The work of Rivane Neuenschwander is uncommonly poetic and beautiful yet tinged with a hint of the mortal. In works that range from installation and drawing to video and photography, she uses simple means, often taken from the natural and organic world—garlic husks, culinary spices, coconut soap, rice paper—for maximum magic. Growing up in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, she often played with the insects, arachnids, and other small animals that populated her childhood haunts, and they have now become a frequent component of her artistic process. Metaphorically charged, these collaborations across species are also based necessarily on principles of chance and negotiation.
The artist created Carta Faminta (Starving Letters) (2000) with the help of snails she collected at a church in Stockholm during a residency at the International Artists Studio Programme in Sweden. These seven drawings were produced as the snails, with some guidance by the artist, ate through pieces of Chinese rice paper, leaving behind trails of silvery slime on half-eaten sheets that suggest pages of a forgotten atlas.
In Portuguese, Neuenschwander’s first language, carta means both map and letter. A frequent traveler, she speaks of the period just after arrival in a new place as a time of suspended animation while she adjusts to the new sensations of place, custom, and language.1 She has to find her place on the map. Always somewhat imaginary, maps are often a form of wish fulfillment promising discovery, invention, conquest. From the comfort of our armchairs, they may evoke distant lands, foreign tongues, and exotic tastes, which can be both inviting and anxiety-provoking.
A world in our hands and our heads, these cartographic letters speak to that space in between our cravings and our fears, our feelings and our ability to express them, our impulse toward boundless exploration and our sometimes guilty search for that which is familiar. Each drawing, a poetic meditation on place, empire, and desire, is also a free-floating Rorschach test gnawing at that empty space in the belly of our imagination. A letter, a map, a destiny unfulfilled.
Neuenschwander, interview with the author, March 2001. ↩