Published  09/09/2010

Understanding the Expansion of Universe. An interview with Ernesto Neto

Understanding the Expansion of Universe: An interview with Ernesto Neto

Internationally acclaimed for creating immersive installations with his ambient sculptures, the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto completely transformed the upper floor of the Hayward Gallery in London


However, converting the entire gallery into a sensorial universe was not enough for Neto. Furthermore, the artist transformed the Southbank Cultural Centre socially into one of London’s main attractions this summer. Neto brought the social interaction found in the atmosphere of a Rio de Janeiro beach to the exhibition, asking people to take off their shoes and experience the habitat that he had created. From June to September more than 60,000 visitors were invited, as the artist explained, to play, lay down, swim and breath in his exhibition The Edges of the World.

According to Neto, The Edges of the World corresponds to a non-geographical space, a conceptual territory that embraces the consciousness of the human condition, an extension of our bodies, the relationship with the other and with the environment. He presented the exhibition as a living organism in which even its heartbeat could be heard.  The artwork Circleprototemple, a bright red, cosy dome equipped with a circular lounge, containing a bass drum that anyone could play, provoked the repercussion of the sounds of pounding in the gallery.  The audience could also climb the Horizon of Events 3, a set of stairs which lead to an overall view of the caves and jungle-like fabric structure, these in turn created a tunnel to the “H2O-SFLV”, a swimming pool sculpture on the terrace. In the centre of this complex urbanism that shapes the busy city of London, the artist gave the public an oasis in which they were enticed to slow down the manic rhythm of their daily routines and freely dive into calm waters.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1964, where he still lives, Ernesto Neto gave up the idea of being an astronomer in the mid 1980s and enrolled himself in the Visual Arts School “Parque Lage” in Rio. Following the historical roots of Brazilian contemporary art, he has produced artworks that join sensorial awareness with conceptual propositions. His work can be seen today in solo exhibitions and the collections of major museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. He has also participated in important international shows, for example the 49th and 50th Venice Biennial, the 8th Havana Biennial and two editions of the São Paulo Biennial.

Caroline Menezes: You do more solo exhibitions outside of Brazil and your work is well received internationally. Do you think this is because your work carries a series of sensory stimuli, which would be a kind of universal language? Do you believe that there is something that can be called universal amongst everyone or that culture shapes what we are?

Ernesto Neto: It’s delusional to think that there is not something universal. We are also culture, but everyone has to go to the bathroom, everybody has to eat. For example, during a very important discussion you feel like taking a pee, but you cannot leave the meeting, so you are holding on desperately until you resolve the issue. You leave the meeting and have a moment of introspection. You feel the wonderful pleasure of relief alone. Then you return to the discussion with some new ideas. This is because you had a moment of introspection due to physiological reasons that ends up creating a small cultural revolution. Culturally, you became more developed, because your body had a moment of meditation with itself and also with the infinite. Therefore I think that the cultural relationship is linked to the universal space of our body. Now, of course, and for this exhibition, I thought a lot about this, that urbanism shapes people. Living in an urban structure such as London, Paris or São Paulo will significantly alter your modus operandi, your being, your manner. And this is a cultural happening, but also a physical happening. This urbanism that is all around you, however much culture it is and represents, turns into a habitat. Culture becomes our nature in some way. There's no means of wishing to separate culture from our body. I am interested in what we all have in common. For instance, I obviously bring some background baggage with me, freedom and a cultural seasoning that somehow also seduces, mainly the Westerners who are more tied up in the cultural structure. Regarding Europe, if I analyse it from a homoeopathic point of view that takes into account only the basic elements, I can say that my intention here is that my artworks should be perceived as places dedicated to nature. Thus, with them I attempt to make room for nature, which builds our surroundings. As for Brazil, with the same artworks, I seek to expand the scope of culture, which is something that needs to be valued in the Brazilian context.

CM: Do you think that with the same artwork it is possible to create a repercussion with these two issues?

EN: My artwork, in a material sense, features a representation of nature, of the natural space. But it is absolutely cultural, being entirely built with mathematical and topological characteristics, linked to weight and gravity; rational issues that involve a number of calculations.

CM: Since we're talking about materiality, you frequently use a transparent fabric, nylon, almost as a signature. Has this fabric fascinated you since the beginning of your art practice or did you choose it as a practical solution because it enabled you to do what you wanted in space?

EN: When I started using this material I wanted to express the weight of a ball and the way to achieve this would be to have a surface that would become deformed with the actual weight of the ball. When I created the first sculpture in fabric, a triangle stretched with a kind of wire, this tension, this minimum surface area, this space tensor, was the focus point. And from then on I was working in many different ways without really knowing where I was going. I wanted to put things together and I wanted them to become a sculptural moment, the idea of a moment has always fascinated me. This is happening here and now and from the moment that you disassemble the work of art it stops happening. There was a sculpture called the Barra-bola (bar-ball) that was a rubber ball and an iron bar crushing the rubber ball against the wall. There you have art, but at that moment when you separate the two, art is no more. So this notion of art occurring and “unoccurring” was what attracted me – an unexpected space that contains a drama within itself.

