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The Neto Experience

Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto (1961) has traveled the world, frequently touching down in Istanbul, at the Venice Biennale, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate in London, MOMA in New York, and MALBA in Buenos Aires.

By Sol Astrid Giraldo E.

Photos: Cortesía Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA)

Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto (1961) has compared himself to a peddler. He is a nomad traveling with a suitcase full of wares that he can spread out on the floor anywhere, anyway, and any time he pleases. In fact, since the late 1980s, he has traveled the world with his permutable baggage, frequently touching down in Istanbul, at the Venice Biennale, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate in London, and MOMA in New York, to mention just a few of his stops. Today he is at MALBA in Buenos Aires for “Soplo,” a retrospective of his work over the last thirty years curated by the Pinacoteca de São Paulo.

While some people see his installations as festivals or funfairs, the artist prefers to talk about them in terms of the rituals and ceremonies of life. In any case, he is riding in on a Trojan horse, bearing playful pieces that jolt the solid and sober foundations of a highly industrialized, mechanized society that worships technology. His actions are predicated on one conviction: the spaces in modern society actually govern bodies and the relationships between bodies, as can be seen in the authoritarian architecture of prisons, schools, hospitals, and of course, museums.

Neto cracks open these pigeonholes when he spills out the contents of his suitcase. The suitcase disgorges more than objects; it produces other ways of seeing and conceiving the reality stifled by logical and miserly structures. Magic unfolds: straight lines become fluid, the walls turn into porous membranes, sterility is contaminated by the smells of spices, screws give way to knots, roofs take on the shape of the heavens, the floors soften, and square rooms distend. Time droops like a Dalí watch.

This radical and festive celebration goes against the optimization demanded by lean production chains. Subversively, the forms here are not necessarily functional. The universe conjured by Neto permits and celebrates dissipation, detours, and gratuitousness. It therefore takes time to travel through his worlds, since it is not at all a matter of going from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Moments are not meant to be compulsively consumed, but rather enjoyed slowly, savored in labyrinths and bypasses that engage all the senses. The artist induces us to seek, not find. As the poet Cavafy noted, Ithaca is, above all, the journey.

Neto’s vessels makes it possible to undertake a very liberating voyage through porous translucent structures, anchored like beached whales, which allow us to position ourselves in the here and now and be with ourselves and with others. It is a breach of the spirit of the times, which demands distraction, externality, and racing against the clock. In contrast, his vessels are set up like contemporary churches where we can recapture the original purpose of a church: bringing together the community. There, viewers’ bodies examine themselves but they also overlap with the bodies of others; they brush against each other, they touch, they look at each other. It is a chance to develop an awareness, not only of oneself, but also of others, that modern urban life denies us.

Despite their playful intent, these structures are not casual or random. They reflect Neto’s principal, highly thought-out concepts. He defines himself as a sculptor above all. The pillars of his structures always feature organic geometries, ephemeral equilibriums, and constant tensions, very much in the spirit of the Brazilian Neo-concretism that he so capably represents. Like an alchemist, a scientist, or a shaman —he is a bit of each— the artist is fascinated by the secrets of matter. His spatial installations are always designed as laboratory experiments with materials. Neto’s knowledge of the basics of physics plays an important role, as does his ability to acquiesce to chance in his unfaltering control over his components, along with a feeling of freedom and satisfaction in his powers.

His scenes show us the weight of the world in the drop of a lead ball, the nature of light when it pools or shines through a net, or the pull of opposing forces in the precision of a knot.

A spectacular new mythology parades through this archetypical and futuristic geography: mastodons on four legs, exuberant anemones, crisscrossed cells, crocheted spider webs. Viewers can immerse themselves in this geography as they listen to a colloquy between the premises of Western physics and the spirituality of Amazonian peoples, industrial and ancestral elements, and the material and the abstract worlds. The whole reaffirms that anyone can be an artist and that laughter and play can again be woven into the fabric of modern life.