In a series of photographs from 1966, the Swiss-born, Brazilian artist Mira Schendel (1919–1988) interacts playfully with the latest series of works she had created. Individually untitled, these works are collectively called Droguinhas, a Portuguese word that has often been translated as “little nothings”.
She stretches one out and then peers through it. She rolls one up into a ball and throws it over her shoulder. She wraps one around her and then drapes it over her head. The works were made from sheets of Japanese rice paper, which M. Schendel twisted and braided into ropes, knotting them into tangled webs that, as her photographed interactions demonstrate, resist any stability of form. Created between 1965 and 1966, they emerged after she had already experimented prolifically with the rice paper as a support for her Monotipias [Monotypes]—a series of works she created using a unique mark-making practice that exists somewhere between drawing and printmaking. In November 1965, the artist wrote of her Droguinhas, “I started a new work, perhaps more important for myself than any previous one.”1 In April 1966, she described them as a “step forward from the drawings.”2 However, they were somewhat short-lived, her production of them concentrated between 1965 and 1966, after which she turned back to experimenting with the letters and language that dominated the content of her Monotipias. In fact, she even briefly returned to producing Monotipias on the rice paper at the beginning of the 1970s.3 What type of “step forward”, then, were the Droguinhas for M. Schendel? And why did she abandon them so quickly?
In M. Schendel’s words, “My work constitutes an attempt to immortalize fleeting moments and confer meaning to ephemeral things… for this endeavor I must seize the very instant in which the living experience seeps onto the symbol.”4 In the briefest of terms, her artistic practice can be described as a process of seeking the delicate balance between the articulation of ephemerality and the way that communicable meaning inheres in images and/or objects. I suggest that M. Schendel’s foray into the Droguinhas makes visible her investment in this balance. While the series radically advanced the articulation of ephemerality, ultimately, communicable meaning is unable to inhere in them. In other words, although the series took a step forward from her drawings in terms of her goal to “immortalize fleeting moments”, I argue that her abandonment of them was rooted in their shortcomings with respect to “confer[ring] meaning”.5
Mira Schendel, Untitled from the series Escritas [Written], 1965, oil transfer drawing on paper, 47 x 23 cm, gift of Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, © Estate of Mira Schendel
In her Monotipias, M. Schendel playfully explored the communicative capacity of letters and words. Made by transferring oil paint from a smooth plate directly onto a sheet of rice paper, they are a unique set of prints that blur the line between recto and verso; the black paint soaks through the thin paper so that it is visible on both sides. While the content of the nearly 2000 works in this series varies widely, in many of the prints M. Schendel played with recognizable letters and words from a combination of languages. In these prints, the translucency of the paper complicates the associations between meaning and symbol. As the viewer looks, the jumble of letters and languages, together with the possibility of viewing from either side of the paper (and therefore with the letters and words potentially in reverse), allows for a rehearsal of the moment of recognition of meaning. As the viewer steps closer, she squints to make sense of the marks, and suddenly they coalesce into a word. The connotations and denotations come flooding in – “the very instant in which the living experience seeps onto the symbol”.6
Yet, in spite of their realisation of this moment of recognition, the Monotipias fell short for M. Schendel in their relationship to ephemerality. She writes, “A sequence of letters…simulate the experience of time, but do not capture the unrecoverable experience that characterizes that time. The texts that I drew on paper can be read and reread, which isn’t true of time. They make the fluidity of time fast,” or they affix [fixam] the fluidity of time, “without immortalizing it. So I abandoned the attempt.”7 She suggests that the Monotipias succeeded in revealing that moment of recognition, but only in a viewer’s first encounter with the object. Rather than the continuous rebirth of that moment of recognition that she was seeking, the viewer’s second or third or fourth encounter with a Monotipia would be characterized by remembering the moment of recognition of the first encounter. It is from here, then, that the Droguinhas proceeded: from an attempt to combat the ability to “read and reread” in contrast with the way that time unfolds.
