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First Loves

Sketch from Rivane Neuenschwander’s First Love. Courtesy Miami Art Museum.

Do you remember your first love? Could you think about that person for nearly two hours, concentrating on every detail of their face while describing them to completely detached stranger? Sounds awkward, but this is the premise of First Love, one of the participatory works in Rivane Neuenschwander’s solo exhibition A Day Like Any Other, currently on view at Miami Art Museum.

Like many of the works in the show, First Love stems from a literary reference – Samuel Beckett’s lesser-known short story of the same title. Originally published in 1945, Beckett’s narrator recounts (with equal parts offbeat eroticism and repulsion) his exchanges with a prostitute named Lulu in the days following his father’s death.

In keeping with the format of Beckett’s fictional recollection, Rivane invites volunteers to sit down with a forensic artist and describe an ex’s face to a licensed police sketch artist for a series of drawings that will be exhibited throughout the venues the show is traveling through and may evolve into a book project. I recently went to my own appointment at MAM and met with the forensic artist to map out the face of my high school sweetheart.

If you’ve never worked with a forensic artist before, it’s a very sober experience. Forensic artists are usually limited to subjects like rapists and murders. They learn how to be as focused and detached as possible. I was immediately handed a book of FBI profile mug shots organized by features – head shape, eye shape, mouth, hair color, etc. These are real criminals, not the kind of men I wanted to compare my first boyfriend to.  Although the title First Love elicits dreams of a long lost love, there is nothing romantic about the experience at all.

If you visit the show here in Miami or elsewhere, you are met with a wall of unassuming mug shots. Vacant cartoonish stares that each stand for a unique memory of love.  All of the sketches share an uncanny anonymity. The same ‘creepiness’ factor you get from looking at truck stop “most wanted” signs. Even as a participant, your final sketch is void of you and the story behind the person. It is a clinically neutral rendering of an internal intimate and complex process.

My appointment.

In truth I signed up for the project without knowing exactly whom I would choose as my quintessential “first love.” The notion of love is itself a kind of fiction we write for ourselves, but it’s personal and so we want to protect it. These are the very boundaries that Neuenschwander’s First Love forces us to traverse by taking us into an objective study of such charged emotions.

I have not seen my “first love” in nearly a decade. The person I was describing did not exist anymore, just my memory of some a sixteen year-old boy, nonetheless I thought my description was nearing photographic detail until the sketch artist, who was not as nostalgic as I was, turned it around to face me. Accustomed to rendering the anonymous faces of criminals as described by their victims his contribution to this collaboration was his approach to the subjects of his work, inexorably hardened by unpleasant interactions and untold experiences. He didn’t care that I was taking a psychological vacation into my adolescence.

The drawing turned out to be a caricature of the guy I thought I remembered – an echo from a time when my concept of love was informed by fairy tales and teen sitcoms – yet oddly, despite its dissimilarity from my expectations, it matched the image in my head surprisingly well except that all the artificial dressings of false romantic idealism had been drained and my Disney Prince looked more like a ‘perp’ from Law & Order.

In A Day Like Any Other, time is the key that links each of the works together, but it is not time as it is measured by a calendar or a watch, it is time as it is seen through a process of degradation. In the case of First Love, it is the psychological degradation of our memories. As I was flipping through the FBI mug shots, I realized I could barely remember my first boyfriend’s nose – was it wide? Where his nostrils pronounced? My image of him started to slip in and out of focus in my mind like an old film reel. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t remember.

Marcel Duchamp heroically claimed the idea as art. In this rebellious and antagonistic act, he gave the artist authority over the object. He not only pushed the boundaries of what defines artistic practice but he also challenged our notions of the perception of an artwork. Neuenschwander continues Duchamp’s legacy by not only emancipating herself from her work, but by turning the work onto the audience itself. First Love is not about the final sketch of a former paramour because these are actually false narratives.  The punch line is the psychological interplay between the participant, the forensic artist and Rivane herself as the facilitator of this emotional experiment. The resulting work is merely a product of the recording of our memories. Which, as you come to realize are filled with biases, gaps and lies[.]


Rivane Neuenschwander: A Day Like Any Other is on view at Miami Art Museum through October 16, 2011. Appointments to participate in First Love are available through October 16, and can be made by contacting

This post was contributed by Melissa Diaz.


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First Loves