I feel privileged to have learned about the fantastic work coming out of Brazil in the ’90s relatively early on in the decade. I was having drinks with the Argentine-born curator, poet and critic Carlos Basualdo, and we were discussing some recent curatorial failures of shows that were based on the artists’ country of origin. We agreed that such shows, usually titled New Art from…(fill in the country of your choice) were doomed to failure. The audience expects to learn about a place, a culture, but not about the unique individual artists, who may in fact have an adversarial relationship to their place of origin. Carlos said, “Yes, that is exactly why White Columns [my old place of employment] must mount this show I’ve organized. It’s a show of Brazilian sculpture.” I admired his contrary logic, his daring to risk curatorial failure, so—slightly lubricated by then—I said yes. Of course, I was not so far gone as to forget to convince him that we needed a North American writer for the catalog, and that I should be the one do it. So, as a guest of the Brazilian art funders I went to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo for the first time. The artists in that seminal show, entitled The Education of the Five Senses were all terrific, and many—such as Fernanda Gomes and Valeska Soares—have shown actively in the U.S. since then. Ernesto Neto has perhaps received the widest global acclaim, showing his installations made of stretchy, stocking-like material, and loose, translucent scrims often filled with aromatic spices or malleable Styrofoam pellets. He was my tour guide in Rio and we have stayed in touch ever since. I look forward to those times when we find ourselves in the same country, and although we have discussed his work often, in his studio, over drinks, this is the most extended discussion we have had about the contexts for and meanings of his fantastic work. It was a great pleasure to have this as a reason to have such a discussion with Ernesto.
Bill Arning Ernesto, my friend, can you describe what piece you will be doing for the Carnegie International?
Ernesto Neto The new piece is a development of the Naves series. It doesn’t stay in the middle of the room, as a sculpture or a fine animal. It’s attached to the walls, coming out from the architecture. In a way it’s an organism with a kind of circulatory system in between two rooms, each with a different atmosphere. This is part of a bigger project in my mind that I am calling — at least today — Totally Body, although the piece itself is called Nave Nude Plasmic.
BA Are you trying in your sculptures and environments to overcome the old mind/body problem by making thought both physical and sensual? Have you succeeded?
EN You could say that I am working on it, but I don’t see it as a problem. If you take a look at my work there is always a relation between powers, one molding the other. For me mind and body are one thing, always together. I don’t even feel that they are a complimentary duality for they are fully the same thing. I believe in the sensual body, and it is through the movement of such body-minds that we connect the things in this world, in life—the way we touch, the way we feel, the way we think and the way we deal.
BA I took my students to your last New York show. It was toward the end of a long day of gallery going so they were tired and cranky and their attention was wandering. Yet when they realized that they could take off their shoes and enter your big piece, Navedenga, they were happy and invigorated, and more than willing to play the perceptual games with one another that you had set for them. How does play function in your work? Is it the essential element that makes the complex issues it brings up pleasurably apprehensible?
EN I don’t know if the idea is play, exactly. Navedenga fully exists by itself as sculpture which can simply be looked at like any traditional sculpture, but it is in the interaction with people that it shows other levels of itself. Interaction provides a more intimate relationship between the artwork and the viewer. When people climb into new pieces for the first time, I watch new aspects of the works being born. Also, when someone decides to get inside of a piece, they have another level of experience through the atmosphere created by these unexpectedly organic bodies. I believe that as living human beings we have a particular body in time, a kind of island in a cultural-physical world with skin as the border or limit. I like to work at that limit. That is my master plan. At this border is the place of happiness, the field of events where the relationship between the individuality of men and their world occurs—physical, psychological and mental. That is the surface, but I believe its complexity is simple. We can talk about deep things in a pleasurable way, in an easy language, thinking through our pores.
BA When I arrived in Rio, you and your fellow sculptor Franklin Cassaro picked me up at the airport and took me straight to that art bar, a kiosk on the beach. It got late, and as we sat in the sand, our shoes off, talking art while getting bombed on caipirinhas, I asked you how, with staying up all night and drinking those potent drinks, you got any work done. You replied, " Bill you are in Rio, this is our work." I have often told that story as the moment I realized how to approach the new conceptual sculpture from Brazil. I understood then that rigor and pleasure are not opposed in Brazil, as they tend to be here. How does your Brazilian respect for pleasure affect what you make?
