BEIRUT: Thousands of colorful ribbons hang from the wall, arranged in a long, rectangular grid periodically disrupted by the protrusion of small white squares of papers coiled into thin cylinders. Next to the display of tangled nylon strands is a shelf stacked with more papers and a pile of ball-point pens.
Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander's interactive installation "Eu Desejo O Seu Desejo" ("I Wish Your Wish"), from 2003, anchors the latest exhibition to open at Galerie Sfeir-Semler, the expansive contemporary art space in Karantina. More accurately, Neuenschwander's piece is the exhibition, supported by a second piece, the video projection "Inventario Das Pequenas Mortes (Sopro)" ("Inventory of Small Deaths (Blow))," which was made in 2000 in collaboration with fellow Brazilian Cao Guimaraes and is installed in a darkened nook beyond the wall full of ribbons.
"I Wish Your Wish," in both its conceptual concerns and its physical presence in Beirut, is something like a gift. Galerie Sfeir-Semler has been open for nearly two years now and typically runs three major, museum-quality exhibitions annually, each assembled on a theme and featuring works by 10 to 20 local, regional and international artists. The space is huge - 1,000 square meters - and filling it takes some serious effort.
To keep the gallery active between shows, Sfeir-Semler is also meant to host exhibitions of works that fall outside the gallery's commercial rubric. "I Wish Your Wish," for example, comes to Beirut courtesy of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary/T-B A21 in Vienna, a foundation established by Francesca von Habsburg.
The daughter of industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who married the archduke of Austria in 1993, von Habsburg created T-B A21 five years ago to collect, commission and co-produce new works by artists pushing at the boundaries of such media as cinema, video, installation, photography and sound. Fiercely internationalist in approach, von Habsburg has a 150-square-meter exhibition space in Vienna but otherwise focuses on projects that veer off the map of the international art world's major power centers.
During the Venice Biennale in 2005, she commissioned Danish artist Olafur Eliasson and British architect David Ajaye to create a work, as well as a structure to house it, on the island of San Lazzaro. Last year, she asked Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman to install his ambitious audio-visual piece "Kuba" on a massive industrial barge and then sent it on a voyage from the Black Sea up the Danube to Vienna.
Von Habsburg is also working on a plan to create a series of site-specific "art pavilions" scattered throughout the world in locations that encourage contemplation and spark cultural exchange in their immediate context.
Rivane Neuenschwander's piece hasn't been dispatched from T-B A21 to Beirut at random, but arrives rather as a piece well-tailored to the current situation in Lebanon, as a tonic for political turmoil and a gesture of something akin to hope.
"I Wish Your Wish" is inspired by the ribbons decorating the wrought-iron gates of the 18th-century Nosso Senhor do Bonfim Church in Salvador, Brazil. In a blend of rituals with roots in Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions, visitors to Senhor do Bonfim are encouraged to take a ribbon and tie it around their left wrist, making three wishes with three knots. When the ribbon disintegrates and falls off, the wishes are supposed to come true.
To create her installation, Neuenschwander asked 40 people for their wishes and then printed them on 6,500 ribbons. A visitor to her installation is asked to take a ribbon, and with it someone else's wish, and replace it with his or her own wish, scrawled onto a white piece of paper and tucked into the hole from which the ribbon once hung. As such, the viewer is crucial for perpetuating a work that is, in theory, never complete but part of an ongoing cycle of artist-to-audience interactions.
The wishes printed on the existing ribbons range from quotidian - "I wish I had more time for myself," "I wish I had more time to spend with my boyfriend," "I wish I had a big flat and studio in the center of a big city" - to grand - "I wish democracy was real," "I wish I could change something," "Peace in the Middle East."
Similarly, the replaced wishes on white paper go from sincere and heartfelt to petulant and immature - "I wish I had stayed home instead," "I wish and I wish and nothing happens so f*** you," and the prize-winner for adolescent obstinance: "Whatever."
By strict dictionary definitions, a wish is a want, an expressed will or an object of desire, a goal to be achieved or an invocation of good fortune on someone. It is that last meaning that Neuenschwander's piece seems to mine. Her work is generous - but it also demands reciprocation on good faith.
Though she has been compared to artists like Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica and is tied to the Brazilian neo-concrete movement of the 1970s, Neuenschwander also refines an artistic practice of exchange that is operative in the works of Palestinian-American artist Emily Jacir, whose piece "Where We Come From" also hinged on the fulfillment - by proxy - of wishes.
Neuenschwander materializes things that are fleeting and ephemeral and in practical terms nonexistent. She introduces a process of trade and give and take, which, at the very least, keeps such notions as hope and desire alive over time, or at least until those ribbons decay and dissolve.
That sense of fragility is amplified by the video "Inventory of Small Deaths (Blow)," a six-minute, Super-8 black-and-white film of a bubble floating over a landscape, morphing, splitting and reconstituting itself as it travels.
At a time when hopes for a resolution, a better future or an end to turbulence seem far-fetched in Lebanon, Neuenschwander's works posit an alternative mode of resistance. Vulnerable and thin, to be sure, but resilient nonetheless.
Rivane Neuenschwander's "I Wish Your Wish" is at Galerie Sfeir-Semler through March 20. For more information, please call +961 1 566 550 or check out www.sfeir-semler.com