ST. LOUIS — "I wish that life was simpler." "I wish democracy was real." "I wish I was drinking a margarita in my favorite bar in Mexico."
Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander has become intimately familiar with people around the world and the things they yearn, thanks to an artwork she created called "I Wish Your Wish." It's showing publicly for the first time in the United States as part of her new show at the St. Louis Art Museum.
Neuenschwander was inspired to create the work -- stretching along three walls of a gallery with thousands of brightly colored ribbons printed lengthwise with people's wishes -- by a tradition at the church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Sao Salvador. There, visitors choose a ribbon that they tie with three knots as they make three wishes. They then tie the ribbon to their wrist, and when the ribbon falls off, according to tradition, their wishes are granted.
"You don't pray. You just ask. It's very pragmatic," Neuenschwander said.
Neuenschwander said the ribbons, which are sold at other churches and on the street, drew her attention because they kept resurfacing in her own life. On one occasion, she found someone else's dropped ribbon and tied it to her own arm. The next day, she said, the ribbon had vanished.
For her artwork, Neuenschwander, 37, asked 40 friends from different countries about their wishes. She had their desires printed without their names on scores of ribbons, which were then displayed last year at the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art center in Paris. Visitors were encouraged to take ribbons to tie on their wrists and help the wishes come true.
And without the artist's encouragement, something else happened: Viewers started adding to the art. "People started writing their own wishes on pieces of paper," Neuenschwander said.
Visitors rolled up little pieces of their own paper and inserted their wishes into holes -- each about the size of a paper punch -- from where they had taken a ribbon.
Soon Neuenschwander began hearing wishes from more people, living in Europe, then South America and North America. "Je desire vivre au bord de la mer," or "I wish to live next to the sea." And, "Deseo poder hablar con mis padres," or "I wish I could talk to my parents."
Some people later contacted Neuenschwander after her shows about wishes that came true, writing letters about a trip to China, the birth of a healthy baby or meeting the love of their life.
For a time, she set up a table with paper next to the artwork, and people would leave their wishes behind as they took a ribbon with them to try to make someone else's wish come true. Neuenschwander said she had to edit out wishes because there were so many requests for love, health or money.
Others remained: "I wish I could say an unconditional yes." "I wish to be pregnant." "I wish I had a big flat and studio in the center of a big city." "I want to be free."
Robin Clark, associate curator of contemporary art at the St. Louis museum, saw a version of the work in Switzerland and liked the piece's visual richness, the myriad of colors, organized in a grid. "Formally, I think it's really beautiful," she said.
Mindful that she's sharing in the deepest hopes of others, Neuenschwander won't disclose the identities of those who made wishes.
But she said she likes that people everywhere often are searching for the same things.
"I think you share in a very basic feeling with someone," she said. "In the end, we all want the same thing, more or less."