EN Art is in every place, all the time—it’s here now. In Rio 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. If you are an artist, and have that consciousness, you have a responsibility to share that, but you’ve also got to have rigor, to let the pleasure come up. We have to valorize pleasure time, as well as contemplation time, so that we can feel its reality; it is the only thing we have.
BA You have shown all over the world. Are we North Americans the most backward when it comes to respecting the value of pleasure?
EN Hey, dear Bill, I believe in the art, and true art can teach us a lot; maybe we can share the knowledge together. I don’t know if you are the most backward in respecting the value of pleasure; that depends on who’s defining pleasure.
BA There is the idea that some forms of knowledge can only be gained through the body, its senses and movements. Early on you made work about a delicate balance in which gallery visitors could easily cause a piece to come crashing down, making them aware of their movements in a negative way. Recently, you have been making enterable environments that, while delicate, look as impervious as a moonwalk at a carnival. What sorts of knowledge do you want the viewer to receive, both in the earlier and the more recent work? Can it be described in language?
EN In both bodies of work I tried to make things float.In the earlier works, the equilibrium situation creates a force field around it that makes the viewer get a suspended feeling, and an understanding of the equilibrium situation in space/time, that things can be fragile and fall down. In the later work, viewers are there as agents of the situation, moving around inside the zone of power.
BA A lot of your work is very sexy. Many of the discrete sculptures have orifices where the viewer can sink a finger or arm into them. Having done it, it feels like sex. It’s all squishy inside. I still get comments about comparing one of your pieces to a fist-fucking scene in Amsterdam. Sex is obviously important to you, both in life and in your work. And so often work that depicts sex is not actually sexy, but yours has a kooky minimalism that is actually sexy to the touch. How does sexuality function for you in the work?
EN I work around the space of the body, so I make art with a continuity to my own body as the producer of the work. I don’t want to make work that depicts a sensual body—I want it to be a body, exist as a body or as close to that as possible. Sex is basic. We all come from a sex relationship. There is magic in a nature that makes people and all animals have sex for the continuity of life. We human beings think about sex all the time. You can try to escape, try to say no, but in the end it is what everybody wants. There is a giant force in nature for love. I feel the body is sensuous, and sensuality is beautiful. So I don’t want to discuss sexuality like a sociologist, but rather create a sensuous atmosphere in the work. The work is not sex, but that is what it creates in people’s minds and my mind as well. It would be good for the world if we could deal with sensuality in an easier way. We need love! I don’t want to make it problematic: I want it to be easy like it is with dogs.
Do you understand the word sacanagem? It’s a Portuguese word that does not translate well. It is beyond flirting. It’s after that, in that moment when both of your faces change into something else because the erotic charge is so high, when your bodies move towards each other. I wanted the work to manifest sacanagem without talking about it. It’s all subtextual. My work is first and foremost a contemporary sculpture; it speaks of the finite and the infinite, of the macroscopic and the microscopic, the internal and external, by the masculine and feminine powers, but sex is like a snake, it slithers through everything.
BA Has anyone, as far as you know, inserted anything more explicitly sexual into one of your Ovaloids?
EN As far as I know, not yet, but the Naves have received some kisses. I have seen the lip prints.
BA The photograph of your mouth containing the female fertility figure has always puzzled me, and as the cover image of your survey catalog it has taken on great importance. Can you explain its origins and meaning?
EN You know I consider myself a sculptor. Those little fertility goddesses are, historically, as far as I know, the first sculptures made by human beings. They are beautiful, so small. They happened in many different cultures in many different places. Symbolically, it’s very strong. I do not know exactly why I made that. It’s a kind of reverence. I do remember that I was without a girl at the time, or just breaking up with the woman I had been seeing when I made the first one. I began to make the sculpture as a modern girl, less fat than the ancient fertility goddess sculptures. Gradually, as I made it, it began to assume that motif. It took me awhile to finish, and I ate a bit of clay during that time. I think the relationship to the mouth, outside my consciousness, relates to my stretching, pulling things out of me and trying to put things together.
