Review by Henry Little
Ernesto Neto’s labyrinthine solo show at the Hayward Gallery, the works for which have all been fabricated on site in response to the gallery’s unique layout and architecture, is a thrilling revelation for those unfamiliar with the Brazilian artist. Neto has created an engulfing playground environment for the daydreaming adult in which the viewer meanders in and out of biomorphic landscapes that stem from an interest in bodily boundaries and organic existence. In his own words, Neto’s sculptures are intended to arouse ‘the feeling of getting into the abstract idea of a body, as if you could get inside your own body.’
The materials Neto uses to create his sculptures are diverse. There is a series of wooden skeletons, the limbs of which all look like dinosaur bones making it bizarrely reminiscent of the Flintstones, which form viewing platforms or the basis for more elaborate structures. One such piece is a heart-shaped enclave, covered in soft red fabric, which enfolds a circular bench and drum. In the next room a snaking maze covered with pendulous sacks of herbs and spices leads you along an ambling alimentary ambulatory. Above the interior rooms is suspended a double layer of fabric connected by little fabric tubes. Analogous to the human skin, ‘the setting for our existential drama,’ this dermal layer, through which we can peer with the aid of the wooden bone viewing platforms, encloses the sculptures and exhibits below.
The external gallery terraces, which have so frequently hosted the most daring elements of previous exhibitions at the Hayward, are exploited by Neto with whimsical, infant-influenced art works. In contrast to the soft weightlessness of the fabric membranes that form the substance of much of the interior works, one terrace hosts a colossal sculpture assembled from steel discs (interacting rising leaves). Amazingly, like the other constructions inside, the whole piece slots together without adhesive, screws, bolts or welding - only balance and gravity hold the sculpture together. The effect of this knowledge, when walking around the work, is rather uncomfortable given its six metre height and four tonne weight. Resembling a child’s construction toy it nonetheless exudes a monumental gravitas.
Art and swimming make unlikely bed fellows, but Neto uses another terrace for a domed paddling pool and changing rooms. Having unfortunately forgotten my speedos I was unable to submerse, although I was assured by the presence of two changing rooms that swimming is encouraged. Requiring participation to be complete, in which the viewer/swimmer swims in circles, the work is intended by Neto to activate the same sense of immersion as the labyrinthine structures inside the gallery.
This is an emphatically sensual exhibition which sites the production of knowledge and life itself within the organic relationship between interior and exterior, and which tries to foster an atmosphere of sensation, understanding and interaction. Words can’t really do the experience of wandering around it justice - it’s like walking into a waking reverie suspended in a giant soft toy’s innards.
Ernesto Neto, Navedenga, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA