'I believe that there is no test of greatness in periods, nations or men more sure than the development, among them or in them, of a noble grotesque, and no test of comparative smallness or limitation, of one kind or another, more sure than the absence of grotesque invention, or incapability of understanding it.'
* 'Wherever the human mind is healthy and vigorous in all its proportions, great in imagination and emotion no less than in intellect, and not overborne by an undue or hardened preeminence of the mere reasoning faculties, there the grotesque will exist in full energy.' (John Ruskin)
Erin Manns: Leviathan Thot at the Pantheon in Paris is an enormously ambitious work, encompassing the length, breadth and full height of the vast space. I'm interested in how the project developed, and how you accomplished the realisation of the work?
Ernesto Neto: I was invited by the Festival d'Automne organisation to make a site specific piece. I saw the space, and I began to plan a project for the Pantheon. I showed it to the people from the festival and they liked my proposal. They asked me to do a detailed plan to present it to the Pantheon and MONUM administrations. When I was preparing these final plans, I woke up with a dream, and it was pieced together with the word "leviathan". In three days I developed the basic plans for a second work. I sent both and they decided to move forward with the new idea - Leviathan Toth. Even though it looks very complex, the principle is very simple - it's a geometric plan that falls down with gravity, using the "buttons" columns [the elements of the installation that are filled with sand, or at times polystyrene beads] as counter weights. The effect of gravity acting on the content gives form and spirit to the skinlike surface.
EM: Your work is as indebted to philosophy, metaphysics and linguistics as it is to the corporeal, the sensual, the sensorial. The Pantheon, in many ways a temple to French intellectualism (interred there are figures including Voltaire, Rousseau, Emile Zola and Marie Curie), seems an appropriate context. Was this a consideration in locating Leviathan Thot?
EN: The fact that all of these great people are interred there is not exactly the direct influential point - they are part of it and they represent it, but besides the architecture, the Pantheon's history is very important. The building was built as a church, and just before it was completed, the French Revolution occurred, after which the structure was transformed into a mausoleum temple to great men. Then twice more it alternated between church and temple over many years, depending on the political system - monarchy or republic. This transitional point from mediaeval times to the present day, after the growth and the crash of modernism, became very interesting to me. Also located there is the Foucault pendulum, so, as the building has in its history political change it has also a poetic monument to modern science. These two situations represent, in a way, the great people who are there, the political philosophers and the scientists, so I didn't feel their influence directly but they represented this history and the fight between rationalism against mediaeval obscurantism, as well as the passage from old times to modern revolution. In a way I think this circumstance represents a bit the shock we have now between the contemporary world and the pre-modernist time.
EM: The iconic neoclassical architecture of Pantheon, and the strict formalism of the statues and columns and decorative wall frescoes within, contrast quite beautifully with the elegance of the organic visual language of Leviathan Thot. With this project, but also in your work generally, significance is as much about space and the visitor's relationship to the work in the space as it is about the work itself. Do you find it particularly challenging to negotiate the aesthetic differences of various architectural spaces you present work in?
EN: As you may know I had first been invited by the Festival d'Automne to make a piece for the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Pitie-Salpetriere, where they had been doing shows for many years. After the great work by Nan Goldin, I was supposed to be the next artist to produce a major project there. It would have been realised last year, but the priests of the chapel became unhappy with Goldin's work, and turned their back on the project after many years of collaboration with the festival. As a first decision they cut or censored my piece, even though the work was different for the Salpetriere. I would say that the chapel of Saint-Louis is a naked building regarding decorative elements in relation to the Pantheon, and much more feminine. When I arrived at the Pantheon (I had been there years before to see the pendulum) I was quite surprised again by the strong decorative presence. For my preparations I decided not to concern myself with the gigantic void in the Pantheon; I didn't want to fight with it, but rather be a bit indifferent, use what it could give, as with the holes from where the piece comes down, and let the art establish its own dialogue with that framework. In fact there was one consideration - I thought about making the piece in pink and soft blue-green, some complementary polarities that I've been working with in both a colour and symbolic sense, but, with the amount of decorative information around it and to respect the history of the building, I decided to do it in off-white (marfin as I prefer to say) in order to be more aligned with the classic side of my work, and to blend with the neoclassical responsibility of the architecture.
EM: Do you have an ideal place (piece of architecture or a location) in mind for which you dream about producing and siting a work?
EN: Inside of a cave!
EM: I've always found intriguing in your work the possibility to explore dialectics of lightness and weight, balance and suspension, translucence and the opaque, interior and exterior, physical and philosophical, structural and corporeal. Perhaps you can talk a bit about the importance of these elements to your practice, how they inform your work conceptually.
EN: I think this is life, we walk on a string, and I like to be in balance between these conflicts. Even though we all, or some of us, want peace, our state of living is a continuous conflict. This is our condition in life and I believe that if we accept this basic and inexorable fact, we would be much more open to consider and respect others, to be open to discuss new ideas, to understand ourselves better and to deal (not in the sense of better or worse) with the many different cultures that exist on our big and small home planet.
Regarding my practice itself, I always wanted to develop some works that could stay in a state of balance, that the viewer, mentally, could deconstruct and reconstruct again. The process should be simple, direct and visible - this always has been an ethical position. For me to do art is to think about relationships. Every work I make is always about a relationship: one element interferes with the other element, and the result is a sociability from one to the other, so you should have an interaction that achieves a limit - a precise balance before equilibrium is lost. This interaction creates an internal habitat based on a mutualism where every part can express itself. This concept of mutualism is a main concern of my work.