BA In 1995, you did a series in which a cast of your face appeared to exhale rope.This image turned into elaborate installations. It always seemed a dream image of the artist/creator, and it made your presence very palpable.
EN You’re gonna laugh at me, it’s ridiculous, but before doing that I had just read the introductory writings by Freud, and was fascinated by his theory of dream interpretation. I was reading a lot of other literature at the time and was in love with a girl from the theater, so many narrative things came into play. I couldn’t stand the official thinking of constructivism in Brazil anymore. I felt myself and my work were in a kind of jail. My earlier works had been misunderstood by those people. I had to explode myself in a metaphoric way—to show my head and my hand. I thought it out in a kind of constructive dream. Those works are a 3-D graphic, a personal and psychological reflection of that period, which is not the same as today’s, but it took me to the edge of the current work. The process of casting my head led to their final forms. In being cast, you are breathing through a straw, so you become very aware of the oxygen entering and exiting your body, the air’s physicality, and its mass. That was translated until I was exhaling rope. Even today I am wrapping air, making atmospheres physical.
BA Also, in M.E.D.I.T, a sequence of seven photographs showing you progressively more wrapped in string, until in the penultimate photograph, a liberating scissors appears and cuts you free. That reminds me of a nightmarish image, like a Rudolph Schwartzkogler photo sequence but it is unlike an Aktionist photo in that it is strangely serene, as if the suffocating string were a purification ritual. What was the origin of that piece and what does the title mean?
EN The origin of that piece was a Sunday night after a very heavy weekend. I was with a girl and we were watching TV. I saw a spool of string sitting there on the table, and I don’t know why, I started to wrap it around my face. The girl that I was with got scared. I went to the mirror to see what was scaring her, but to me it looked beautiful. I was like a mummy in a cocoon. I saw a strong relationship to the BarBall works from 1987 in the deformation of the skin surface which I am always working around. So I decided to really do it as a piece. My cousin, who is a great photographer, photographed it, as I didn’t want to do it as a public performance; it was a more particular thing. The word, medit, means, “to go to meditation” but also the letters stand for Metamorfose espiritual de inconsciente topologico, or in English, “Spiritual Metamorphosis of the Topologic Unconscious.”
BA Your solo New York debut was of sculptures filled with masses of aromatic spices in thin casings stretched across Tanya Bonakdar’s gallery. When I look at the photos of that show I remember the scents and relive it, but those that didn’t smell it can never know what it was like. Similarly, at the last São Paulo Bienal I took a roll of snapshots of your piece Nave Deusa trying to capture the experience and of course I missed it. Although a couple shots of children playing in it came close. I think of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings or of James Turrell’s installations as similar in that looking at photos of them only reminds you of what you are missing. Should we understand the conspicuous privileging of actual experience over mediated representations as an intentional statement, or merely a side effect of doing sensual work?
EN Pictures are a very good way to transport ideas, but I work with reality—mass, body, nakedness—not the image. The actual experience is the most important to comprehend.
BA I understand there are anatomical references in the enterable installations like Nave Duesa and Navedenga such as stomachs and wombs. Is that right? What is the importance of that for you?
EN Very important, I think today more than ever. I am doing a kind of body/space/landscape. I love nature and I like to see the world believing in the limit of our eyes, a going beyond those limits with the microscope, the X-ray, computer imaging, and considering the structures of the very small and the very big in both visual and intellectual ways. So I look at science books to see anatomy, microscopic views. You should see the ones I just got in London, the internal universe is amazing. It is difficult for me now to look at surfaces without visualizing the structures beneath the skin. The art work can’t be just the surface, but also its internal structures. I always leave that visible.
BA In your catalog, Carlos Basualdo talks about a chart you drew diagramming the way Brazilian, European and North American influences affected you at various times. Could you describe those layers in words?
