It’s the day before the opening of his sprawling solo show at London’s Hayward Gallery, and a harried Ernesto Neto is stitching up a few human organs. At the center of the gallery, surrounded by gauzy tunnels that evoke both tissue and intestines, a tulip-shaped tent with a door, enclosing an enormous drum, rises almost to the ceiling. It symbolizes the human heart, Neto explains. He and a half-dozen assistants are stretching and sewing the bright-red translucent fabric that envelops the object.
The whole gallery looks like the set for a play that takes place inside the human body. “Everything in the show is in the context of the body, the organism that we all share,” Neto says. “It’s about sensuality and sexuality, yes, but it’s also about the idea of protected space. Here we are inside the space, and here”—he sticks his hand through a hole in the nylon mesh, representing a pore—“we are outside, like inside and outside the skin.”
Neto takes one of art’s traditional subjects, the human form, and delves inside it to explore the esthetic possibilities of the inner body. Winding passageways made with clingy, bilious green Lycra suggest digestive tracts and lead to a wide, round tent with colorful pillows lying around: a stomach, complete with just-eaten food. Plywood forms, fitted together without nails or glue, constitute the armature, suggesting bones and vertebrae. Sacks of clove, turmeric, and pepper emit pungent odors. An upper membrane of green nylon evokes skin, or perhaps a forest canopy.
“The sculpture is not just meant to represent a body. It exists as a body, or as nearly as possible,” Neto says. “But it’s also a structure, a place for reflection, where people come together and each one gives his own interpretation. There is no single reading.” He climbs into the finished heart, grasps a hanging drumstick, and bangs the drum, brought from his native Brazil. A rich, sonorous boom throbs out, and the whole quivering body comes to life.
Neto makes some of today’s most inventive and playful sculpture—he does not call his creations installations, a word he dislikes. He invites people not just to touch his works but to plunge their feet and fingers into them—his Hayward Gallery show, in the summer of 2010, even included a swimming pool overlooking the Thames in which visitors were invited to bathe, under a sign saying swimsuits must be worn. With more than 50 solo shows and innumerable group shows behind him, Neto can inspire comparisons to a fun-house or amusement-park operator.
But curators see a more serious ambition in his work: to involve all the senses and strip away the inhibitions with which people approach art. “His work is about tactility, reaching people through the senses, but the body is partly a metaphor for other concerns. He’s interested in the way people move through and negotiate space, how the body interacts with the work,” says Cliff Lauson, a curator at the Hayward. “He doesn’t like roping off his work. Usually he’d rather not show his work than put a barrier around it.”
Fenced off or not, Neto’s work is instantly recognizable. When you take off your shoes and climb into one of his creations, such as the cloudy white chamber entitled Navedenga that he installed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010, you feel not so much inside a human body as inside an Ernesto Neto. Many of his sculptures explicitly refer to human anatomy; others are more ambiguous. Some evoke the microscopic world of cells and atoms; others, the macro world of planets, galaxies, and stars. At his first solo show in New York, at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in 1997, Neto filled nylon sacks with fragrant spices, tied them to the gallery ceiling, and then hurled them to the floor at an angle, creating trajectories that strikingly resembled those of falling meteorites. Instead of craters, they created spontaneous halos of cinnamon and clove.
Other people see allusions to Daliesque Surrealism or Art Deco design in Neto’s work. His massive hanging sculpture made of white Lycra and sand, displayed in the Panthéon in Paris in 2006, suggested bodies suspended in burial shrouds—appropriate for a place where France’s national heroes are memorialized—while bringing a surprising air of levity to that most solemn of buildings.
But it’s Neto’s rich sensory environments, works that engage all the body’s faculties, from smell to touch to vision, that have drawn the most attention.
“He’s doing something unique in terms of conceiving immersive environments,” says Mari Carmen Ramírez, curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Ramírez considers Neto to be “continuing in the footsteps of Lygia Clark,” the Brazilian artist whose vast oeuvre included masks, gloves, and body suits that viewers could wear and play with, experiencing them with the entire body instead of just contemplating them.
Neto speaks of Clark, who died in 1988, and her fellow Neo-Concretist Hélio Oiticica as key influences on his work. But even more important to him, he says, were the suggestive, sensual power of Brancusi and the manipulation of space, color, and perception of Alexander Calder.
Like Calder, Neto has created bigger and bigger works as his fame and budgets have grown, so that early pieces seem almost like models for the heroically sized projects he mounts today.
Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1964, Neto plunged into art late, and suddenly. He was in his early 20s, and Brazil was emerging from two decades of right-wing military rule, which had been “a very dry period” for artists. The media was censored. Rio’s Museu de Arte Moderna lost most of its permanent collection in a disastrous fire in 1978. Neto had studied engineering at university and drifted through various jobs, with a vague interest in astronomy fueled by frequent visits to a planetarium. One day, on the way home from a trip to the northeastern city of Salvador da Bahia, a friend mentioned that she was making clay sculptures. Out of curiosity, Neto tried making them too, and within weeks he had found his destiny. He enrolled at the Escola de Artes Visuais in Rio, but he thought its curriculum was too focused on painting, so he quit and enrolled at the school at the Museu de Arte Moderna.
