New York

Ernesto Neto

Piff, Paff, Poff, Puff—these titles of Ernesto Neto’s 1997 sculptures, onomatopoeic renderings of the sound powdered spices make upon hitting the floor, suggest both a certain light ephemerality and a plosive thud of surprise. Indeed, the assemblage of various piquant puff pieces that constituted the Brazilian artist’s recent New York exhibition explored tensions between a number of states: raw and cooked, seductive and repulsive, transitory and permanent, raised and dropped.

Neto poured different spices into nylon stockings that he stretched into various shapes. Some of these he pulled diagonally from gallery ceiling to floor; others he tied off, let go of, and allowed to lie horizontally on the ground, seeping spice from their pores. The viewer walking under, over, and around the sculptures encountered them as both art and detritus. The slinky, come-hither aspect of ladies’ hosiery, and even the association to the human body, were somehow disfigured by such sculptural manipulation. Rendered either as gigantic and Amazonian or condomlike and puny, these works blended a mild sense of incipient postcoital disgust uneasily but effectively with a familiar, coded, and perhaps anachronistic rhetoric of exoticism and desire.

Neto has been working for several years with such elastic forms filled with, or weighted by, various materials—Styrofoam and lead pellets, for example. The spices contained in (and breathing out of) these stockings were organic, indigenous to Brazil, and intensely colored. Yellows, oranges, browns, and whites created the impression of a sculptural palette on the gallery floor. Yet more resonant than the plasticity of shape or materiality of color was the invisible persistence of the spices’ powerful perfumes, especially turmeric and clove. Earlier critics of Neto’s work have pointed out how his exploration of form, desire, and disgust owes a debt to such precursor artists as Lygia Clark. Here, though, the influence seemed to be less directly national or conceptual than olfactory and organic: Wolfgang Laib’s beeswax or Anya Gallaccio’s flowers immediately spring to mind. As in their work, space, color, and scent form an experiential nexus at once enticing and slightly suffocating.

Which is not to say that there isn’t something geopolitical, even “globalist,” about Neto’s project. Claude Lévi-Strauss, who did his fieldwork in rural western Brazil, notes in his nostalgic but brilliant 1955 memoir, Tristes Tropiques, that early European colonialists used to “bring back products which now seem to us to have been of comically little worth, such as brasil or brazilwood (from which the name Brazil was derived)—a red dye” not unlike the deep red annatto on display in Neto’s show. “The visual or olfactory surprises they provided,” he continues, “added a new range of sense experience to a civilization that had never expected its own insipidity.”

Translating this astute observation into a critique of the increasingly global—though not anticolonialist—contemporary art world, we might suggest that schematically conceived notions of “difference” may still be imbricated in a similar global investment network, albeit one of affect as well as commerce. What is, among other things, so impressive about Neto’s work is that it not only resonated with Lévi-Strauss’ critique of the fetishization and exploitation of “otherness,” but also, through a delicate but powerful lyricism, took issue with it. Elegant, subtle, and smart, Neto’s project allows meaning to be elastic and supple, incisive yet distinctly colored and perfumed.

Nico Israel