On a sunny afternoon in Chelsea, I ducked into Tanya Bonakdar Gallery to find a giggling group of teenagers taking off their shoes on a long wooden bench. They were preparing to enter Ernesto Neto’s multicolored crocheted environment, “The Serpent’s Energy Gave Birth to Humanity.” In my socks, I joined them, coiling through a cocoon-like structure, discovering instruments and food, running my fingers along woven patterns.
Almost immediately, the gallery walls fell away and a fibrous new time-space floated down in their place. Navigating the installation required a shift in movement, attention, and logic, but the shift happened naturally. Textile tunnels in pink and green, and a bright yellow wall-to-wall carpet felt warm, familiar. The finger-crocheting technique, and much of the content of the exhibition, comes from Neto’s recent collaboration with the Huni Kuin of the Brazilian Amazon. In the face of rampant industrialization, deforestation, and other environmental crises, the Huni Kuin trust that the rainforest holds the wisdom and healing power needed for humanity to live cohesively and sustainably with nature.
Neto, born in Brazil, has long been interested in the forms and cycles shared by humans and nature. His installations encourage childlike play as well as serious scientific and philosophical musing. In a round, covered structure, Adam Boa Eve Apple Egg (2016), a finger-knitted carpet depicts the infinite serpent, a recurring Huni Kuin motif. A tree-like form rises up through the center and a serpentine bundle of thread wraps around it, continuing the carpet’s infinity in three dimensions. Like the snake imagery, the objects placed around the tree are inescapably symbolic. Apples. A guitar. Is this biblical? Arcadian? Neto asserts the purity, even the hidden truth, of these pervasive forms: from rainforest to museum, scripture to medical journal.
Outside the hut, is a carved brown marble ellipse with candles and a bowl of seeds; crocheted bags of beans; and, Dressing, dreaming leaves (2016), green and blue ear-like forms, pinned on the dark brown wall. These thickly crocheted, wilting petals oscillate; they are cells and lichen, ears and labia, all at once. Then, upstairs, Neto’s repeating geometries are presented as isolated models against brightly lit white walls. A double helix stretches floor to ceiling. Ferns hang in a cluster of ceramic pots. And on the back wall, what appears to be a diagram of a cell compound opens up in its center to a dark purple void. Reaching in, one feels the soft cotton fibers against her arm.
Weaving through long, crocheted ropes hanging like vines at the gallery entrance, as with the glowing jellyfish-like tendrils of Pipilotti Rist’s “Pixel Forest” on view at the New Museum, one wonders whether there is a lasting value to these interactive exhibitions, beyond the countless Instagram photos they inspire. Certainly, visitors love to enter art, and to inform everyone in their networks that they have done so. Rist and Neto have both brought to New York fantastical worlds that invite wandering, lounging, and lingering. Rist’s envelops visitors in zooming referents and dreamy music. Neto’s, however, is more like a myth than a dream, in that he considers the viability of survival through elementary signs, calling to mind Kandinsky’s assertion that art should re-create the awe of a child seeing fire for the first time, or Matisse’s, that art should be like a good armchair. Neto has crafted an immersive environment of shamanism and science, reminding us, with refreshing levity, to reexamine the interrelated structures of biology, spirituality, and art.