At 33, Rio de Janeiro-based Ernesto Neto is perhaps the only Brazilian artist of his generation who has seriously taken up some of the crucial issues raised by the work of the now notorious Brazilian artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica. Often through dialogue or in collaboration, they conducted experiments in the 60s and 70s that, even if still within art contexts and systems (however uneasily), posited an expansion of sensorial registers in aesthetic experience beyond the purely visual. For them, interaction and participation were key practices. In their innovative trajectories, the body became a central point of reflection not as a thematic or formalist reference (as in much of the work of the last decade), but as a means of challenging and subverting artistic codes and constructs.
One of the most interesting concepts introduced by Hélio was the penetrável (the 'penetrable', as it is often translated). Bearing some connection to what we now identify as 'installation', it consists of a complex and somewhat precarious architectural construction set up in an exhibition space whose various corners and rooms are filled with intricate forms, colours and materials. The visitor is no longer a spectator, but an active participant, able to touch, smell, walk through and experience the work, encountering various material configurations, which trigger multiple formal and conceptual associations.
Neto's recent installation evoked the penetrável, yet was also consistent with the development of his work. In the past the artist has stretched porous, skin-coloured, translucent silk stockings from floor to ceiling and filled them with tiny lead balls and powdered condiments with earthy tones and smells. Although the translucent, porous quality and skin colour remain, the central piece of this exhibition is made of a more resistant material. It comprised a large tent-like form, suspended some 20 centimetres from the floor, with its corners stretched from hooks in the gallery walls. Because of a column located in the middle of the gallery's main room, Neto designed a tunnel in the centre of the 'tent' that allowed the architecture to comfortably penetrate (though not to touch) the piece. What had initially threatened to be an architectural limitation gave the work powerful site-specific contours.
The strong erotic overtones of Oiticica's thought are evident in the very word penetrável, and here Neto pushed them further. If the artist's previous works often left the viewer frustrated due to their highly sensual nature, which seemed to provoke us to fondle while we were forbidden to touch, this time we were allowed incited even to penetrate the piece. The barefoot visitor could enter this piece resembling a larger-than-life bodily orifice through an open corner of the stretched tent. Once inside, the visual engagement gave way to 'life experience' (another concept introduced by Clark and Oiticica, which privileged the corporeal and sensual realm of aesthetic experience).
At once erotic and sterile, cosy and futuristic, intimate and minimal (and it is amusing to think that the piece fits in a small bag), Neto's work functions in several ways: uninhabited, it establishes a complex conceptual and formal rapport with the architecture and a subtle play between transparency between the translucent layers of material, the white walls and the gallery air; when occupied by other people, it frames the performance of the spectator as spectacle; occupied by myself, the sleek, cocoon-like environment defeated my aesthetic scepticism. After inspecting and manipulating its skin-like interior, after feeling and smelling its texture and material, and after finding traces of faded pink lipstick on one of its walls, I was forced to lie down and rethink Neto's work.