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August 2010, Ernesto Neto @ Hayward Gallery

Ernesto Neto, Installation view, The Edges of the World, 2010
Mixed media, Courtesy of the artist and Hayward Gallery
Photo credit: Steven White


Ernesto Neto: the Edges of the World
Hayward Gallery
Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road
London, SE1 8XX
19 June through 5 September 2010

It is somehow fitting that the Hayward Gallery, which has been closed for six months to upgrade its maintenance system, should open with two exhibitions which so completely inhabit and dialogue with its spruced up spaces. Ernesto Neto’s specially commissioned, site-specific installations stretch in all directions on the first floor, as well as onto the Hayward’s terraces, while on the two floors below, the exhibition New Décor explores the domestic in art.

The Edges of the World, opened in time for the Brazil Festival at Southbank Centre, is the latest in an art trend which has been gaining momentum in London over the past year. From Raven Row’s A History of Irritated Materials which featured the impressive archive-cum-installation Lygia Clark, from Object to Event by Suely Rolnik, to Camden Arts Centre’s Anna Maria Maiolino exhibition, to Victoria Miro’s Maria Nepomuceno show, London curators have been increasingly turning their eyes towards Latin America, and, more specifically it seems, to Brazil. Neto, considered by many to be the leading figure of contemporary Brazilian art exhibited his Life fog frog – fog frog sculpture in the Hayward’s 40th anniversary Psycho Buildings show in 2008. He returns to the gallery in 2010 with his trademark multi-sensory, biomorphic, large-scale sculptures.

Experiencing Neto’s delicate art – intrinsically linked to the bodily forms in soft pastel colours – juxtaposed against the grim Brutalist concrete of the Hayward, is an experience in itself. Everything, from the materials to the colour to the design, is so completely in opposition, that the gallery space and installation pieces interact almost symbiotically, the one emphasising the qualities of the other.

And so one enters The Edges of the World, walking carefully up untreated concrete stairs. A soft, gauze-like fabric envelops the upper section of the staircase, welcoming us into a bizarre playground of sinuous interactive sculptures, a veritable womb cocooning its visitors. Seven different pieces are conceived as a labyrinthine whole: The Edges of the World. To the right of the staircase lies circleprototemple…! from which an erratic drumming sound could be heard almost constantly during my visit. This is a heart-shaped pavilion in plush, translucent pink fabric, supported by a wooden biomorphic structure which has been locked together in a ying-yang formation, with no glue, nails or screws (this technique is something that recurs through the exhibition). Once inside the dome, visitors are encouraged to sit on the circular seats and beat a drum which lies in the centre with a tantalisingly provided stick. No one seemed to hesitate.

Ernesto Neto, Installation view, The Edges of the World, 2010
Mixed media, Courtesy of the artist and Hayward Gallery
Photo credit: Steven White

Further into the space lies symbiotintestubetime – the flavour happens in a state of being, a serpentine tunnel of ‘bones’, wooden biomorphic shapes locked together, and ‘membranes’, translucent fabrics in cheerful greens, pinks, yellows and reds, carefully crocheted together with a darker corresponding colour. In various places, holes are cut which give way to tights, hand-stitched around the them. Turning around one of the many archways, the calming smells of lavender and chamomile float towards the visitor. Here, dried spices have been poured into the translucent fabric to create swirling pockets of soothing scents. Using the sense of smell is not something artists often experiment with and Neto is a true master of multi-sensory experiences. Virtually all visitors, timid and tentative at first, quickly became more experimental and interactive once they realised they could touch (gently!) and smell the sculptures, smiles brimming on their faces.

At various intervals wooden staircases of different heights, called just take me out of the ground, dot the installation. Carved to resemble protozoan cells, they act as watchtowers which give us access to a secret world beyond the boundaries of the sculptures below: tubes made from fabric populate the upper membrane, and here and there bunches of pebbles weigh down the tulle creating depressions. Because this ‘alternative’ installation can only be seen one person at a time, the viewer feels complicit with the artist in seeing something awesome and private.

Elsewhere, Neto constructs his Naves – short for espaçonave, Portuguese for spaceship – which are ethereal sculptures within sculptures, always built from gauze-like fabrics of soft colours, hand-stitched together. Here, the largest is horizonmembranenave, a sort of parallel world to horizon of events III, wrapping gently around its outer layer. Visitors are required to take off their shoes before entering. The entire Nave, including the floor, is covered in a layer of stretched green tulle, which inevitably sinks as the visitors walk on it, providing a strange sensation. A soft, green, pouffy chair lies in a corner, on which various people were lounging, and around the corner towards the end, a forest of floor-to-ceiling gauze tubes are amassed, eliciting wild maneuvres from visitors.

More than anything, the greatest success of The Edges of the World lies in the reactions it brings out of its audience: by giving us access to a bizarre biomorphic world, where we are encouraged to push boundaries and explore further, it appeals to everyone’s inner child, bringing out expressions of wonder and visible, adventurous excitement. This is most evident in Neto’s H20-SFL, a domed pool flanked by two changing rooms on one of the roof terraces of the Hayward. Serendipitously for Neto, London was graced by an unseasonably warm and sunny June and July, allowing for a full enjoyment of the pool, with adults lounging, absorbing the sun, while children screamed ecstatically as they played in the water - something rare in overcrowded London.

Ernesto Neto, Installation view, The Edges of the World, 2010
Mixed media, Courtesy of the artist and Hayward Gallery
Photo credit: Steven White

Ana Vukadin

Ana Vukadin is a regular contributor to murmurART and FAD. She completed her MA in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, specialising in modern and contemporary art.

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