Carnival is over. The world is no longer turned upside down -- order is to be restored. The streets are paved with the colorful confetti that is the detritus of weeks of parties, and for those whose foreheads have been dusted with ash, it's time to begin penance. That starts with picking up the trash.
This moment of reconvening of the normal -- the recommencement of the work cycle -- could be seen as a dour moment in the life of a carnival culture: The post-Mardi Gras letdown of New Orleans, or the descending thermometer in feverish Rio after Carnaval. But to Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander, there's something more beautiful to the concept of the cleanup. There's the reinstatement of normal society, now re-welded into a collaborative unit, as though the carnival's purpose has been to reform the bonds that allow us to get through the rest of the year together.
In Neuenschwander's short video 'Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue" (which translates, essentially, as "Ash Wednesday"), showing as Forum 60 in the Carnegie Museum of Art, the artist finds beauty in such acts of normality. Not, in this case, amongst people, but rather within the even more hierarchical, more regulated world of insects. Ants, videotaped in extreme close-up on the floor of a rainforest in her native Brazil, find pieces of sugar-soaked confetti and haul the sweet treasure toward their homes.
The confetti, colored in the reds and golds of carnival, screams from the screen against the backdrop of the forest's clay-like browns and camo greens. Through their work, the ants form momentary kinetic sculptures were composed of their very society: Solo workers carry confetti twice their size over Gehry-like swirls of leaves, and traverse dangerous bridges made of fallen plant stalks. Others work in duos, trios and quartets to carry their glittering, sugary prizes. At times, as your eyes adjust, the smaller ants fade into the similarly colored forest floor and one sees nothing but floating confetti. All the while, a samba soundtrack -- made with amplified matchsticks, composed by Brazilian experimental musicians O Grivo -- crescendos from clicks and clacks to a whirlwind rhythm.
Neuenschwander's work is often described in reference to the Brazilian modernist concept of "anthropophagy" -- cannibalism, the idea that Brazil's culture is built upon the consumption of its fellow cultures. In previous works, Neuenschwander has concentrated on the consumptive senses: taste, smell and the acts of chewing and swallowing. The six-minute "Quarta-Feira de Cinzas" is no exception: After all, "eating" is what motivates the artist's insect actors. And it's easy to see how the video expresses the idea of cultural cannibalism: the theft and consumption of carnival culture, itself already an amalgam of so many of Brazil's invaders and immigrants.
But there's something else at work here -- a metaphor, perhaps, for the true state of Brazilian culture? It was 1928 when the anthropophagy philosophy first came into favor; has nothing changed? In "Quarta-Feira de Cinzas," we see a society coming together with a commonly understood purpose, one that is beautiful, beautifying, and necessary for survival. It is caretaking while hunting and gathering; the ants' work is made glorious and beautiful, despite its banal purposes. Brazil, one could surmise, is the same: The cannibalism has completed its purpose.
More importantly, perhaps, is the sheer "ethereal realist" beauty of "Quarta-Feira de Cinzas." ("Ethereal realism" is Neuenschwander's own term for her art; apparently "magical realism" was far too down-to-earth.) That an ant crawling in dirt might be shown to be so beautiful is a testament to the powers of Neuenschwander and her collaborator, filmmaker Cao Guimaraes, and to the mysteries of Brazil itself. We so often see Brazil's Carnaval as a sort of world pinnacle of extravagant joy -- a moment of carnal pleasure and supple, colorful beauty that might act as a global counterpoint to the grunts and grays of the everyday. What "Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue" shows so effortlessly is an everyday that is just as exciting and colorful, as bold in the normal as the extraordinary, if you look close enough.
Forum 60: Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue continues through Oct. 28. Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org