieces look pure and yet are also perverse - organic life thrust into art through obsessive methods of cutting, gluing, inserting and trimming, making artificial designs of order and frame out of what was once natural. It is admirable how she captures the beauty of all things and indulges in their rearrangement, using elements of the world as it is to recreate the world as she makes it. Elements of daily life cannot be disassociated from the elements of art, for she continually sees one in the other. Artists appropriate and mould reality - using mundane, everyday things has become one of our century's most widespread artistic traditions.

In the process of finding and recontextualising particles of the environment, Neuenschwander focuses on the minute, while Los Carpinteiros collect heavier, more solid scraps. Handling mass-produced objects and black-market goods, they make elaborate constructions involving drawing, carpentry and masonry. In Cuba, rusty junk is as much part of the environment as coconut trees and decaying buildings, but Los Carpinteros' work is much more than a staging of a particular socio-economic environment. Sculptural pieces like the incomplete brick house Provisialismo (Provisional, 1998), may be too obvious as a reference to the improvisational solutions Cubans must find to overcome hardship, but other pieces, like the drawing-installations, grow in complexity, sparking a multiplicity of plastic references and the freedom of allegory.

Los Carpinteros' two large wall-drawings in the New Museum are affecting in a way that has nothing to do with direct interpretation. One, titled Ala (Wing, 1998), is an enlarged, detailed rendition of a bird's wing, made with thick blue lines, iron spigots coming off the wall at each intersection of the anatomic armature. Escalera de Caracol, Faro, Torre de Vigilancia (Spiral Staircase, Lighthouse, Watchtower, 1998), consists of three long, vertical drawings, each emerging from a large, steel half-bucket filled with water, attached to the base of the wall. The drawings grow out of the buckets like plants, yet they display no organic features, looking as concrete as architectural ground plans, complete with measurements. With this startling fusion of ready-made material and free drawing, Los Carpinteros re-envision the world, creating a rich confusion between art and fact, fantasy and deed - there is a physics-project, mad-scientist aesthetic to the work.

One could keep on deconstructing the works of Los Carpinteros and Neuenschwander, peeling away at their conceptual procedures and symbolic meanings, but it is best to see them in terms of pure effect. Of course, one of the reasons that the works are enjoyable is that they trigger small puzzles of form and content that keep us entertained, but what prevails is the gratification of seeing them and feeling their magic.

Bidjocka's work was less engaging. The artist, from Cameroon, now Paris-based, has put together the show's most ambitious installation and, ironically, the least accomplished one.

A large room contained a wide square of live grass with a long, dress-shaped pool filled with a thin layer of water. A cyclical lighting system faked the impression of day and night. It smelled nice and was very enigmatic, but somehow this wasn't quite enough.

All the artists included in this show participated in the Johannesburg Biennale last year, but in New York, the exhibition still pleased with its freshness.