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“I’m in love with life“

Walter Riedweg has made Rio de Janeiro his home. His performance and video installations devised with Brazilian artist Mauricio Dias also highlight less dazzling aspects of the “Cidade Maravilhosa“.

The tram slowly clatters its way across the ”Arcos da Lapa“ aqueduct to Santa Teresa. The windy roads are lined with newly opened galleries beside dilapidated stately homes and rust buckets in front of charming Art Deco cafés. ”Rio de Janeiro is in a constant flow of construction, reconstruction and deconstruction,” says Walter Riedweg who has been living in the Bohemian neighbourhood below Mount Corcovado for over ten years. The Swiss artist pursues the changes in Rio that unfold before his eyes with great enthusiasm: “I am fascinated by the construction sites. I like to be involved in the infinite project of humankind. Especially here, where in the past thirty years one of the largest labs of urban coexistence has taken form.”

Whereas his brother stayed in Schwarzenberg in Lucerne and continued the family tradition of farming, Walter Riedweg, now sixty, became what he describes as a “precocious bird“. A qualified teacher, he studied at the Academy of Church Music, the “Accademia Teatro Dimitri” and worked as an actor and musician. Walter Riedweg met Mauricio who is nine years his junior and from Brazil at the Basel School of Design (“Schule für Gestaltung”) in 1991. They became a couple and began working on their first joint project two years later. Then as now the principle of their performance and video art is to make the unspeakable visible: “In order for words and pictures to make sense, they must be constantly re-explored, re-felt, re-touched and re-thought,” Walter Riedweg explains. To talk about the world without reverting to hackneyed formulae presents a fantastic challenge: ”Everyone sees the world in their own unique way. That is why it is so interesting to listen and to watch others. Our work often evolves from a collaboration with people who have nothing to do with the art world.” Dias & Riedweg have worked with non-German speaking children of migrant workers in Switzerland. They have interviewed hustlers and people with mental illnesses. And they also had favela inhabitants reconstruct cannibalistic scenes from a 500-year old travel report about Brazil for their project ”Funk Staden“ (shown at the documenta 12).

Photos: Edelweiss/Philipp Jeker/pictures provided

Oasis of tranquillity away from Rio‘s hustle and bustle

For the project “Devotionalia“, the artistic duo captured the dreams of Brazilian street children on camera and cast their limbs in wax. A majority of the protagonists died in the years that followed; the artwork was to become their only legacy. Dias & Riedweg were faced with accusations of exploiting the situation of the underprivileged. “We are not healers, nor do we solve the problems of the projects we shed light on. What we try to do is to not simply brush the conflicts under the carpet through simple-minded and naïve discourse,” Walter Riedweg counters. As he sees it, if you are on the fringes of society, the dilemma is omnipresent: ”Enduring the tensions is uncomfortable. Again and again, life and art are wonderful, but also tough and disappointing. Some people see us as troublemakers because they prefer to create castles in the air and live in golden cages.”

Although no longer a couple, Walter Riedweg and Mauricio Dias still live and work together in Santa Teresa, where they have purchased a colonial-style house which they have converted into a Bed & Breakfast called Villa Laurinda.’ Mauricio’s adopted children live in the house, as does his partner and some of the staff. At the weekends, Walter Riedweg’s partner and foster children are also there: “As anyone who visits us will see, we are a colourful, diverse family,” he explains. Travellers can enjoy an oasis of tranquillity here, right in the heart of busy Rio. After a breakfast of fresh fruit and homemade “Pão de Queijo” (Brazilian cheese balls), the guests can relax at the pool. The Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs Seu Silva (Mr Silva) und Promessa (Promise) frolic in the tropical garden. Besides the carefully renovated Victorian-style main building, the property includes a modern extension and the light-flooded studio. Up until a few years ago, tourists tended to stay well clear of this neighbourhood. “With the so-called pacification of the area’s favelas, and the permanent presence of a sort of municipal police that this involved, the armed drug gangs moved to other regions. As a result, the ambience in the area has become much more relaxed, and numerous small hotels, bars and restaurants have set up business here,“ the artist-cum-B&B host explains.

Carnival: shine for a brief moment

The city is nonetheless still a volatile place: “Rio travellers must not forget where they are.” Many things appear familiar. “But that does not mean they are also understood. What counts is the moment. The situation today need not necessarily reflect that of tomorrow.“ As Walter Riedweg points out with a gentle smile, there is not much you can rely on in Rio. “But anyone who comes with an open heart and avoids succumbing to clichés will discover a city with plenty of charm and amiable people who spread joy and laughter with their jokes despite a harsh daily reality in the heat of the city.”

Asked about his favourite place in the “Cidade Maravilhosa“ (the “Marvellous City”), Brazil-based Riedweg does not mention the Sugarloaf Mountain, Ipanema or Cristo Redentor. Instead he says: “the street“. Because whether along the beach or in Santa Teresa – Rio is an ideal place for him to saunter: “It is wonderful to walk aimlessly, because life still happens out in the streets where I get to enjoy so many interesting encounters.” For that same reason, the Rio Carnival holds a special appeal for him. “The Rio Carnival has room for anyone who wants to join in – children, young people, dynamic people, old people, transvestite artists, fat people, anorexics.“ The city spends an entire year preparing for the event that focuses on an eighty-minute parade. It is known in Rio as “Brilho“: to shine for a moment. Not for eternity, not to conquer the world, just 700 metres long. “That is the soul of the Cariocas,“ the passionate pianist explains as he gets to the heart of the matter. “A culture that chooses to put this ephemeral gesture in the centre deserves my deep respect.”

Even if Rio has become his home, Walter Riedweg is driven by change, by the inconstant: ”I am in love with life. That includes everything – the past and the present. I carry a fabulous Swiss childhood and youth in me. It has given me an emotional anchor that will always help me stand tall.” He pauses and thinks for a moment, then adds: “I basically see myself as a part of the world. My home is on the roam.“

Walter Riedweg‘s Rio tips:

1. Samba: A visit to one of the weekly practice sessions of a Samba school during the months of preparation is an unforgettable experience. Needless to say, the annual highlights include the Carnival and New Year’s celebration.

2. Culture: The new “MAR” art museum and the new “Praça Mauá” with the “Museo do Amanhã” are definitely worth seeing. The “Instituto Moreira Salles” with its exemplary photo exhibitions is also to be recommended.

3. Life: Those who have time for a cable car ride over the “Complexo do Almeão“ favela in northern Rio will go home with a different understanding of this metropolis.

(Text: Marlies Seifert)