EM: Is Leviathan Thot in any way a culmination of a recent body of work, or related to the major exhibitions you've had earlier this year at Malmo Konsthall, Sweden and most recently at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York?
EN: Leviathan Thot is a consequence of some branches of works that I've been developing for some years -- following on from the dangerous logic of wooing I made for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculptural Garden in 2002. This year I did another hanging polystyrene beads piece at Bob Van Orsouw's gallery in a show titled how to put it up, dulcieneia. This was an independent work, but also a study for Leviathan Thot. The Creature (from The Malmo Experience) came from a different branch -- it's a cotton opaque "relax piece", where I create an environment in which visitors can take off their shoes and enter different naves. This kind of piece takes you completely out of the ambient space [the gallery] by generating a particular organic, and perhaps utopian, atmosphere. The energy is much lower than Leviathan Thot; for example, to provoke a serene habitat, there are organs and organelles inside (smaller sculptures) which people can interact with. What we are made of of, the piece at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, was a colourful environment, derived from the work in The Malmo Experience.
EM: Language, rhythm and, in many ways, poetry seem to occupy an understated, yet significant place in your practice, would you agree? Your titles for works and exhibitions alone often elicit a certain musicality. Words at times seem to appear as much as for how they sound as for what they mean.
EN: That's the same with the works themselves. I think my work is a dance and I believe that our society, as a sculpture, is a dance. Dance is symbolically the transcendence of the relationships we have in our day to day life, as with Brancusi's Kiss I think all the relations we have are a kind of dance. Every art manifestation is an expression but most people try to not express anything by their actions (maybe, unless they are in love, where the level of subjectivity gets much more intense). We are trained from birth to control our expression, or to objectify it, but when people dance or just move a bit with any music or sound that comes out, there is an expression of themselves also. Our body, it's an organic dance; the scientists say that the internal communication of the peptides, the relation between the key and the keyhole, is a kind of dance. There are meanings and concepts within the structures of my works but the surface carries the dance, the musicality. About the titles, sometimes I condense meanings in order to create an onomatopoeic significance, or to create a kind of confusion of meaning, which can be read some ways towards an understanding of the work, but also keeping open the possibility of the viewer establishing his or her own interpretation of both the work and the title independently.
EM: Speaking of dance, a few years ago you worked on a piece for a Merce Cunningham production. Was that process a complete collaboration, working together to conceive both the dance and the work - for example how the work would contribute to the dance and vice-versa? And was this the first time you'd worked with a choreographer in this way?
EN: The way Merce Cunningham has worked for a number of years with many artists is to commission the artist to create the set and the company develops the dance, then the two are put together. So when they invited me, they sent me some videos of some dance pieces and two books, one of their history, and another of his animal drawings, then I met his team. I decided to be more sculptural then scenographic, and the key for the collaboration was the practicality of putting it up and down, as well as the animal book, so the piece was conceived as a hanging "flying" organic abstract animal. Some dancers said that it felt good to dance under and they used it to have a better sense of space, to know where they were while they were dancing. I only met Merce in Paris, when everything was already finished and the work was combined with the choreography. It was a very emotional moment. In the end I think it was a dance between me and them. It was the first time I worked with a choreographer.
EM: I'm interested too in your other activities, such as the gallery you've been operating in Rio de Janeiro for the last few years. What was your motivation for opening a space, and how do you organise your programme there? Do you find it contributes to your artistic practice in any way?
EN: A Gentil Carioca is three years old now. It was created to be a communication channel between the artists and the community, so we do solo shows and we look after some artists to help them grow and develop their work. We also make group shows, generally of younger artists, or work with more established artists when we think there is a subject to be discussed in a more political way. We think also that as an artist the gallery can became a political tool because it subsumes the subjectivity of each one of us to the objectivity of the institution that can act without the precision of the personality of each one of us.
It's amazing though to see the artists developing their work, bringing it to the gallery and thinking about how to show it, how to develop an idea for the frame of the gallery and which kind of frame we want the gallery to be. Ultimately we like the gallery to act as a meeting point for the artists. It's also extremely interesting for the three of us - me, Laura Lima and Marcio Botner - to be showing and talking about the work of the others for a general public, to put our own artist side away and to open space to promote the work of others.
EM: It's interesting that you are at times using A Gentil Carioca in a way that might be considered political, or to perhaps convey a political message - can you discuss this a bit more? Is it for the immediate context of Rio de Janeiro or more globally political?
EN: It's more in a context of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro, that's the size of our voice right now. It happens through our dialogue of how to exhibit art and how things are going on in this country. We live in a socio-political catastrophe and we believe that the only way to change all the problems, like the heavily corrupted institutional culture, the economic knot, productive action and social violence in every sense, is through the educational system that had been destroyed by the military dictatorship. Politicians don't talk about education here; in fact nobody does. So, we have done some group exhibitions that can open some space to talk about these issues. We also have a specially commissioned shirt called educacao for each new show. An artist develops it and can do or say whatever he or she wants as long as the word educacao appears on the shirt. Sometimes there are localised concerns that we address through Gentil. For example, when the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, a important cultural institution in Rio, was censored during an exhibition earlier this year and had to remove a controversial work by artist Marcia X, through Gentil we organised a movement against this action, and support for our movement grew around the country. It's a small thing, but what we realise is that with Gentil, as an institution, we can operate these kind of things, in a productive way.
EM: Finally, how do you imagine the future development of your practice?