The art of Ernesto Neto (b. 1964, Río de Janeiro) was created in order to be penetrated, inhabited, felt, and even smelled, allowing spectators to experience their own bodies, feelings, and minds through interaction with his works of art.
Neto wants viewers to feel free to play and experiment, while also asking that they treat his art with responsibility and respect due to its fragile nature; just like the human body, it should be treated with the utmost sensitivity and care.
Access to certain rooms will therefore be limited, and visitors are asked to follow instructions, which allow for the best experience of the art without endangering its conservation.
The following didactic unit addresses the idea of experimentation and play in Neto’s art.
PLAY, FEEL, AND EXPERIMENT
Life is a body we are part of (A vida é um corpo do qual fazemos parte), 2012
Crochet and polypropylene balls
“People like to defend the idea of pain, death and suffering as the source of poetry. I beg to differ—I want joy. It isn’t a matter of happiness. I want life, the maximum force. We are all alive, we have all conquered this state of being alive. This is what unites us. Let’s try to live.” —Ernesto Neto1
To Ernesto Neto (b. 1964, Río de Janeiro), we are all children who want to play. The artistic experience becomes a multisensory activity, where the idea of playing is an important part of perceiving his sculptures. His works encourage us to activate the play mechanism as a fundamental source for activating perception and providing knowledge.2
Neto puts the viewer in unusual situations, allowing them to question and understand their own body and its relationship with the environment. His art is a continuous fight between nature and culture, as it becomes a tool for offering a sense and a space to the animal that lives inside us, which must be explored.3
This way of understanding art is based on the legacy of the Neo-Concrete movement. During the ʼ50s, Neo-Concretism addressed the values of modernity and industrialization in Brazil, questioning the rationalist rigidity of art. The artists of this movement placed the spectator at the center of the creative action, extolling values that unify art and life, and increasingly removed from the idea of art as a machine or object. From this perspective, Neo-Concretism advocated for developing the foundation of a new expressive space where the viewer becomes part of the artwork, with the possibility of touching and handling it. The artists that founded this movement, who have been a major influence on Neto, include Lygia Clark (b. 1920, Belo Horizonte; d. 1988, Río de Janeiro), Lygia Pape (b. 1927, Río de Janeiro; d. 2004, Río de Janeiro), Hélio Oiticica (b. 1937, Río de Janeiro; d. 1980, Río de Janeiro), and the critic and poet Ferreira Gullar (b. 1930, São Luís, Maranhão).4
For these artists, human beings are intertwined in complex connections with our environment. A person’s sensorial perception not only classifies the external elements with which they come into contact, but also provides knowledge through affective and emotional states and the imagination. Neo-Concretism promoted synesthesia, a condition in which the senses work interconnected with each other. For example, music can be heard through color, flavors can be velvety, and touch can be aromatic. Clark and Oiticica involved spectators in sensorial experiments, sometimes using masks, gloves, or other elements to block out one of the senses in order to strengthen the others, transforming the artistic experience into a multisensory act.5
Life is a body we are part of (A vida é um corpo do qual fazemos parte) (2012) is a sculpture Neto created in the shape of a dragon, suspended from the ceiling and woven using a crochet technique with polyester strings. Neto invites us to walk through this very colorful structure with twisting, winding paths. The floors are full of plastic balls, and as you walk, the balls rub against each other, making a unique sound inside the structure. Being able to move though the sculpture allows us to observe the space from different perspectives; the fretwork maze of crocheted colored materials allows us to see through them. At the same time, our bodies’ movements become intertwined and involved in the movement of the large structure, which sways below the weight of our footsteps. Inevitably, all our senses are activated and interconnected. The path leads us to the center of the piece, which has a platform where we can enjoy the views, rest, and connect with our emotions and thoughts and reflect on our existence and relationship with the world.
