Today I had the peculiar pleasure of witnessing a renowned Brazilian artist dancing at the Tate Modern during a speech, and caressing the podium in an expression of passion for the ‘nature’ of objects. Ernesto Neto is a quirky and charismatic artist who has fascinated me with his tactile, porous artworks for years. His talk for ‘Topology at Tate Modern’ began with a lyrical wordplay on the word topological “Topolo-being, Topolo-heart, Topolo-brain… Topolo-me, Topolo-you Toplo-thinking.” This rhythm rumbled throughout his talk, surfacing unexpectedly at points.
“sprawling, monstrous, playful sculptures”
Recognized as the most influential contemporary Brazilian artist, Neto lives and works in Rio de Janeiro. Influenced by brazilian neo-concretism, his practice explores membranes, organic structures and sensory interaction between viewer and artwork. His most iconic installations are sprawling, monstrous, playful sculptures that use pendulous forms of translucent membrane, filled with tactile and sensuous materials such as polished ball bearings, spices and washing powder.
Neto’s abstract, architectural pieces filled the Hayward Gallery in 2010. If you visited the space, perhaps like me, you experienced the artwork taking you physically away from the everyday, gradually becoming more aware of your surroundings and your connections with the space, the membranes, the art, the other people in the gallery. Neto’s pungent materials become a further layer of the sculpture, invisibly snaking around the gallery: A scent sculpture, being displaced, conveyed, shaped and eroded by passing viewers.
His talk today addressed the question “Culture separates, bodies unify. How can we on a fragmented cultural planet, topolo-build a level of conviviality and habitability, beyond institutional skins, under a gravitational field?”
This question is what Neto attempts to address through his artwork. Using his bodily sculpture he cuts through any barriers of culture. The spectator is invited to enter the spaces, tunnels, and crevices of his art. His porous forms represent an ‘internal landscape’. With an organicism that plays with scale, tension and connections, he sets about changing the spaces in which we engage with art, seeking to impress “the idea of getting inside a body, not the actual representation of being inside an organ… The white cube is no longer a white cube”. He references specific works such as the Nave series (right) – an object inside of an object inside of a gallery.
So what is topology?
As mathematic theory of space, topology is primarily concerned with stretching and transforming space. It gets exciting when we apply the theory and lexicon of topology outside of the field of mathematics, say, to a sculpture: Space becomes understood not as a static container, but a series of connections, a multiplicity, and a progression of movements. The other speakers today, (who’s fascinating points I will come to in future articles), gave further insight into topology & Neto from their perspectives – the physicist Dr Luiz Alberto Oliveira, the philosopher Éric Alliez, and the writer and curator Margaret Wertheim.
The rhythm and energy of Neto’s articulations were punctuated with his thoughts on the expression of time (and how much time he had left to talk to us). His speech itself seemed organic and autonomous, taking him off on a tangent when the stimulus or the situation lent itself.
“we can never really touch the present because as soon as it is here, it is gone”
His animated, seemingly-haphazard explanation for his passion with the world drew me into the mind and the experience of this remarkable artist, and his whimsical tangents always somehow came back to make a number of profound or fascinating points. His impromptu dancing and rhythm-singing subsequently illustrated his relationship between the body and the world: The way, he explained, that we can never really touch the present because as soon as it is here, it is gone. But Neto described how touch is so important, leading to his experiential sculptures that are ‘now’. Through them, he attempts to bring us as intimately as he can into contact with the present moment. He spontaneously demonstrated the difference between European dancing (which according to Ernesto uses the top of the body due to it’s traditionally treble-focus, and Brazilian dancing using the lower part of the body due to it’s base-focus), noting how our different sensory ways of experiencing the world have made these differences in our cultures. Our cultural “difference in meta-physics” has altered the way in which we physically encounter the world.
His first thoughts were about no small matter – the planet: “Who wants to carry this stone… I like to carry stones, I am a sculptor… we want to find out whats inside of the stone, whats outside of the stone.” This inside-outside relationship is key to the artists work, which explores the idea of the membrane, what stays on one side and what escapes through; the tension between the inner and the outer.
“What is silence, is it more solid than a stone?”
This exploration of matter and the flux of physical states was also discussed by Luiz Alberto Oliveira, who made the interesting point that we have lost our intimacy with matter – we no longer look at a chair and see it as wood from the forest and plastic from oil. He expressed that modernism has brought a “homogenization of material”, where the process of making objects is lost, as is the fact that each time you make a form, say a chair, you also make a space elsewhere – like the forest. But my favourite ‘states of matter’ quote was from Ernesto – “What is silence, is it more solid than a stone?”
Oliveira also touched on our experience of time. We are all subject to a flow of numbers, he said, a chronological flow of time, and we expect objects to exist within this too. But he asked us to consider the cell, whose membrane encircles its past – the history and code of all its ancestors – both separating it from and connecting it with the outside, which is the cell’s future.
“…the addition of space, the flux of time”
I have always been fascinated with the idea of the haptic – of understanding the world through touch, and of touching it not just through the skin, but also through other senses – touching with your gaze, your sense of smell, and as Neto put it “touching with your mind”. Today’s discussion opened up a whole area of thought for me – of what sort of structures, concepts and artworks we can dream up when we start thinking about the world and our experiences of it through the language and lexicon of space – of knotting, folding and unfolding, of the addition of space, the flux of time?
“What are the representations or signatures of the organic?”
After this fascinating conversation which playfully and thoughtfully considered all manner of abstract and lofty concepts, as well as Neto’s time learning to crochet with his Gran, a question from Margaret Wertheim seemed to tie things up nicely: “What are the representations or signatures of the organic?” Neto observed that for him, the organic is present in ourselves as opposed to inherent to the object, and relies upon our recognition of something as ‘organic’. It also has a lot to do with forces he says – such as the pendulous lobes, contortions and bulges in his installations, which “show the energy upon them”. He confesses that before the tension of weights and gravity is applied, his sculptures are often simply squares containing holes.
For me the most amazing thing about what we explored today, is that whilst his work has a visual rhythm and simplicity to it, it also poetically and sensuously explores concepts from space and time, to material and matter, to physics and cosmology. Ultimately, Neto talks of our relationship to the planet through our own bodies & personal experiences, and then pushes even further to evoke our pasts through his redolent aromas, and awaken our ‘now’ with his absorbing, tactile creations.
“sweet, gentle, tender connections”
By the end of the event, we seemed to have oscillated between microscopic space and vast constellations. Ernesto’s sculptures and way of experiencing the world had become embedded in my mind, and I found myself floating out of the Tate and along the Southbank, noticing the intersections, barriers, and tensions between the people, the Thames, and the walkways – the folds and touch points which could ambiguously be both barriers, and as Neto put it, “sweet, gentle, tender connections”.