“It was an epiphany,” he says about his decision to go to art school. “If you’d told me a week before that I would be an artist, I would have said you’re crazy.” He believes that certain early experiences had an influence on his decision. His mother had studied graphic design under Lygia Clark, “so, in a sense, the spirit of Clark was already inside me through my mother,” he says half-jokingly. His father was a builder who took materials from demolished houses in Rio’s dilapidated center and recycled them into new buildings in the city’s booming seaside district of Barra da Tijuca.
“I saw teak wood, glass, floors, doors—man, the things I saw from those old houses, they were beautiful,” he says. He developed a sense of how materials could mold an environment, along with a practical feeling for woodworking. His biggest sculptures today, such as the cathedral-like creation he constructed in the Park Avenue Armory in New York in 2008, entitled anthropodino, rely on the solid understanding of carpentry and structural engineering that he gained before he ever considered becoming an artist. This labyrinthine playground of tunnels, rooms, and passageways, covered with a dome of translucent gold tulle, stretched for 192 by 122 feet, filling the Armory’s cavernous drill hall.
Neto’s early works had an astronomical look. He would wrap Styrofoam pellets and sand in swinging panty hose and often named the works after astrophysical phenomena. During the ’90s, he turned gradually to more direct references to the human body, creating a style that, as curator Emily Moore wrote for a group show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 2003, “encourages a physical, as well as intellectual, interaction between the ‘viewer’ and his sculptures.”
Wherever he shows, the content of his sculptures depends partly on the materials he is able to obtain locally. Spices can be a particular challenge, because they have to be replenished as their odor fades, and he has been known to use 150 pounds of them in a single sculpture.
“I work with whatever I can find. If I can’t find one spice, or it’s too expensive, I’ll use another. No problem,” Neto says. If he’s relaxed about smell, he’s extremely rigorous about light and color. The meaning of a piece depends on the color of the fabrics that define its shape. “Color is always the symbol,” he says. “Green suggests life, vegetation, the natural world. Yellow is much more associated with the mind; people have a more cerebral reaction to it. And then red is associated with body and flesh. It warms you, burns you.” Most of the fabric stitching takes place at his studio in Rio, but the wood for the sculpture’s armatures is acquired locally, as are other materials, including stones, Styrofoam, sand, and steel.
Some of his best ideas, Neto says, come when he’s lying in silence in a hammock at home in Rio, where he lives with his wife and two sons. He finds time to run an art space and gallery, A Gentil Carioca, in Rio’s neo-bohemian Lapa neighborhood, with artists Márcio Botner and Laura Lima. His work can be acquired there and at galleries abroad, including Tanya Bonakdar in New York and Max Hetzler in Berlin. Prices range from a few thousand dollars for an original work on paper to several hundred thousand dollars for commissioned walk-through sculptures such as those at the Park Avenue Armory and the Hayward Gallery.
Neto occasionally creates backdrops for musicians and dancers, and some of his harshest critics have been reviewers of the performing arts. One critic disdained his “drippy, dippy” set for Merce Cunningham’s Views on Stage in Edinburgh in 2004, adding that the scene was dominated by a blob that, depending on the light, looked like “a scrubbed potato or . . . a pink marshmallow.” A critic for the New York Times called the same set “repulsive.” Some are put off by Neto’s puffy physicality, while others fault him for being repetitive or simply a bit middlebrow.
“I have often been a little disappointed by some of Neto’s environments, which seem formulaic and predictable after a while,” says Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, director of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, a private scholarly art-research organization based in New York and Caracas. “He draws on a rich tradition of immersive and participatory art, from Oiticica to Carlos Cruz-Diez, but I think he takes more than he contributes from that tradition.”
Some of Neto’s recent works suggest a more visual, less immersive direction, such as the hanging shrouds and ovals in the Panthéon of Paris. That work was done entirely in off-white, signaling a certain austerity missing from most of his earlier work. At the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Rome last year he reinstalled a work he had created for the space in 2008. He filled dozens of drooping sacks with ground spices to create a floating forest of the senses, but on a more intimate, less enveloping scale than in many earlier works. The title hints at a quieter approach: While nothing happens.
These days, Neto talks often of his renewed interest in Rodin, that most contemplative of sculptors. Rodin sculpted bodies, he says, “and everything I do is in the context of the body. That’s what made me do sculpture to begin with.”
Roger Atwood’s last profile was of the British artist Mike Nelson, in June. Some of his articles can be read at rogeratwood.com.