For security reasons and due to the fragility of the piece, the path through Life is a body we are part of (2012) has restrictions and can only be enjoyed by following the museum’s established guidelines. This sculpture is not apt for group itineraries. A maximum of eight people may enter the piece at the same time.
1 Nike Flyknit Collective.
2 Ernesto Neto, The Edges of the World. Interview, SouthBank Centre, June 19–Sept. 15, 2010.
4 Raphaela Platow, ”The Body that Carries Me” in Ernesto Neto: el cuerpo que me lleva, exh. cat. Bilbao: Museo Guggenheim Bilbao and Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2014.
Observe Life is a body we are part of (2012). What does the crochet design (patterns) remind you of? What does it suggest to you? In which places or objects could we find a similar framework? Although crochet is usually used to create small wearable or decorative objects, describe how Neto has used this process differently.
This artwork is intended to be walked through. Observe the floor of the sculpture where you are supposed to walk. What types of sensations do you get from the idea of walking on it? How do you feel when you move through the piece? What type of path would you associate with the sculpture’s floor?
What senses are stimulated while interacting with this piece? Imagine how you would feel if you walked through the sculpture with your eyes closed. What sounds would you hear? What does the crochet feel like tactilely? When you actually go to the museum and visit this piece, compare the sensations you had imagined and those you really feel.
How is this sculpture similar to or different from more traditional sculptural approaches?
Each and every person who visits the museum to experience this piece will have different sensations, although it’s the same work of art. What is it that makes each of us have different sensations with the same piece? Reflect on this idea not only in terms of the sculpture, but in all areas of life.
Playing with the Senses
Put different materials into boxes, such as dirt, stones, screws, feathers, grass, or spices like curry, cloves, oregano, etc., and cover them with a black cloth or something that prevents students from seeing inside. Tell students to touch the materials and shake the boxes in order to feel, hear, and perceive the smell that emanates from each box.
Do a similar activity using plastic bags or balloons that can be closed off. Fill them with water and add stones, dirt, cotton, plastic balls, flour, etc., or just water. Have students cover their eyes and ask them to feel and press the different bags while narrating the sensations they experience. It is important not to completely fill the containers so they can be shaken and pressed and students can still sense the sound, smell, and touch of the materials.
Afterward, ask students to express the subjective sensations they felt by writing sentences using vocabulary that belongs to another sense, as when silence is sweet.
Transforming the Space
Ask students to modify the classroom space using balls of yarn. Ask them to unroll the ball and tie the yarn to different areas of the room, interfering with the space. Organize a specific route that eventually can be accessed and walked through. Areas should be created with greater or lesser density of yarn, causing different sensations and textures. The properties of certain areas, such as the floor or the walls, should be modified or changed as much as possible using cardboard, paper, fabric, foam rubber, plastic, etc.
Have students walk through the space. Discuss and observe how we interact and integrate with the transformed space through the senses.
Make some holes in large fabric or (flexible) paper sheets and cover the students with the material. Ask students to put their arms, legs, hands, and feet through the holes, and make connections between them. (Do not allow students to cover their heads with plastic for safety reasons.)
If you do not have large sheets, you can make connections using the students’ jackets. Each student should put one arm into the sleeve of a jacket and leave the other sleeve empty for a classmate, thereby successively interconnecting all the students.
This activity can be done in or out of the classroom. Ask the students on the far ends of the interconnection to hold on to an element in their environment.
Take photos of the activity from different angles and perspectives. Project the photographs so that students can see the results of their interconnection with each other and with their physical environment.
Crochet: Manual craftwork made with a crochet hook (a bar with a hook on the end) to create fabrics with many shapes and colors.
Multisensorial: Sensation that involves two or more interacting senses.
Rationalist: Someone who gives more importance to reasoning than to emotion.
Synesthesia: A phenomenon by which different sensorial qualities are merged together. This feeling is caused when a sense other than the sense receiving the stimulus is activated. Synesthetic metaphors can be used in literature to express imagery and perceptions.
About Life is a body we are part of (2012)