Tropical popular culture
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 popular culture in Neto’s art.
TROPICAL POPULAR CULTURE
Chopped Coconut (Coco na Machadinha), 2011
Plywood, crochet, TV, headphones,and coconut
“I think we should wake up and step into poetry everyday. This movement that comes from mixing civilization and nature, the way one thing meets the other, and starts settling, fusing, moving. Río de Janeiro crawls up the city, you know?”1 —Ernesto Neto
The art of Ernesto Neto (b. 1964, Río de Janeiro) is inevitably integrated in the world of popular culture on the streets. His studio is immersed in the frenetic activity of small shops and street vendors in the colonial center of Río, offering all types of affordable services to the people. Neto highlights the importance of Brazilian popular culture, showcasing signs of its identity. He admires the camelôs (street vendors) for their intelligence, ingenuity, and elegance in piling up their wares on their backs like hunchbacks, defying the laws of gravity, finding ways to avoid the police. Sculptures such as Street vendor lavanderchamomile bunches (Camelô Cacho lavandalamomila) (2010) and Drum (Tambor) (2010) are direct allusions to this street image.
Chopped Coconut (Coco na Machadinha) (2011) contains Coconut Water (2008), a video manifesto that defends the sale of traditional coconut water drinks against commercialization by large multinationals. This is not an aesthetic choice to transfer an element of everyday life, like a coconut, to the category of art, but rather to advocate for cultural authenticity in political and economic systems as a result of globalization.
In 2009, the City of Río de Janeiro and the Secretary for Public Order and Municipal Cleaning Company implemented Operação Choque de Ordem (Operation Shock of Order) with the goal of cleaning the city’s streets, closing shops that didn’t comply with regulations, and reinforcing public sanitation laws. With this imposition of order, the spontanaeity of informal activity in the streets was prohibited in favor of a more formal economy. This operation even changed the vision of its famous beaches, where hut-dwellers were forced to exchange their colorful huts for white standardized establishments built from the same generic materials. The freshly cut coconuts, grilled cheese (queijo coalho), and shrimp that were a few of the most popular products on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana are now strictly prohibited due to health concerns, and instead must be sold in packages printed with expiration dates.2
For Neto, this not only means the destruction of small commerce from the people’s trades, but also a gradual loss of the signs of identity of a culture that lives and interacts on the streets.
In 1967, Hélio Oiticica (b. 1937, Río de Janeiro; d. 1980, Río de Janeiro) recreated a typical environment of hills and favelas in Tropicalia, wherein one can journey through a labyrinth of sensorial encounters. This installation challenged the museum space and encouraged a reflection of day-to-day experiences.
This project, along with its counterparts in the film, theater, and music of that period, started the Tropicalia movement, which advocated for a certain “cultural cannibalism,” intertwining popular influences with innovative, avant-garde ideas in a flexible, natural way.3 Sensuality, softness, and the constant flow that emanates from these ideas in the Tropicalia movement inevitably connects art and culture with the streets of Río, making this one of the most significant axes of Neto’s art. For Neto, art “is in every place, all the time—it’s here now. In Río we are always involved in this sort of pleasure-based thinking. There is pleasure in being alive even in the most difficult moments. We are alive; there is no way out, so we have got to be alive in life.”4
1 Nike Flyknit Collective. Vimeo.com/50863391.
2 Reiner Hehl, “The Resistance of Popular Ingenuity. Ernesto Neto's Meditation Between High and Low Culture,” from Ernesto Neto: el cuerpo que me lleva, exh. cat. Bilbao: Museo Guggenheim Bilbao and Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2014.
View Coconut Water (2008), a three-minute video, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdDka–yyqg.
A single person appears in the video. Describe what he is doing. What caught your attention?
The coconut is a tropical fruit that provides a nutritious source of meat, juice, milk, and oil, and has fed and nourished populations around the world for generations. In Brazilian culture the coconut has a long and respected history. Think of a typical fruit in your environment. How is it usually eaten? On what occasions or times of year?
In Río de Janeiro, coconut water is associated with the relaxed, festive atmosphere of the beach, where it’s usually sold. What types of foods do you associate with a relaxed, festive atmosphere?
What are the differences between food sold by street vendors and food sold in stores? List the pros and cons for both options.
What do you think of street vendors? Reflect on how prohibiting street vendors impacts society and the economy. Divide the class in half, and have some students take the role of street vendors and the rest of store owners to debate the issue.