Rivane Neuenschwander takes manmade systems for organising knowledge, such as maps or language, and exposes them to seemingly random machinations of nature.
Cartographic themes find expression in Neuenschwander’s works such as Carta Faminta (Starving Letter) (2000) and Pangea’s Diaries (2008). In the former, she let Swedish slugs loose on a rice paper, producing through this symbolic collision of man and nature, and between cultures, outlines that resembled continents. In Pangea’s Diaries, millions of years of continental drift are captured in a stop motion video of ants moving food on a white plate, thus telescoping the numerous micro-movements of our everyday lives on to the movement of vast tectonic plates.
In Contingent (2008), exhibited at the Biennale, Neuenschwander fashions a map of the world in honey and then unleashes an army of ants on it. As the ants frantically consume the honey, the continents shift shape and slowly disappear. This transformation of the map through the chaotic and (to us) completely random feeding choices of clusters of ants is captured in a time-lapse video, in a style reminiscent of natural history presentations. The video becomes the artist’s deconstructed vision of the many accidental movements, both manmade and natural, that have shaped (and continue to shape) the contours of our world.
Contingent destabilises the certainty of cartographic constructs and rewinds to an age of voyages and discoveries when maps shifted and changed as ships crisscrossed the seas and disembarked at unknown lands. Simultaneously, it captures the present moment of accelerated globalisation and consumption of resources, characterised by migration and the porous, unstable nature of boundaries and identities.