CM: Your work is always so “organically” connected to the exhibition space. What is the process of assembling your work like and what is essential to project these environments that you have created?

EN: All my works are created on the floor plan. Many times I even forget to look at the photograph of the space. To visit the place is essential, to be able to seize the spirit, the temperature, the social relationships of the place, the relationship with the curator, of the people you meet. Therefore it is not only a relationship with architecture, as if it were something cold. It is a relationship with the architecture without a doubt, but also a relationship with the social structure of the place.

CM: What specific element of the architecture and social movement of the Hayward Gallery caught your attention? And what do you think that you bring to the exhibition space from your own cultural context?

EN: In the original architecture of the Hayward Gallery, the way people move about is very tightly controlled. This was exciting for me as I could only operate within this circuit. Having previously visited the gallery in the summer was very important to someone like me who lives in Rio de Janeiro because there you have the matter of the beach, which is an essential part of my life as it is for all Cariocas1. I believe that being a Carioca involves a very unique relationship of social interactivity. It means trying to solve problems with swing and rhythm, as if dancing. It signifies not getting into a headlock with the problem but rather trying to bend, accommodate it. The problem comes and you embrace it. One time in Oslo, someone said to me: “I understand your work socially, but I do not understand it politically.” I replied that he was saying this because he did not know what samba was. In samba, the musicians build a space of utopia, where you speak of problems, but not protesting. It is not like European or American music. You dance rock and roll with your shoulder, arm and mouth while samba is danced with the hips, the gaze is on the horizon. You dance as if you were seducing the other, but it is with the look, subtly. Hence I believe this has a lot to do with Rio de Janeiro. The beach in Rio is a social place where a crowd comes together without there being a crisis. You see a lot of people on the lawns of the London Southbank in summer, but there is no sea, they are not almost naked, or wearing bikinis. In the park you keep your shoes on, but on the Rio’s sand this is impossible.

CM: Do you think then that this exhibition reflects a small part of the social characteristics of the beach, this open space shared by different individuals?

EN: What I like a lot about this exhibition is that it became a public place in the extreme. We are no longer tackling a space like that of the white cube. We were dealing with the white screen, then we toiled with the white cube, now we work with the institutional space. People need to go somewhere, they want culture, they want to relate. At the Tate, and at MoMA there are a frightening number of people. It is not just a question of the art that is inside. It is a question of the place that houses the art, which besides being a public place that holds the artistic expression also has a canteen and a shop as well, that has an entire programme that is very appealing. And of these people, one can even say that only 10 per cent will actually understand the artwork, which is already great.

CM: Maybe more than that, more than 10 per cent, right?

EN: It may be more than that. I’m being conservative in my position to justify it. For example, this exhibition has a desire to occupy the space as if it were a habitat. That is why it has room for sitting down, lying, swimming, and more than that, breathing. All the artwork there is realistic. It is a tensor space, a structure of balance that is reality, not illusion. I want to create a place of fantasy for the abstraction of the world in which we live. There has been a politicization of art at the beginning of this century, quite objective, which is extremely understandable. Now, I am not interested in giving people what they watch on all-day television. Reality is crazier than art. Wasn’t there a man in Austria who locked up his children? Do you know history to be as radical as this? And what are you going to look for? Samuel Beckett? I think we need everything. In my case, I create a space for people to breathe in. I think people deserve that. There is a deep desire for freedom and a profound incompetence at being free. Who is truly free in this world?

There is this beastly capitalism saying that you will only be free if you have money and everyone knows that this is not true. Those who have money are all tied up trying to protect their money. Of course, we will have to work, we will have to go after what we want, we will have to earn money, we will have to put up with the boss. It is good that other artists exist who will have to beat society in order to wake her. So when you see, for example, people being very aggressive with my work, you notice that there is a subversive side where some people feel attacked. In the exhibition there are signs “Be Gentle or Do Not Touch” because the public, on the first day, were extremely violent and broke things. The name of this exhibition was originally going to be “A Delicadeza do mundo” (The Delicacy of the world). Then they told me that “delicacy” in English has to do with food and that it would not work, but the subject is the delicacy, sweetness, sensuality as one thing touches another.

CM: Maybe some people cannot stand all this delicacy, this insight?

EN: Delicacy bothers. This is the issue, you have to act as if you have something the other person wants and you do not even know what it is. You imagine a person who works full-time at a company wondering how to deceive his work companion. Imagine the guy who works eight hours a day for the arms industry, thinking about how to kill better, cheaper, more easily and more cleanly. I try to create places that are not spaces of resistance, but rather, are areas of insight for people, places where people manage somehow to alienate themselves from the daily life and interact with another existential possibility, but that each person will have a different interpretation. I am not a saint; I do not think that it is going to save the world. My goal is to embrace people, take care of people, carry them as if I were carrying a baby. The space in which I work is pre-language space. It is an area for understanding the physical world, texture, weight, colour, temperature, joy, sadness. It is the space of affective relationships with the world.


1. Carioca – word of indigenous origin used to describe natives or inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro city since the beginning of the Portuguese colonization there in the 16th century.

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