M. Schendel continued to explore the possibilities of the delicate rice paper in her Droguinhas. Through twisting and knotting and braiding unmarked sheets, she created supple sculptural objects that range from dense bundles of knots to lacelike patterns, depending upon how they are manipulated or displayed. Together with their monochrome abstraction, their flexibility of form makes it nearly impossible to distinguish any singular Droguinha from another. For instance, in British photographer Clay Perry’s (born in 1940) 1966 series of photographs documenting M. Schendel’s solo exhibition at Signals Gallery in London, there is no way to determine whether the artist was playing with the same object throughout the series, or if she was demonstrating the possibilities of several different objects. One blurs into the next, all blank, white, rice paper. The very edges of a single Droguinha begin to fray and unravel. M. Schendel wrote that trying to protect and preserve these works was “like keeping David Medalla’s (born in 1942) foam”, referring to the bubble machines D. Medalla was producing in the mid-1960s, out of which fleeting, column-like, sculptural forms emerged.8 She continued, “Whoever ‘owns’ it won’t let it ‘be.’”9 This description of the Droguinhas does not suggest a literal or material notion of ephemerality. Unlike D. Medalla’s sculptural foam that will melt and evaporate before the viewer’s eyes until it is just a glycerin stain on the floor, the paper will last. The Droguinhas present an ephemerality of the object as such, pushing aside the parameters that constitute a formally identifiable, singular art object. Each time a viewer encounters a Droguinha she sees it anew.
Mira Schendel, Untitled from the series Droguinhas [Little nothings], ca. 1964-1966, Japanese paper, © Estate of Mira Schendel
Furthermore, M. Schendel’s refusal to define the conceptual framework of these works contributes to their instability. As their titling suggests – individually untitled and collectively labeled as “little nothings” – she was unwilling to commit to specifics with respect to the conceptual underpinnings of the objects. For instance, she exhibited them twice in 1966. In May, she displayed them in a pile on the floor, which many viewers understood to be an invitation for interaction.10 But by October, when C. Perry’s photographs were taken in London, viewer interaction was discouraged: though some of them remained displayed on the floor, many were hung from the ceiling of the gallery at eye level or higher.11 And while in 1965 M. Schendel wrote that they were “in open opposition to the ‘permanent’ and ‘ownable’”, by 1968 she had already sold at least one.12 This ambivalence with respect to the conceptual parameters of the Droguinhas makes them all the more ephemeral, the idea of the object proving as slippery as the object itself.
In C. Perry’s 1966 photographs, M. Schendel’s interactions can be considered not solely as ludic, as they might first appear, but also as an exercise in thinking through the way that the objects signify. As she drapes and whirls a Droguinha around her, it becomes alternately scarf, wig, veil, its flexibility of form transferring into a flexibility of meaning. And yet its elasticity goes too far. The object’s identity is too slippery, and unless photographed, the moment of recognition will slide by. If her trouble with the Monotipias was that they affixed the fluidity of time rather than producing a continuous rebirth of that “very instant in which the living experience seeps onto the symbol”, the Droguinhas swung too far in the other direction. The continuous rebirth of instantaneous, lived experience is achieved, but that experience never has a chance to “seep onto the symbol”. Each time the viewer looks she sees a different object. Instability is taken to such a point that there is nothing for the viewer to hold onto, no symbol onto which meaning can seep.
Mira Schendel, Untitled from the series Droguinhas [Little nothings], ca. 1964-1966, Japanese paper, 90 x 70 cm, © MoMA, © Estate of Mira Schendel
If M. Schendel had been after ephemerality alone, it seems that the Droguinhas would have been a good solution. But in her desire to retain at least a whisper of some process of collective interpretation, some process of shared understanding, she is unwilling to let go of preconceived, codified symbols such as the letter. While objects crumble and fade, symbols can be passed along through time, from generation to generation, and continue to signify irrespective of persistent physical presence. Symbols offer space for subjective interpretation, but they also present a shared point of departure that allows varying interpretations to coexist with one another.
M. Schendel’s practice was not motivated by the search for ephemerality alone. The ephemeral art object needed to be accompanied by meaning that inheres and persists, meaning that is communicable, meaning that is not only sent but also received. The blank, white surfaces of the Droguinhas together with their amorphous, abstract forms prevent any communicable meaning from inhering in the objects. One can catch flashes of significance as a Droguinha momentarily resonates with some object or experience, but as soon as one looks again, it has rearranged itself, each knot indistinguishable from the next, each twist and braid camouflaged by those that surround it. The Droguinha, stable only in its consistent instability, abides by its name: it tries to be anything one wants it to be, but ultimately it refuses to be anything at all.