EN Basically, the main influence in Brazilian art is European, and belonging to the modernist tradition, and we are a bit more involved with philosophy rather than sociology, which is not what is expected. But today, more than before, there is influence from North American art. In my case, I am looking at Alexander Calder and many of the minimalist artists, as well as European modernism, and also Brancusi. Also Richard Serra and Giovanni Anselmo, whom I saw for the first time in 1987.
BA I would think Yayoi Kusama as well.
EN I never really knew that work until a couple of years ago when everyone started bringing her up and showing me the retrospective catalog, but I never saw the show.
But you know that art history is so much bigger than just our century. Antique art is amazing. Two or three years ago I was in Mexico City and what I saw of the Aztecs and Olmecs was unbelievable. Sometimes we have got to get out of our official art history and explore other things.
BA Brazilian and other South American critics always place your work in the context of 60s Brazilian sculpture, specifically that of Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. In what way are they important for your work and in what way do they not matter?
EN Of course they were very good, fantastic! My thinking is closer to Lygia’s, but some of that same sensibility that we associate with Lygia came to me from my mother. She was studying design when I was around six years old. She had workshops at the house where they pinned clothes on mannequins and you would slip your hand into the pockets for different experiences. So when I started studying art, and dealt seriously with Lygia and Hélio, it came to me as fresh and easy. They opened the universe for us.
The important thing for me was that Lygia was painting geometrically on traditional painting surfaces, and then she moved her rectangles outside of the surface, onto the frame. She called the transition point between the frame and the canvas the organic line, and touching that limit was what was exciting to her. She conceptualized for all of us this thing that existed, this organic limit, and those skin limits are clearly one of the subjects of my work as well. The mathematics of Sergio Camargo were very important, too. These artists have a very big historical visibility today. But I think, speaking of Brazilian art, that Waltercio Caldas, Cildo Meireles, José Resende and Tunga are closer to me. Hélio and Lygia are more like grandmothers and grandfathers, more distant influences.
BA Basualdo has also suggested that the difference between you and your generation and the older ones is that for you the political concerns have been dispersed and stripped of the possibility of transcendence. Do you agree with that, and if so, how does it affect what you produce?
EN I don’t know exactly what Basualdo was suggesting there, but those artists in the 60s and 70s had a really hard time. People were forbidden to speak about their thinking. You literally could be killed by the political police. So everyone had to find ways to hide their ideas, to communicate subtextually, and that was reflected in that generation’s art. Their works almost always have some form of cultural commentary hidden inside them. I do not need to hide the concepts behind my work, the intellectual structures. In fact, it’s the opposite: I want to show everything, everything is transparent. I open the pot and make everything as visible as possible for a big, diverse audience.
BA You are clearly playing on a global stage now, and have shown on every continent but Antarctica. The new globalism has allowed you and your generation to reach audiences that Oiticica and Clark could never have dreamed of. Is there a risk in that, in terms of losing the specificity of the Brazilian tradition? Will all future generations be even more hybridized?
EN There are a lot of artists working in Brazil whose work is more related to a specifically Brazilian tradition. In the 80s the biggest movements were imported from Germany, a type of neoexpressionism, as well as from England and the U.S. In the 90s some people tried to import disgusting, abject art from Europe and the States, which didn’t work. It made no sense there. Fashionable influences will always happen. For me, it is very good to go through changes along with other artists around the world. You can find fantastic things. In fact the only “risk” is that Brazilian art will start influencing those from other traditions, which would not be bad at all. Sure, probably in the future art will be more hybridized, and those future artists will give birth to fantastic and unexpected work. As I’ve said before, I believe more in art than in people.
BA Do you fear that the proliferation of international biennials will lead to an homogenization and the production of a generic, global, biennial-ready art?
EN Not really. I think we will have a better copresentation of varied languages and a future mixing of ideas, which in my opinion will be very interesting. Some Brazilian artists who have moved away to New York, their work has changed a lot, but there are still roots and I believe in roots.
BA Enough serious stuff, can we get together and drink some beer in Pittsburgh?
EN Of course, my friend; now you’ve got the point.