A Sensory Experience

The organic sculptures and magical universe of Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto take over the gallery at Guggenheim Bilbao, allowing audiences to engage with art using their senses.

Neto’s practice combines an interest with the biological form, as with Anthropodino, as well as the traditional artisanal culture of his upbringing. The sculptures Life is a body we are part of – A vida é un corpo do qual fazemos parte (2012), and The slow pace of the body that is skin (O tempo lento do corpo que é pele) (2004), demonstrate Brazilian craft techniques. The slow pace of the body that is skin (O tempo lento do corpo que é pele) is created by utilising a knot-based method called nozinho. Red strips of rubbery Lycra are knotted together, creating a hilly coral-like formation that extends across the floor. The effect is cryptic, as the “carpet” appears to be hiding something underneath, draped as it is in a very architectural fashion. The work was made by a women’s cooperative, Coopa-roca, based in Rio de Janeiro. Neto links the working of the material to an organic, biological form of growth: “The time-space element of this piece is related more to the many little knots, the cells, that generate the surface. […] there is something interesting about the time the women knot with their own hands, the time taken to practise their craft is the invisible content of their achievement.” The density and weight of the piece is in contrast to his more ephemeral and delicate fabric works. He still maintains a key interest in the body, whether it is at a cellular level or an interactive level of engagement.

The Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim building, with its luxurious titanium skin and various complex sculptural volumes, creates an organic space perfect for Neto’s work. The apex of the museum, a skylight designed as a large metal flower set over the museum atrium, frames the first installation of the exhibition: The Falling Body [Le corps] female [ from Leviathan Thot] (O corpo que cai [Le corps] fêmea [de Léviathan Thot]) (2006). Originally installed at the Panthéon, Paris, in 2006, Leviathan Thot is a re-interpretation by Neto of Leviathan, the sea serpent from the Old Testament Book of Job. It is described in the Bible quite viciously: “The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. Its chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. […] Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge.” Neto has created the exact opposite. Soft, dripping forms extend down from the Guggenheim’s skylight and ceiling in a very sensuous and gentle way. Created out of polyamide (nylon) fabric stuffed with sand and Styrofoam pellets, the forms call to mind Claes Oldenburg’s papier-mâché objects of the 1960s, though with Oldenburg’s work the seemingly soft appearance of the objects belied the brittle medium.

Cliff Lauson, curator of Neto’s 2010 Hayward show Ernesto Neto: The Edges of the World, said: “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.” Neto not only encourages visitors to interact with his sculptural environments, but to immerse themselves fully. With the Hayward exhibition, the artist created a pool on one of the outdoor sculpture courts in which groups of 16 people could, quite literally, immerse themselves in his work. This direct physical interaction is repeated in Looking at the sky (Olhando o céu) (2013), a series of mobile carts designed as moveable hammocks. Replete with binoculars and small compartments that are filled with spices, visitors can lie down in the hammocks and push themselves through the space (specifically the Atrium for this exhibition). Falling Body [Le corps] female [ from Leviathan Thot], with its hanging, soft white limbs is installed directly above, and so creates a visual cloud-filled sky.

Neto’s work continues to develop in a new direction, which is why a retrospective at this point in his career is so topical. It allows for a contemporary audience to reflect and experience his major installations and environments thus far, and gives an indication of where he intends to go. Joos argues that his work is becoming increasingly focused on nature, and on how we can connect with the natural world in our increasingly urban environment. Sweet Border (Borda doce) is the most exemplary indication of this evolution in his work. Designed specifically for this show, a “forest” canopy out of nylon, suspended over a steel structure that contains hundreds of lit candles, has been constructed. The effect of light, filtering through both the nylon above and the soft candlelight from below, generates a heady, atmospheric space perpetuated by the aromatic spices within the nylon canopy.

Neto has provided small pouffes for visitors to lie on so they can immerse themselves in the “forest” of his design. In a 2012 interview with Peter Simek he said: “I think culture separates us. Nature puts us together again. It is a consolation. Nature is not in the third person. We are nature.” One should keep this idea in mind when viewing and experiencing Neto’s creation, as it necessarily shifts and changes as people move through it – the very construction being contingent upon the perceived future interactions. It is both fitting and appropriate that the Guggenheim Bilbao, a building whose own ever-shifting exterior appearance is tied to the reflections of the sky above, is the venue for this retrospective of Neto’s work.

Ernesto Neto: The Body That Carries Me until 18 May. Please visit the website for further details of the exhibition at www.guggenheim-bilbao.es.

Niamh Coghlan